Our islands in the sun

Booty from shipwrecks once kept the Isles of Scilly going, but, today, tourism has become the golden goose, writes Nerys Lloyd-Pierce
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The Independent Travel
On a fog-bound night in 1707, a disaster of such enormity struck the British naval fleet that the Government was compelled to offer a huge reward for the resolution of the "longitude problem". John Harrison's sea-going timepiece came 60 years too late for Rear Admiral Sir Cloudesley Shovell, whose ignorance of longitude resulted in the demolition of five of his warships on a girdle of rocks on the outer reaches of the Isles of Scilly. Almost 2,000 men lost their lives that night.

Shovell, a stout man of 57, was washed ashore at Porth Hellick in St Mary's, and a sinister story claims that he survived the ravages of the sea only to be killed by a local woman who took a shine to his magnificent emerald ring. Although the murder story has never been substantiated, Sir Cloudesley was indeed missing a ring, as the deep indentation it had left on his finger was noted by those who found his corpse.

Murder is the last thing you need worry about when you visit the Isles of Scilly today as the islands are one of the few places left on the planet where people don't bother to lock their doors. And the rock-strewn coastline, which caused such angst to early seafarers, is now a playpen for holidaymakers.

Lying about 28 miles south-west of the tip of Cornwall, the Isles of Scilly form a neat archipelago of some 140 islands, five of which - St Mary's, St Agnes, Tresco, St Martin's and Bryher - are inhabited. Archaeologically speaking, the islands, which spread over an area of approximately 11 miles by five, are the surviving hilltops of a much larger land area long since swallowed up by rising sea levels. The sea continues to nibble away at this low-slung landfall, although the Tresco Times reports a temporary victory against the encroaching deep with a lead story declaring: "Six feet of Land Reclaimed from the Sea".

St Mary's, where the hapless Sir Cloudesley met his nemesis, is the largest island and is home to most of the 2,000 Scillonians. The extraordinarily temperate climate enjoyed here has given rise to a flourishing flower industry. From October, through the mild Scillonian winter, to early spring the tiny walled fields are awash with daffodils and narcissi. Flower-picking provides a convenient income during the off-season, when all but the hardiest tourists have returned to the mainland. Financial survival somewhere like this depends on the ability to operate under numerous occupational guises. Don't be surprised when the windproof-clad "Giles the boatman" reappears later in a white shirt and black trousers as "Giles the waiter".

The gentle climate (Scilly has a higher January mean temperature than Cannes) allows subtropical plants to flourish, giving the islands an unexpectedly exotic feel. The famous Tresco Abbey Gardens are so luxuriant with proteas, aloes, tree ferns and eucalyptus, that you could imagine yourself on another continent.

Tourism is the latter-day golden goose, but in the past the islanders enjoyed a bounty of a different sort. Many of the 800 or so ships which came to grief on this treacherous coastline yielded a cornucopian haul of gold, silver and other more prosaic but equally welcome booty. Manna to an island population eking out a meagre living.

Suggestions that the islanders lured passing ships to their messy fate by attaching lights to wandering cows are apocryphal; a simple four-line verse sums up their sentiments on the subject of shipwrecks more appropriately:

We pray, O Lord, not that wrecks should happen,

But that, should they wilt guide

them into these islands For the benefit of these poor

inhabitants.

Although the citizens clearly profited from a catastrophe at sea, they also regularly risked their lives to rescue survivors. The story of the German liner Schiller, which sank in 1875 with the loss of 310 lives, is testimony to Scillonian bravery and compassion. Throughout the two world wars, the German navy and Luftwaffe had instructions to spare both the Isles of Scilly and the ferryboat Scillonian from attack on account of the kindness shown to their countrymen by islanders years before.

Island life has a compulsive attraction. The late Harold Wilson was a devotee of the Scillies (his holiday home lies on a hilltop just outside Hugh Town in St Mary's and he is now buried in an unassuming grave in Old Town churchyard) and like him, many visitors are drawn back year after year. In 1976, Scilly was designated an Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty - nobody would argue with that - but island appeal goes deeper than scenic loveliness. Temporary residents Nigel and Carol, taking a year out in the Scillies with their young son, told me it was the liberty enjoyed by their child in this crime-free environment which drew them here. Going home to Coventry was not going to be an easy adjustment.

A tight-knit community such as this can also provide a form of safety net for those who stray off the rails. Retired teacher Roger Williams, whose wife Alba runs the cheerful b&b where we stayed, has been drafted in to give one-to-one tuition to the first child ever to be expelled from a Scillonian school.

Gig-racing has become a popular feature of island life, with the buzz created by the International Gig Racing Championships generating universal enjoyment. When the championships take place in early May, all accommodation in St Mary's is full. Originally, the sleek six-oared gigs were used to ferry pilots out to approaching ships, as well as for rescuing people from wrecks and salvage work. Now boats are crewed by both men and women, although one night at The Mermaid pub, the chairman of the gig-racing association did voice some less than right-on views about female rowers.

While tourism is the mainstay of the Scillonian economy, it has not spoilt its character. Each of the inhabited islands retains a distinct personality and none has succumbed to the developer's hand. There is plenty to recommend each one, but everyone has their own personal favourite. Mine is St Agnes.

A circuit of the island, in terms of distance, is a trifling walk, but, by the time you have stopped to listen to a thrush singing on the church roof, trodden the worn grooves of Troy Town maze, gazed at an unruly sea leaping shorewards in a blur of spume, stepped out over Wingletang Down to Beady Pool, where 17th-century beads from the wreck of a Dutch merchant ship occasionally wash up, you'll find you have to run to make the last ferry home.

ISLES OF SCILLY

GETTING THERE

Nerys Lloyd-Pierce travelled with Wales and West (tel: 0345 125625) to Penzance and by helicopter to St Mary's. Call for details of heli-rail inclusive fares. Return helicopter flights are also available through British International (tel: 01736 363871).

Return ferry crossings on the 'Scillonian III' or return flights on the Skybus can be booked through the Isles of Scilly Travel Centre (tel: 0345 105555).

WHERE TO STAY

Accommodation is plentiful on St Mary's and the off islands. Alba Williams at Hazeldene on St Mary's (tel: 01720 422864) is highly recommended. B&b costs pounds 26 per person based on two sharing a double room with en-suite bathroom.

FURTHER INFORMATION

West Country Tourist Board (tel: 01392 425426).

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