Isle return

As a boy, Jeremy Hackett would spend summer holidays on the Isles of Scilly. Now, he goes back to discover that he has changed rather more than his childhood bolthole
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The Independent Travel

It was still dark the morning I set off from Paddington. It reminded me of the time, as a small child, that my sisters and I would wait in the chilly small hours while our father made final the polythene sheeting over the roof-rack of our Hillman estate. My mother, meanwhile, would have been busy making flasks of tea and sandwiches for the long journey from our home in Bristol to Penzance, and then by boat to our final destination - the Isles of Scilly.

It was still dark the morning I set off from Paddington. It reminded me of the time, as a small child, that my sisters and I would wait in the chilly small hours while our father made final the polythene sheeting over the roof-rack of our Hillman estate. My mother, meanwhile, would have been busy making flasks of tea and sandwiches for the long journey from our home in Bristol to Penzance, and then by boat to our final destination - the Isles of Scilly.

We'd set off kitted out in sweaters hand-knitted by Mum, cotton anoraks, khaki shorts, newly purchased plimsolls and just-in-case Pac-a-macs. By this time we were all in a state of subdued excitement and expectation.

The trip would take about nine hours and we would stop for lunch and sit on a grass verge by the side of the road. As Dad drove relentlessly on across Dartmoor, the skies became larger and bluer. Mum knitted or sucked on peppermints while in the back seat the girls and I would play I-spy.

"I think Jeremy's going to be sick," my sisters would cry in unison. And, invariably, I would be. We still had the dreaded boat journey ahead on the Scillonian, which was flat-bottomed (and so made everyone sick). After negotiating the shallow harbour of St Mary's, the island we would be staying on, we arrived at dusk, hurriedly put up our tents and then rushed down to the quay to watch the sun set over the island of Sampson.

We'd relish a supper of Cornish pasties and listen to my elder sister's transistor, tuned to Radio Luxembourg. And so our annual fortnight's holiday began.

Now, almost 40 years later, I find myself returning to these "Fortunate Isles", this time by train and helicopter.

The train pulls into Penzance on time but, with an hour or so to spare before boarding the helicopter that will take me to Tresco, I decide to explore the town.

I find a second-hand bookshop and buy a 1962 issue of the Scillonian, the islands' quarterly magazine, which I browse through while tucking into a Cornish pasty. * One advert in the magazine particularly catches my eye - it is for an outfitters that stocked Jantzen and Bukta swimwear as well as Tootal and Ladybird sportswear - many of which, sadly, I believe have long gone.

My late-afternoon flight to Scilly is full and as we fly at about 500ft above the ocean I notice it is calm, which is surprising as these waters are notorious. Twenty minutes later, and about 30 miles from Land's End, we touch down on St Mary's and most of the passengers disembark. We then take off for the sub-tropical island of Tresco, passing over the uninhabited Sampson as a very pale and weak sun starts to go down.

There are no cars allowed on Tresco so a golf cart picks me up and takes me the short journey to my accommodation at New Inn. It must be rush-hour as at least one cart and a couple of cyclists pass us on the way.

A warm reception awaits me along with a chilled bottle of champagne in my comfortable room, where the furniture is painted in seaside-blue and the windows look out to palm trees and the island of Bryher, a few hundred yards away. I lie on my bed and listen to absolutely nothing except the sound of peace.

After a short evening walk to take in lungfuls of fresh sea air, I meet up with Euan Rogers, the amiable manager of Hell Bay, the only proper hotel on Bryher, who announces that we have been invited to Tresco Abbey for drinks with the proprietor of the island, Robert Dorrien- Smith. At this point, I realise I should have packed a dinner-jacket (or at least a smoking jacket). As it is, my navy-blue oil-wooled pullover and jeans will have to do.

Tresco Abbey is an imposing baronial-style mansion next to the remains of the St Nicholas Priory, which dates from the 10th century and whose Benedictine monks have long since departed. The abbey had been built by Dorrien-Smith's ancestor, Augustus Smith, in 1834, the original proprietor of this tranquil island.

As we arrive, my attention is caught by the Union flag, a sign that the master is in residence. I am relieved to see that he too is casually attired. He is also suntanned, having just returned from Barbados; island-hopping at an international level. Dorrien-Smith says that he and his colleagues had spotted me on the helicopter earlier and had commented to his friends that there was "a stranger on Tresco". But as I sink deeper into the cosy chair next to the roaring fire, I feel very much at home.

Dorrien-Smith has worked hard to preserve Tresco as a haven of peace and, as the benevolent owner of the isle, he enjoys a worthy loyalty from his people.

Later that evening I eat a simple supper of home-made fishcakes and leeks at the New Inn and retire to bed contentedly. I don't know whether it is the sea air or Dorrien-Smith's champagne, but I'm asleep in minutes.

Up early the next day I hop across to Bryher in a boat with a small outboard motor. Bryher makes Tresco look built-up in comparison. Euan Rogers drives us over unmade roads in a battered Land Rover to the westerly point of the island where the Hell Bay hotel is situated facing out to the Atlantic.

This family-oriented hotel has a New England meets the Caribbean atmosphere. The bar and dining- room share colonial tastes, with Lloyd Loom chairs on the verandas overlooking Hell Bay. The walls of the hotel are adorned with art belonging to Dorrien-Smith including works by Barbara Hepworth, Patrick Heron and Bryhers' own acclaimed artist Richard Pierce, whose large seascapes dominate the restaurant. Guests here pass the time sailing, fishing, bird-watching, walking or just hanging out on one of the terraces.

Back on Tresco I hire a bicycle and ride around the island. I stop at Tresco Abbey's gardens, where Mike Nelhams, the head gardener of this magnificent 25-acre sub-tropical gem, kindly gives me a guided tour .

Because the Scillies sits in the middle of the Gulf stream, the islands are accorded a temperate climate all-year round - allowing exotic trees and plants to prosper. On New Year's Day one can expect more than 100 varieties of tropical flowers to be in bloom and in the summer hundreds more. No wonder this wonderful place attracts in excess of 45,000 visitors each year.

Enjoying my boy's-own adventure, I cycle on and meet barely a soul the whole afternoon. I stop and sit on a granite stone wall and am soon joined by a herd of cattle as I launch somewhat guiltily into a Tresco beef pasty which I had purchased from the only grocery shop on the island, Tresco Stores (that's Tresco not Tesco).

Freewheeling downhill I chance upon the Island Hotel, set in a small bay and overlooked by the ruins of various castles. The bay's calm waters gently bob the odd dinghy up and down and give the whole scene an almost Swallows and Amazons quality; a place where children can play without a care in the world.

By the time I get back to my hotel I am beginning to regret my cycling exertions. But after a hot bath I am ready to enjoy a typical Friday night in the New Inn bar where, by all accounts, the islanders whoop it up.

I am keen to get a snapshot of a seasoned sea salt and approach a bearded sea-faring looking fellow. He turns out to be farmer turned artist Richard Pierce whose work I had seen earlier in the day. Everybody in the bar knows each other and my reputation as the stranger on these shores is growing.

Pierce introduces me to a jolly lady called Joan who turns out to be the island's masseur and therapist. Her first words to me are, "Are you ego-centric?"

"Certainly not," I reply. "I just happen to be incredibly handsome and terribly rich."

It seems that most of the islanders in the pub that night work for Dorrien-Smith in some manner and all hold him in high regard; I think it is this feudal way of life that is so attractive to tourists. It's an England preserved from another age.

As I leave the island the next morning, I can't help thinking that I have not been so much a stranger on Tresco as a stranger in paradise.

The New Inn, Tresco, tel: 01720 422 844; Hell Bay hotel, Bryher, tel: 01720 422 947; the Tresco Abbey's tropical gardens are open all-year round

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