Isles of Scilly: On the edge

When you're off to Hell Bay, in the Isles of Scilly, you expect the worst, but Rob Crossan is swept away by the place's dramatic beauty

Perhaps I shouldn't have been surprised that my journey to Hell was neither smooth nor comfortable. The 17-seat Twin Otter plane looked cosy and robust as it stood on the runway at Southampton airport, but after half an hour using my knees as a chin-rest and repeatedly banging my head against the ceiling as the valiant machine did battle with demonic winds, it seemed sensible to stop and question whether there was any irony at all about Hell Bay's striking name.

My destination was Hell Bay hotel, which lies on the north-western edge of Bryher, the least populated (there are only about 80 full-time residents) of the five inhabited islands of the Isles of Scilly (never the Scilly Isles, as locals will gently but firmly remind you).

After the excitements of my plane journey – and the equally challenging boat ride to Bryher from the main island of St Mary's – it was with some relief that I discovered that this was to be a hotel experience that would ease my aching bones, rather than scare me to death. There are no lumpy mattresses and hatchet-faced landladies here. Nor is the hotel, on this most remote of islands (electricity came in 1985), resistant to modernisation. There are Malabar fabrics in abundance, and the general sense of being in an upmarket California surfing retreat.

It all seemed slightly incongruous, given the location: outside, an almighty din raged on Hell Bay, which foamed and frothed beyond my balcony. This is the last stop in the UK before the Atlantic Ocean intervenes; Canada is the next landfall, 3,000 miles to the west.

The hotel itself consists of 25 different suites; those not located in the main building are in wooden, stilted apartments. The view from my balcony was a perfectly framed vista consisting of a lonely cottage and the playground of rocks that leads down to the bay. Venture out to stand there, and you will almost certainly be the most westerly placed human being in England. It's not an achievement likely to bring forth any prizes, but it's a sensation that feels melancholy and at the same time strangely rewarding.

There was a time when all of the islands on the Isles of Scilly were named after saints. St Mary, St Martin, St Agnes and St Nicholas have supported a community a couple of thousand strong for centuries out here, 26 miles off the coast of Land's End. However, sainthood for this particular spot was rescinded long ago. In the mid-16th century, in the final act of an incredible feat of natural erosion, St Nicholas was broken in two by the currents that barge and charge across the seas here.

Now, the main portion of St Nicholas, which measures barely more than a square mile all told, is called Tresco, a perfectly manicured private estate belonging to the Dorrien-Smith family. Here, the exquisite abbey gardens flourish with flora from as far away as South Africa, sustained by the mild temperatures that make Bryher's sister islands so appealing. Robert Dorrien-Smith and his wife Lucy also own the Hell Bay hotel, which has been gentrified beyond recognition since it opened in the 1970s.

Bryher is the opposite of benign Tresco; the petulant, untamed little brother (only half a square mile in size) who went seriously off the rails when St Nicholas split in two. The water between the two islands is so shallow that, in summer at low tide, it's possible to wade across. However, the landscape and atmosphere of Bryher is something very different indeed. Here, venomous spume and bilious winds are seemingly in a near- constant state of umbrage against the island. Waves from storms have often travelled thousands of miles before they batter against Bryher's shore.

Even the puritanical zeal that Cromwell's troops put into building their fortresses couldn't last here. While their lookout points survive on neighbouring Tresco, here almost all evidence of Castle Bryher, home to 20 of Cromwell's men in 1651, has been destroyed by the furious salty spray that batters against the appropriately named Badplace Hill. There's nothing left but a tiny indentation in the crumbling coastline.

The surrounding hills are covered with heather that crouches low to the ground. Gorse and bracken also proliferate, while black-backed and herring gulls squawk constantly. The island also features more than 100 cairns, marking ancient pagan burial grounds (some say the Scillies were once part of a mythical lost empire, known as the Kingdom of Lyonesse). Dark stone burial chambers are scattered across the island, interlinked by the remains of ancient boulder-walls. Bronze Age chieftains would be buried overlooking the lands they once owned.

"You can be Jack Kerouac here if you want to be. I just wanted to be a beatnik on the beach myself." Richard Pearce's studio is an old gig-storage shed ("gigs" are the narrow six-oared boats that were once used to guide boats into the islands' harbours, and gig racing is still one of the Isles of Scilly's biggest events in the summer months).

"Nature takes its toll here," Pearce told me as we sat, surrounded by wide-screen vistas of water and yellow sands. "I guess that's what most of the people on Bryher are worried about. The sea took a huge chunk out of my studio a few weeks ago, and the road behind my house has now completely disappeared, just fallen into the sea. I don't know if it's global warming, but you have to be very careful. The last thing they do at night at the island store is put all the crisps on top of the counter. You never know if the sea is going to come in at night and drown everything."

Pearce, whose family has been on the Isles of Scilly since the 1830s, uses his Golden Eagle studio to showcase his simple acrylic paintings of Scilly beachscapes. The brilliant blues and comforting yellows of the sky and sand make it look as if he has been painting on Anguilla. But these Caribbean-seeming pieces are in fact of the other face of Bryher – a bewildering alternative to the rage of Hell Bay in the north.

This other face is most visible at the shore of Rushy Bay, on the south of the island. Grass and gorse leads down to a sandy beach. The water nudges rather than batters the shore, and the winds die down to a soft whisper as they skate across the sea. It's hard to believe that such a Lilliputian island can contain two such drastically different environments. I exchanged my overcoat for T-shirt and flip-flops, and lay on the beach. The watery sun trickled over the sand like olive oil. It felt as if I'd swapped time zones, rather than walked for barely 40 minutes.

At the top of the beach is tiny All Saints Church, which dates back to 1742. The aisle is lined with gas lamps that swing as distant waves echo against the thick stone walls. The graveyard is unkempt but clearly still visited; it's a suitably lonely resting place for the hardy men and women who survived here when respite from the elements in the Hell Bay restaurant wasn't an option.

It's at this part of the island that the soothing heartbeat of light that throbs from the Bishop Rock lighthouse and illuminates all of Bryher at night is most appreciated. The sensation of being at the end of the Earth, as the light winks on and off, is strong – and strangely soothing. At Hell Bay, on the other hand, the light serves as more of a warning, telling visitors and passing ships that all is far from calm here.

There is something decadent about Bryher and its weathered rocks. With St Nicholas already gone, there's a strong sense that it won't be long before the elements finally win their assault upon this remote slab of land. This is nature going in for the kill. Maybe you shouldn't delay your visit to Hell's Bay for too long.

Traveller's guide

Getting there

Skybus (01736 334224; www.skybus.co.uk) operates flights to St Marys from Southampton, Bristol, Penzance and Newquay.

For details of boat times from St Marys to Bryher call Bryher Boat Services on 01720 422886 or go to www.ios-travel.co.uk

Staying there

Hell Bay, Bryher, Isles of Scilly (01720 422947; www.hellbay.co.uk). Doubles start at £260, half board.

More information

Isles of Scilly tourist board: 01720 424 031; www.simplyscilly.co.uk

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