PsychoGeography:#66: My Scilly season

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The Independent Online

I was standing at the bar of the Taversoe Hotel on the northern isle of Rousay in the Orkneys. My interlocutor had the slushy vowels and beetling brows of a local. "Where're you going on holiday then Will?" he asked. "The Scilly Isles," I replied. The Orcadian peered for a while into his glass of Dark Island stout, a brew as black as the heart of a berserker, before replying, "That's not just silly - it's fucking stupid."

I was standing at the bar of the Taversoe Hotel on the northern isle of Rousay in the Orkneys. My interlocutor had the slushy vowels and beetling brows of a local. "Where're you going on holiday then Will?" he asked. "The Scilly Isles," I replied. The Orcadian peered for a while into his glass of Dark Island stout, a brew as black as the heart of a berserker, before replying, "That's not just silly - it's fucking stupid."

I could see his point, from the vantage of the Orkneys, where the wind only stills for 2 per cent of the average year and the lethal swell of the Pentland Firth crashes against the 600 f00t-high cliffs of Hoy, the Scillies not only appear remote but implausible. In my mind's eye I could visualise a few flower-patterned handkerchiefs of land crumpled in balmy waves; Harold Wilson - the last British prime minister who could conceivably be described as "cute" - sat puffing a pipe in the garden of a bungalow submerged beneath running roses; dwarf cattle wended o'er the lea; a hippie made hay with a pitchfork the size of a table fork. The whole archipelago was so dinky that it be could placed on a tea towel and flogged to a tourist.

Boarding the Scillonian at Penzance I found myself in an island fugue. The ferry looked stubby compared to other, similar vessels. High in the water and a short jog from the bow to stern. Across the bay St Michael's Mount rose out of the surf, a tidal nipple of an isle, prinked from the swelling breast of mother England. The Scillonian cast off and within 20 minutes it was rollicking around the long, Atlantic swell. I began to feel sick, very sick.

The Scilly Isles are the last vertebra in the long, bumpy spine of Cornwall. These dinky nibblets of land - St Mary's, St Martin's, Tresco, Bryar et al - are all that are left of a decent-sized island, Ennor, that was gradually submerged between the end of the last ice age and 2,000 BC. Ancient field systems can still be traced below the lagoon of St Mary's Bay, and there are sufficient dolmens, tombs and cryptic maze formations to give a satisfyingly mythical cast. John Fowles believes that Shakespeare had them in mind when he was location-spotting for The Tempest. Bermuda is the other island that lays claim to the play, and personally I think the two populations should fight it out between them using only magical powers.

The Scillies were as twee as I expected - although far more beautiful. They really are stupendously lush in summer, the teensy fields bursting with flower and plant varieties not ordinarily seen outside the greenhouse. With no motor vehicles - except on St Mary's, the biggest island - and everything not simply within walking but strolling distance, it was hard not to view the place as not so much a landmass as a scale joke. Pottering out to Port Hellick, I was startled by the clatter of the twin-rotor helicopter which is the only other way of getting to the Scillies besides the ferry. I half expected the massive whirligig to let down a hawser, then winch the island to safety.

I've no doubt that when the tourists are gone the islanders pack the clotted cream fudge away and revert to aggressive type. After all, it was Port Hellick where Sir Cloudesley Shovel swam ashore after the wreck of the HMS Association and two other ships of the line in the 1707. The Scilly woman who found him promptly beat him to death and nicked his emerald rings. This disaster cost 2,000 lives and demonstrated the absolute necessity for an effective method of calculating longitude. Still, perfectly calibrated chronometers, compasses and GPS didn't stop a Polish freighter, the Cita being wrecked off St Mary's in the 1990s. I bought a little booklet about the wreck in the local bookshop and gathered that it happened because the ship's master fell asleep at the wheel somewhere in the region of the Straits of Gibraltar. The ship's automatic pilot managed to get it all the way round the Iberian peninsula, across the Bay of Biscay and the Channel, but sadly hadn't factored these flyspecks of land. The islanders benefited to the tune of a superfluity of Jack Daniels, mahogany doors, training shoes and car batteries.

Of course, in the Orkneys orientation is a tad more robust. When I lived on Rousay there was one celebrated local who'd arrived a few years before from London, having sailed a Thames barge the entire way. Boarded by the coastguard off of Peterhead in a force-10, he was found to be setting his course for the flat-bottomed craft with a map of the Scilly Isles printed on a tea towel.

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