When it wasn't Land's End

Legend tells of a verdant country off the coast of Cornwall, drowned beneath the waves at the end of the Ice Age. Standing on a peak on the Isles of Scilly.


Place names in the Isles of Scilly tend to be very literal. Hell Bay faces unprotected into the prevailing Atlantic gales, its teeth of splintered rock waiting to grind and swallow unwary shipping in its foaming mouth. Heathy Hill and Rocky Hill leave no doubt in the mind of the intrepid explorer as to what type of landscape will be encountered. A wealth of Lower Towns, Middle Towns and Higher Towns are scattered throughout St Martin's and St Agnes to help orientate the directionally challenged visitor. And Bryher, because it has no choice, calls its one small collection of buildings The Town.

Place names in the Isles of Scilly tend to be very literal. Hell Bay faces unprotected into the prevailing Atlantic gales, its teeth of splintered rock waiting to grind and swallow unwary shipping in its foaming mouth. Heathy Hill and Rocky Hill leave no doubt in the mind of the intrepid explorer as to what type of landscape will be encountered. A wealth of Lower Towns, Middle Towns and Higher Towns are scattered throughout St Martin's and St Agnes to help orientate the directionally challenged visitor. And Bryher, because it has no choice, calls its one small collection of buildings The Town.

This is rather a roundabout way of saying what I was doing on Watch Hill. It should be obvious by now. Watch Hill rises just above The Town on Bryher, and I was standing on it on a most glorious late summer's day. It was mid-morning, and the sun stretched towards its full height in a perfect kingdom of blue. A world of sky and water, punctured only by islands of green and the white wheeling of gulls.

The view from there is staggering. St Agnes and Gugh to the south, St Mary's to the south-east, and Tresco and St Martin's to the east. Strands of white beaches set in the rocky bays of these islands are offset by the curious mix of moorland and exotic sub-tropical plants and palms that have escaped from the Abbey Gardens on Tresco. Like shipwrecked sailors marooned on a desert island, they have hijacked the local environment and made the best of a frost-free climate.

What the retreating tide had revealed, however, were sandbars and rocks that, hours earlier, had been hidden beneath the sea. Tresco was now joined to Bryher, as was Hangman Island and numerous other outcrops of seaweed-covered granite. If I wished, I could have walked between them. Gazing further out to sea at the Western and Northern Rocks, I became aware of how these islands had been one country, and that what I was looking at were the peaks of a lost, drowned land.

Suddenly, I could see how it used to be. A verdant, Tolkienesque land of hills and valleys, teeming with life that had arrived long before even this larger island was cast into splendid isolation from the Cornish mainland. It was then that a sense of history rose up from the waves and rolled over me. I was drenched with the feeling of lives and communities that had been erased like sandcastles before the advancing waters of the retreating Ice Age. Bronze to Iron Age. Roman to medieval. Only fragments of these civilisations remain on what was once higher ground. For a moment the legend of the lost land of Lyonesse held me in its grasp, until it was snatched away by a gasp of wind and the cry of a gannet.

The Scillies are magical, and the waters are still rising.

This was one of the shortlisted entries in the recent Independent/Princess Cruises Call of the Wild competition

Travellers' Guide

Getting there: To reach the Scillies you can pay £72 for a day return, or £108 for an open return, for the 20-minute flight from Penzance to St Mary's with British International Helicopters (01736 363 871). There are flights daily, except Sundays, to St Mary's and Tresco. An £80 fare is available for four nights or fewer, with these restrictions: the trip must be taken between April and September; departure must be between Monday and Friday; and you must leave after 2pm and return before 1pm.

You can also fly to St Mary's on a fixed-wing plane with Isles of Scilly Skybus (bookable via Isles of Scilly Travel Centre, 0845 710 5555), from St Just airstrip near Land's End: the adult return is £95 (summer) or £85 from October; a day trip is £60 return (summer), £55 from October. Flights depart Bristol and Exeter in summer only, and Newquay all year round.

The ferry Scillonian III, also run by the Isles of Scilly Travel Centre, does the return Penzance-St Mary's journey, sailing on Mondays, Wednesdays, Fridays and Saturdays until 2 November when services end for the season, starting again a week before Easter. The adult return fare is £72 in summer, £65 in winter; a day trip, allowing four hours on St Mary's, costs £35/£32. Tourist information, St Mary's: 01720 422 536.

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