Isles of Scilly

Anneka's Quay, Bryher, Isles of Scilly

Waiting for the ferry on Anneka's Quay, Bryher

Of the hundreds of rocks, islets and islands on Scilly, only five are inhabited – St Mary’s plus the off-islands of Tresco, St Agnes, Bryher and St Martin’s. In the fairly recent past Samson was also populated – the abandoned houses are a great draw to visitors today. Go back a thousand years and St Helen's and Teän were home to Early Christian communities. Go back a thousand years more, and many of the smaller isles like White Island (St Martin's), Nornour, Northwethel and Great Ganilly were home to a dispersed population of prehistoric farmers. It's their field walls and huts that lie seaweed covered on the sandbanks at low water.

St Mary’s and Tresco are stepping stones between the mainland and the more far flung off-islands. St Mary's actually has tarmac roads and traffic (but you can't bring your car here from the mainland). It's perfect for first time visitors because all the other islands are within easy reach by inter-island launch from Hugh Town Quay. Tresco has the famous Abbey Gardens, full of sub-tropical plants that draw visitors from all over the world. St Agnes, Bryher and St Martin’s are more far-flung, distilled illustrations of island life. Here the only traffic on the small concrete tracks is an occasional tractor. One of the great pleasures of visiting Scilly is discovering which island appeals to your temperament and, as you get to know the islands, discovering how that can change.

A land lost beneath the sea – the lost Land of Lyonesse

Boy wading between Samson and Tresco, Isles of Scilly

Wading between Samson and Tresco at low tide

At the height of the last glacial period, 18,000 years ago, the sea was as much as 100 metres below today's levels, exposing a vast plain stretching all around for dozens of kilometres. As the climate warmed and the ice caps melted, huge volumes of water were released causing an astonishingly rapid rise in sea levels. At the same time, humans, who had wisely sat out the glacial period painting pictures in the caves of southern Europe, started to move north. They arrived here about 10,000 years ago to find the sea already lapping at the base of the granite hills but still a good thirty metres below today's level. By 4000BC it had risen another twenty-five metres. Even within the short life-span of prehistoric man, large areas of land could be seen to be lost to the sea. This global phenomenon is at the root of the many myths of a 'great flood’.

Generations of Scillonians have told of a lost land that once lay between the Isles of Scilly and Land’s End – The Land of Lyonesse. A land of handsome maids and strong men, of rich pastures and fertile meadows. Standing above the fields, on what is now the Seven Stones, stood the beautiful City of Lions where from its turreted castle you could count the steeples of 140 graceful churches. All this was suddenly engulfed by the sea. Only one man and his horse survived. He was out hunting in the hills near to Land’s End. Weary from his exertions, he fell asleep under a May tree only to be woken by a terrifying roar as a gigantic wave rolled across the plain from the west. He mounted his horse and they galloped for their lives to high ground and safety – but not before his horse lost a shoe in the scramble. The coat of arms of the West Cornwall Vyvyan family consists of three horseshoes and they claim to be descended from the single survivor of the flood that engulfed Lyonesse.

Sometimes late at night in the corner of a West Cornwall pub you may even overhear an old fisherman recounting stories of how on a calm day, with a still sea, you can hear a faint mournful toll as the sea currents gently move the bells in their steeples. The legend may have grown taller with every telling, but there are indeed traces of a lost society, their homes and fields now under the sea. These are the farms of Bronze Age Scillonians who colonised Scilly 4,500 years ago when the four largest present day islands were connected by a now submerged central plain.

St Mary's

Peninnis Lighthouse, Isles of Scilly

Peninnis Lighthouse on St Mary's

St Mary’s the largest island in the Scillonian group and home to three-quarters of Scilly's 2,200 residents. It is a stepping stone between the mainland and the off-islands, large enough to have tarmac roads, cars and buses but small enough to walk around in a day. All the off-islands are within easy reach by ferry from the quay at Hugh Town, so it's the ideal place to be based on your first trip. Almost all St Mary's food shops, banks, restaurants and gift shops are based here along with the Island Museum.

It’s perfectly possible to walk the whole coast of St Mary’s in a single day (it's about 12.5km not including the Garrison) but it’s probably more enjoyable to put your holiday head on and wander along at Scillonian pace. It's amazing what you come across on the coast path – the buckled steel plates of the SS Brodfield on the rocks below the airport, a pillbox disguised as a wall at Old Town, Civil War batteries, a smuggler's cache in the cliff at Porth Mellon and at Porth Hellick and Normandy downs the tombs of prehistoric Scillonians.

There are two popular walks from Hugh Town: one follows the coast from Porthcressa to Peninnis Head and the other traces a line around the walls of The Garrison. The rest of St Mary's coastline can be split into several easy sections: Old Town to Porth Hellick, Porth Hellick to Watermill Cove and Watermill Cove to Porthloo. You can turn inland at any one of these places to make a circular walk using the country lanes and nature trails at Lower and Higher Moors to cross the island. Each walk only takes a morning or an afternoon to complete and so a pair of walks can be put together based around lunch at one of the cafes on the north of St Mary's. Alternatively, you can hire a bicycle in Hugh Town or arrange for a taxi to drop you off at Telegraph or Pelistry and saunter back along the coast path.

Many visitors will understandably spend the bulk of their time exploring the coast, but the centre of St Mary's has plenty to offer too. It's mainly cultivated for potatoes, flowers and bulbs – particularly daffodils and other narcissi which are sent to London in the winter and early spring. Holy Vale is a particularly beautiful spot with vineyards where you can try out the local Pinot Noir (check opening times before you go). You'll also come across artists studios, potteries and galleries like Rocky Hill and the studios at Porthloo.

St Mary's has many impressive prehistoric monuments and, if you're interested in the ancient history of the islands, it's a good plan to spend a bit of time visiting sites like the Giant’s Tomb on Porth Hellick Down, Innisidgen Tomb and Bant’s Carn Tomb at Halangy Down. They're kept clear of bracken and brambles and have information boards so that when you get to the off-islands – whose ancient sites are often a little tumbled down and overgrown – you already have a clear picture in your own mind of what you're looking for among all the natural rock debris. The northern part of St Mary's, around the The Bar and Halangy Down was intensively settled in prehistory and the remains of prehistoric fields, huts and tombs show that this part of Scilly, facing back to Land's End, was probably the major centre of activity on ancient Scilly. Halangy Down Ancient Village sits below Bant’s Carn Tomb and here you can wander around the remains of 2,000-year-old houses.

For nature lovers, there are lots of wildlife boat trips from the quay at Hugh Town including one on a glass-bottomed boat as well as lectures in the Church Hall in Hugh Town. The island has a good variety of resident birds, and Porth Hellick Pool is a favourite spot in the spring and autumn for migrating birds who stop here to rest and refuel. Sometimes when gales blow in exotic birds from North America, hundreds of birdwatchers descend on the islands. They can be found crouching in hedgerows and craning their necks over walls to catch sight of unusual visitors. More information is available on the Isles of Scilly Wildlife Trust website.

St Agnes and the Western Rocks

Nag's Head rock, St Agnes, Isles of Scilly

The Nag's Head rock on St Agnes

Long before humans arrived on Scilly, St Agnes, Annet and the Western Rocks were a distinct group of islands all on their own, separated from the rest of Scilly by the deep water of St Mary's Sound. Anyone who's made the crossing from St Mary's to St Agnes when a northwesterly sea is running knows just how rough this stretch of water can be. So it's a psychological as well as a physical barrier and the eighty residents of St Agnes and Gugh are a resilient and resourceful band.

Today, the only inhabited islands in this group are St Agnes and Gugh. Further west, the rocks and isles now belong exclusively to seals and seabirds, although in the past, humans have had a shaky and sporadic toehold here too. Hunters made seasonal camp on Annet in prehistory and in recent centuries divers have used Rosevear as a base for salvaging valuable cargo, as have blacksmiths working on the first Bishop Rock Lighthouse. Oddly, the place with the longest record of unbroken occupation in the Western Rocks is the Bishop Rock, perhaps the most remote, exposed and isolated place on Scilly. Lighthouse keepers lived here from 1858 to 1992 – surely Scilly's most perilous and lonesome address.

Of today's uninhabited isles, Annet and Rosevear are large enough to support a few species of maritime plants like thrift, sea beet and tree mallow. Others, like Crebawethan and Melledgan, are little more than bare rock, ground down to low stumps by the continual pounding of the waves. In a calm sea, they can be awash; with a strong sea running, waves roll right over them or crash into the rock faces sending up plumes of spray visible from miles away. At times like this, it's all the more magnificent to see the Bishop Rock Lighthouse standing bolt upright on the horizon. It's a reassuring presence, especially at night, as the beam from its lantern sweeps across the underside of the clouds.

To many of us, the ocean can seem an irredeemably hostile place and a boat trip to the Bishop is probably as far as we will ever venture. But for some Scillonian visitors – pelagic birds like shearwaters, storm petrels and puffins – the open sea is their home and it's on dry land where they look out of place. These birds would spend their whole lives on the ocean if they didn't have to make brief landfall on Annet and the Western Rocks to lay eggs and raise chicks. On land they have the comic ungainliness of a scuba diver walking on a quayside. Manx shearwaters are so unaccustomed to solid ground that their landing technique is simply to crash with a thump into the tussocks of thrift on Annet. It's a breathtaking contrast to see just how at home, and how graceful they are on the ocean, skimming and shearing over the waves.

The Western Rocks have been responsible for hundreds of shipwrecks and the loss of thousands of lives. In the days of sail, a vessel was largely helpless in the face of a storm, driven relentlessly onwards to shatter, often in seconds, on the rocks. Their very names – Hellweathers, Roaring Ledge, Tearing Ledge – tell you all you need to know about the ferocity of the sea here. Sometimes the only clue that a wreck had even happened was a raft of flotsam arriving on the beaches of St Agnes, a tide of splintered wood, regurgitated cargo and bruised corpses, often stripped naked by the sea. Occasionally, survivors would make it to a nearby rock but might have to wait days for the seas to subside before they could be rescued. More often, no-one survived. The identity of a wreck could sometimes be inferred from the cargo it spilled into the sea – indigo, rum and cotton from the Caribbean; jute from Bengal; spices, coffee and tobacco from the Dutch East Indies. On several occasions islanders have woken to find the bays of St Agnes and Gugh brimful with produce, rafts of bobbing Valencia oranges or a sea of wheat. Any cargo too heavy to be taken by the tide would rain down on the rocky gullies from the disintegrating wreck above – silver dollars from the Spanish Main, African gold, bronze cannons and iron shot.

Bryher, Samson and the Norrard Rocks

Great Par, Bryher, Isles of Scilly

Great Par on Bryher

More than any other island on Scilly, Bryher has the feeling of being on a frontier, in a combat zone between sea and land. The battle is played out most dramatically on Shipman Head Down where, even on the sunniest of summer days, you can sense how unnervingly wild it is in poor weather. During storms, waves crash into Hell Bay sending clouds of spray cascading right over the island to land in New Grimsby Sound: not a time to find yourself standing anywhere near Badplace Hill. Further south on Bryher, the coast is a little more sheltered and around Popplestones, Great Par and Rushy Bay the coastal scenery is the most beautiful in Scilly, a perfect balance of bay, beach and carn-topped hill.

All the Scillonian off-islands have had periods where they've been abandoned completely by humans. Samson is the most recent example, its ruined houses lending it a wistful air, a reminder of the makeshift nature of living on the western margin of Scilly. It's a hugely attractive island and one of those places that roots itself deep in the memory so that when you recollect a visit, even many years later, you're drawn back with a startling intensity to the carns, the tombs and the sparkling sea.

The Norrard or Northern Rocks sit a little higher in the water than their counterparts the Western Rocks but, like them, they support little life beyond the short visits of breeding sea birds. All that changes though, when you glance over the side of the boat. The Garden of the Maiden Bower may sound like an English cottage garden full of roses and apple blossom, but really it's a garden of seaweeds, full of tangle, furbellows, cuvie, and the hypnotic waving fronds of dabberlocks. If you're lucky, you'll glimpse a shadow slipping and sliding between the watery sunbeams because the only maidens that live here are mermaids and seals.

Tresco, St Helen’s, Teän and Round Island

Looking over Treco beach to Round Island lighthouse, Isles of Scilly

Looking over to St Helen's and Round Island from Tresco

People travel from all over the world to visit Tresco Abbey Gardens and it's by far the most visited of Scilly's off-islands. The gardens are a northern sanctuary for subtropical and southern hemisphere plants. They thrive here because the islands are bathed in the warmth of the Gulf Stream, a current of seawater that flows northeast across the Atlantic from the Caribbean. As a consequence, winters are exceptionally mild and frosts are rare. Gales are a greater danger and Tresco is planted with sweeping shelter belts of trees to protect the sensitive plants from being scalded by salt-laden winter winds.

The Abbey Gardens are laid out around the ruins of a small abbey church that stood here between the 12th and 14th centuries. Christian foundations had been established on St Helen's and Teän (as well as on Tresco and other parts of Scilly) as early as the 6th or 7th centuries AD. This is a period the Cornish call The Coming of the Saints, when Celtic men and women from Ireland and Wales moved through Cornwall and Scilly establishing tiny chapels and hermitages on remote cliffs and coves. So many foundations existed here that these northern off-islands were described as a 'confederacy of hermits’.

Abbey Gardens, Tresco, Isles of Scilly

Abbey Gardens on Tresco

That long tradition of seclusion and solitude was carried into the 19th and 20th centuries by the lighthouse keepers of Round Island. The sea immediately northwest of St Helen's and Round Island is particularly turbulent and, despite being so close to the main islands, they could find themselves marooned for days beyond the end of their watch by the stormy waters around their island. On nearby St Helen's in the 18th century, passengers and crew from ships suspected of being infected with disease were forcibly quarantined at the Pest House, made to wait on their fate on what must have seemed a terrifying but strangely beautiful desert island.

St Martin’s and the Eastern Isles

Campsite Beach, St Martin's, Isles of Scilly

Campsite Beach on St Martin's with Tresco in the background

This corner of Scilly benefits greatly from being sheltered by St Mary's and Tresco and as a result, St Martin's is just a little greener than the other islands. Its south-facing hillsides are natural sun-traps so the hedges and gardens are full of subtropical plants, and even in early spring or late autumn, the ground is full of warmth. The northern coast is a much more rugged and wild place. It looks over the sea to Land's End, and from Chapel Down in the evening, the scene is lit up by the twinkle and flash of at least five lighthouses that mark the many dangers between Scilly and the mainland. This has been a busy shipping lane for two thousand years.

The Eastern Isles lie just a few hundred metres southeast of St Martin's. Sightseeing boats come to watch the seals that haul-out on the rocks around Menawethan and Innisvouls. All these isles are uninhabited now but the remains of prehistoric fields and round huts show up on Nornour and its neighbour, Great Ganilly. Most spectacularly, a Roman shrine for mariners was uncovered on the beach at Nornour after a storm in 1962. Arthur belongs to a select group of places on Scilly that prehistoric man chose as ritual sites – each one of its three hills is topped by tombs.

On a normal low tide, ferries have to weave back and forth around the sand banks and bars of Martin's Flats to get through to Highertown Quay and on the lowest tides of the year the sand banks are completely impassable by boat. When it floods back in, the sea creates a shallow lagoon stretching between St Martin's, Guther's Island and Tresco. This is one of the loveliest sights in Scilly. The white sand beneath the surface of the sea gives it an extraordinary sparkle perhaps best experienced by hiring a sea kayak to explore the many rocks, ledges and islands.

Getting to Penzance

By car to Penzance

Head for the A30 to Penzance. This can be very busy road on bank holiday weekends and Saturdays in the summer. To avoid the queues, aim to arrive on the England/Cornwall border (about 1¼ hours from Penzance) before mid-morning or leave it until late afternoon/early evening. Flying from Exeter avoids Cornwall's congested trains and roads in the summer.

By train to Penzance

Head for Penzance Railway Station. The Night Riviera sleeper train leaves London Paddington late evening and will get you to Penzance by about 8am the following morning. A shuttle bus runs between the station and Land's End Airport (12km/7½ miles) – you need book the shuttle bus in advance and should aim to leave Penzance station one hour before your scheduled take-off time. You can also get a taxi from the station forecourt. Passengers for the Scillonian can simply walk along Penzance Harbour to the Lighthouse Quay.

Getting to Scilly

You can't take your car to Scilly but there is secure parking in Penzance and at the airports.

Isles of Scilly Tourist Information. Up-to-date information on accommodation and activities. T: (01720) 424031 @visitIOS

Scillonian and Skybus times and daily updates @IOSTravel

Penzance Helicopters. T: 01604 817115

By sea

Scillonian ferry in Penzance Harbour

The Scillonian comes into Penzance Harbour

The Scillonian usually departs Penzance at 9.15am; the return sailing leaves St Mary's at 4.30pm. The journey takes about 2¾ hours. Departure times vary depending on the tide. In the busiest periods, there is also a second sailing.

By air

You can fly direct to St Mary's Airport from Land's End, Newquay and Exeter airports by Skybus. Penzance Helicopters operate a service from Penzance Heliport to St Mary’s and Tresco. The heliport is just off the A30 Longrock roundabout. If you're staying in one of the big hotels on Scilly they will usually meet you and your luggage when you arrive. There are taxis and a shuttle bus from St Mary's Airport to Hugh Town.

Getting around the inhabited off-islands

Seahorse ferry at Porthconger Quay, St Agnes, Isles of Scilly

The Seahorse comes into Porthconger Quay on St Agnes

Inter-island boast services. St Mary’s @scillyboating, St Agnes @stagnesboating, Bryher, St Martin’s and Tresco @TrescoBoats.

Ferries from St Mary's

St Mary's Boatmen's Association run most of the trips from St Mary's. Ferries run to the inhabited islands throughout the year. There's a reduced service out of season (you'll probably need to book). Ferries to the inhabited off-islands usually depart Hugh Town Quay at about 10.15am with returns throughout the afternoon. Departure times and frequency change according to the tides, weather and time of year so check departure boards and Twitter/Facebook accounts. Buy your ticket at the kiosk on Hugh Town Quay or onboard.  

Off-island ferries

Lightning ferry at Lowertown Quay, St Martin's, Isles of Scilly

Lightning comes into Lowertown (Hotel) Quay on St Martin's

If you're staying on an off-island, it will have its own boat service). They will run daily services to St Mary's plus a rotating mix of circular and evening trips throughout the week. In addition to their main ferry, most also have a smaller jet boat used for private charter and water taxi runs (above).

Circular Boat Trips

All the island boat services offer circular trips around the uninhabited islands. With the exception of Samson, these don't usually land but afterwards you can usually land on one of the off-islands to stretch your legs, get a cup of tea and return on a later boat. Details are chalked on departure boards and on Twitter/Facebook accounts


Abandoned house on Samson, Isles of Scilly

Abandoned house on Samson

The only uninhabited island where ferries regularly land and a highlight of many holidays on Scilly. Abandoned houses still stand along with many prehistoric tombs on the hill tops. Prehistoric field walls cross the sand flats. Remember to take water, sun cream and a picnic with you.

Eastern Isles

Grey seal, Isles of Scilly

Probably the most popular of the circular trips and usually the one with the calmest sea conditions. Great for getting close to grey seals who haul themselves out on Little Innisvouls. Seabirds nest on the steeper rocks. Private charter boats can drop you on Nornour or Arthur Quay.

Duration: 1¾ hours. Also lands on: St Martin’s

Annet, Western Rocks and the Bishop

A trip to the far southwest of Scilly. Of all the boat trips, this is the one most dependent on sea conditions. If they're not right this trip might not run for a week or more – so it's best to go while you have the opportunity. If it's too rough to go all the way to the Bishop Rock Lighthouse, a shorter 1¼ hour trip may run to Annet for seals and seabirds.  

Duration: 2½ hours. Also lands on: St Agnes

Norrard Rocks

Looking over Rushy Bay on Bryher to Northern or Norrard Rocks, Isles of Scilly

Looking over Rushy Bay on Bryher to the Norrard Rocks

A trip to the rocks and reefs to the west of Samson and Bryher – Illiswilgig, Scilly Rock and the Garden of the Maiden Bower. Grey seals and puffins.

Duration: 1½ hours. Also lands on: Bryher/Tresco

Holy Isles and Round Island Lighthouse

Islands that make up the northern edge of Scilly between Tresco and St Martin's. Round Island with its lighthouse, St Helen's, Teän. Puffins on Men-a-vaur. Private charter boats can drop you on St Helen's or Teän.

Duration: 1½ hours. Also lands on: Tresco, Bryher or St Martin’s

St Mary's circular

A trip around the whole island. A taste of the open sea and coming in close to some of the bays and inlets like Porth Hellick and Pelistry.

Duration: 1¼ hours

Gig Racing

Follow the island gig races. Women race on Wednesday evenings and men on Friday evenings. The courses vary and trips often end up in an off-island pub.

Seabird Specials

Various trips throughout the year in different parts of Scilly to make the most of when seabirds are around. Includes evening trips to catch the return of shearwaters and puffins when they come back to Annet after a day fishing at sea. Puffins are around April to July, shearwaters stay a few weeks later and passing migrants arrive in spring and autumn. Often with commentary by a local bird expert.

Ancient Scilly

Bant's Carn tomb, St Mary's, Isles of Scilly

Bant's Carn Tomb on St Mary's

Sit back and hear about the history and archaeology of Scilly with an expert on-board commentary, as you cruise the islands.

These extracts are from the Isles of Scilly Guidebook