Safe havens: BBC News presenter Charlie Stayt pays a flying visit to the Isles of Scilly
Saturday 18 July 2009
I told the kids we were going by boat – and then waited for the penny to drop as we arrived at Penzance heliport. If you were to choose the coolest ways of getting somewhere, ruling out submarines on the basis that almost all of them are owned by the military, and space rockets because of impracticality, you are left, of course, with a helicopter. Which is why, with two children under the age of 12, and given the choice of ferry, small plane, or helicopter to make the 28-mile leap from the tip of Cornwall to the Isles of Scilly, the decision is a no-brainer.
British International runs the helicopter service from Penzance, a 24-seat Sikorsky S-61 (it was a big blue one), which takes just 20 minutes to fly across the sea to Tresco. There was a priceless, jaw-drop moment, and then the inevitable question: "What happens if the blades stop going round?"
We waited for our flight, the blades got up to speed, and my son began to muse upon the danger of decapitation on boarding. We agreed that, given he was the youngest and shortest, he was the most likely to make the journey with his head intact.
The helicopter itself was fantastically noisy and smelly, and really quite basic inside. It quivered, twitched and lifted off the ground, then we hovered above Penzance briefly before heading out to sea. Already it felt like an adventure.
The Isles of Scilly had always been something of a mystery to me. I was never entirely sure where they are, nor who went there, but had always been told by those in the know that the islands were a kind of paradise. And as we came in to land on Tresco, a first glimpse confirmed it. Five small, inhabited islands and over a hundred more tiny strips of land, many fringed with white sand. We landed softly and, as the helicopter departed, we got our first taste of silence. The Isles of Scilly really are quiet.
In keeping with the change of pace, a tractor was waiting to take us to the jetty from where we boarded a boat. Our destination? Bryher: population 81.
Hell Bay was to be our hotel for the next three nights. The name lends a lie to the place, because while the landscape here on the north of the tiny island is rugged, the hotel was stylish and beautifully laid out. At check-in, we met Philip, the manager. He said that, as we hadn't brought a dog, we could borrow his.
Bryher is a great place for walking dogs. Many of the headlands there have wonderful names: Badplace Hill, for one, and Droppy Nose Point, where we found a giant hammock which had been slung between two trees. There's also a tiny post office and shop, selling everything you could want, from pasties to flip-flops. The place never seemed crowded.
I was a little worried that St Martin's, our next island stop, would struggle to compare with the tranquillity of Bryher. It was certainly bigger and (slightly) busier. The population is a chunky 110, and a proper road runs right down the middle.
But I needn't have concerned myself. The only hotel on the island, St Martin's on the Isle, sits looking out to sea, with perfectly manicured gardens and white, sandy beaches close by. The water taxi dropped us directly in front of the hotel and, as the boat moved on to its next pick up, the silence descended once again.
St Martin's is only about a mile-and-a-half long, so we ditched the map on the basis that we couldn't really get lost, and just started walking. We kicked off our shoes in the soft sand and turned left, knowing that we'd end up back where we started sooner or later.
Middletown beach is beautiful. In bright sunshine it has the look of the Caribbean: a narrow strip of sand, backed by dunes and long grass. From there, we followed one of the tiny paths leading away from the beach. In the trees at the back of the dunes we made a strange discovery: what seemed to be the lair of a giant spider. Local fishermen had thrown their nets high into the trees, creating a magical, three-layered web among the branches.
Health and safety officials would have had a fit, which is precisely why my kids were in heaven playing among the ad hoc playground. Center Parcs or Disney could spend years trying to create that kind of fun; finding it for ourselves was much more rewarding.
We headed towards Higher Town for lunch and made another discovery: cakes. The only bakery on the island is run by a man called Toby Togin-Dougan, who supplies excellent breads, cakes, pies and pastries, all made on the premises. He even made the premises, by converting an old barn.
The waters around the Isles of Scilly are crystal clear. We joined the Island Sea Safaris boat for an hour-long trip. Seals came within touching distance as we explored some of the tiny uninhabited islands that lie nearer the Isles of Scilly's inhabited hubs.
On our last walk on St Martin's, we marched a short distance along the only road and I conducted an experiment of sorts to test just how quiet it was. I sat in the road, warm from the sun... and waited. Thirty-five minutes passed. Then a sudden rush of activity forced me to move: an elderly man, in an electric wheelchair.
I waved as he went by, realising at the same time that this was one of the few places I'd been where we really could let the kids roam free, relaxed and confident they couldn't get lost. I put the theory to the test later that day and, of course, they got lost. Not for long. And to be fair they found their way back, which technically isn't lost at all. All of which made me a little philosophical, normally something I try to avoid. When I was a child in the Sixties we had that kind of freedom, and it's something I want for my children too.
British International (01736 363871; islesofscillyhelicopter.com) offers helicopter flights from Penzance to Tresco or St Mary's (adult returns from £170, children from £105). Isles of Scilly Travel (0845 710 5555; islesofscilly-travel.co.uk) operates the Scillonian ferry from Penzance to St Mary's (adult returns from £80, children from £40) or flights on Skybus from Land's End, Newquay or Exeter to St Mary's (adult returns from £109, children from £73.50).
Hell Bay, Bryher (01720 422947; hellbay.co.uk). Double rooms start at £360, half board.
Pitches at the Bryher campsite (01720 422559; bryhercampsite.co.uk) start at £9 per person.
St Martin's on Isle Hotel, St Martin's (01720 422090; stmartinshotel. co.uk). Double rooms start at £300, half board.
Pitches at St Martin's campsite (01720 422888; stmartins campsite.co.uk) start at £8.50 per person per night.
The two-hour trip with Island Sea Safaris (01720 422732; scillyonline.co.uk/ seasafaris) costs £30 per adult £20 per child.
Isles of Scilly Tourist Board: 01720 424031; simplyscilly.co.uk
* The islands are known only as the Isles of Scilly, never the Scilly Isles (a term long associated with a complex of roundabouts between Esher and Kingston in Surrey). "Scillonian" is the correct adjective used to describe a local.
* Until rising sea levels flooded the central plain, the archipelago was probably united as one island. At very low tides it is still possible to walk between Tresco and Bryher, which split apart fairly recently. The islands lie in the Gulf Stream, which gives them a milder climate than mainland Britain.
* The 335 Years War started in 1651, at the end of the English Civil War, when the Dutch – allies of Cromwell – declared war on the Isles of Scilly, the last stronghold of the Royalist Navy. No shots were fired, but peace was not officially declared until 1986.
* The Isles of Scilly are home to the world's smallest football league, which is FA-affiliated, despite comprising just two teams: the Garrison Gunners and Woolpack Wanderers. For more information, see worldssmallestleague.co.uk.
* Former labour prime minister Harold Wilson had a holiday home on the Isles of Scilly. He is buried at St Mary's Old Church, on St Mary's.
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