A race to the top: could I clamber to the modest summit of Gimble Point on Tresco before the mist rolled in?
One of the wonders of the Isles of Scilly is that you can usually see the weather coming a long way off. The mist had been the proverbial distant speck as I'd set off from New Grimsby, yet, palpably moving before my eyes, it rolled in off the Atlantic like monochrome candyfloss squeezing its way through the narrows of the Tresco Channel.
I did make the summit before the curtain dropped – just – to command the same superb views as the darting and swooping blacked-backed gulls and fulmars.
Of all the islands of Scilly – five of them inhabited and around 200 other rocks, large lumps and skerries – Tresco has the reputation as the most manicured, the most exclusive island (prices are such that by the end of your trip you will come to regard a packet of crisps as a luxury). But Gimble Point, on the northern headland of Tresco, is a wild bedrock of granite, an outpost of raw north Cornwall coastline. And with two castles close by and a wind-blasted heath, this was less Middle England, more the Middle Ages.
My walk began in New Grimsby, the picturesque settlement at the heart of Tresco, an island barely two miles in length and one mile wide. You can do the maths: no walk here takes very long, but you could linger all day over the sights encountered along the way.
Heading clockwise out of New Grimsby, with the rugged island of Bryher across the channel, I'd quickly come across the two castles. Cromwell's Castle is the more recent, built close to the shoreline, with a moss-encrusted spiral staircase and 18th-century graffiti applied by soldiers stationed here; it stands in the shadow of the more dilapidated King Charles's Castle. Both are echoes of the Civil War, in which Tresco was just about the last foothold for the Royalists.
Beyond the castle was Gimble Point, from where, before the mist came down, I had a panoramic view of many of the islands, along with, six miles to the south-west, the iconic, Bishop Rock lighthouse, buffeted by rollers completing their 3,000-mile ride from the Americas.
I contoured along the northern headland, the path as narrow as a goat's gait and often dipping close to the tideline. Piper's Hole is around here, an underground freshwater cave. The Atlantic Ocean shovels water though a narrow channel so fiercely that it blows spray in the air like a geyser. You can nose around the cave, though bring a torch, and possibly a ball of string to find your way back.
Piper's Hole stands at the foot of Tregarthen Hill, home to Bronze Age burial sights. Scilly is riddled with these, and it seems the cairns became popular partly because in such a low-lying, scattered archipelago it was easy to align a tomb propitiously with the setting sun.
The coast path threaded south-east from here, passing Old Grimsby, Tresco's original port, and just beyond the 16th-century fortification known as the Blockhouse, I stumbled upon my personal favourite beach – not just on Tresco but all of Scilly – Cook's Porth. It was captivating, backed by marram grass and, thanks to the fragmenting mist, with a gorgeous view of a range of islands, including St Helen's, Tean and St Martin's. The sand was so soft it felt liquid, like rainwater trickling through my hands.
A little further south I passed Pentle Bay at high tide, and so missed the intriguing chance to scout around for the submerged prehistoric hut circles and boundary walls that are revealed at low water. Cutting inland, I made for Tresco Abbey Gardens. This is the nerve centre of the island's tourist industry, so time your visit around cruise ship landings. If you do so, you'll find the gardens possess a grace and light touch where flowers from 80 countries, including Burma and South Africa, thrive in this sub-tropical environment.
The adjacent abbey has 12th-century Benedictine origins, and is home to the descendents of Augustus Smith, a Hertfordshire squire who trans-formed Tresco from a redoubt for privateers and smugglers. Before you leave, it's worth looking at Valhalla, the garden's open-air collection of figureheads retrieved from local shipwrecks. A cannon also lies here, recovered from HMS Association, the ship that went down in 1707 after Sir Cloudesley Shovell, the Nelson of his day, got his location disastrously wrong.
Leaving the gardens, I headed for New Grimsby along a lane shaded by a glorious tree canopy. An iridescent flash of feathers winged across the path, landing with an undignified thwack by a thicket of bamboo. Tropical parrots, too? Not quite. The bird was a male golden pheasant, brightly coloured with a yellow crown, dark wings, red underparts and superb, barred tail. Barely a hundred pairs occupy the UK's undergrowth but here in the mild Scilly Isles it is found roosting at night in the treetops.
Distance: four miles.
Time: three hours.
Map OS Explorer 101 Isles of Scilly.
Directions: Head clockwise out of New Grimsby, pass the quay and follow signs for Cromwell Castle. Above King Charles's Castle make for the headland and follow any of the various paths east. Walk through Old Grimsby, pass the school to the Blockhouse and pick up the coast path. At Pentle Bay, turn right along the main track and follow signs to the Abbey Gardens. On leaving the gardens, retrace your steps past the Abbey and turn left along the lane to New Grimsby.
How to get there
First Great Western (08457 000 125; firstgreatwestern.co.uk) runs a train service to Penzance. From Penzance, you can catch a helicopter with British International (01736 363871; islesof scillyhelicopter.com) to Tresco and the nearby island of St Mary's from £146 return. The Scillonian (0845 710 5555; islesofscilly- travel.co.uk) sails to St Mary's (two hours 40 minutes) from £86 return. Skybus (0845 710 5555; islesofscilly-travel.co.uk) flies to St Mary's from Lands End, Newquay, Southampton, Exeter and Bristol from £135 return. The Flying Boat Club (tresco.co.uk) offers self-catering accommodation for up to six people in Pegasus from £1,455 per week. If you take the boat, you will require overnight accommodation. In Marazion, near Penzance, The Godolphin Arms (01736 710202 ; godolphinarms.co.uk) offers double rooms with breakfast from £90 per night.
Isles of Scilly Tourism (simplyscilly.co.uk).