• June 5, 2023
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‘We seem to have slipped into another time’: a walking holiday on the Scilly Isles

The white sandy beach and dunes at the northernmost Channel Island of St Martin’s .

he morning had the bright clarity of perfect light, framing the landscape in stark relief against a clear blue sky. It was too perfect, one of those mornings that would soon be lost to rain. But as I looked out from the granite cliffs of Land’s End, I could see stark shapes interrupting the horizon between sea and sky. That was the first time I saw the Isles of Scilly, tiny black specks in the Celtic Sea, at the vast blue edge of the Atlantic Ocean. They disappeared into the rain of the day and I never saw them again. Not until today.

It has been 10 years since we walked the South West Coast Path. Ten years since that first sighting of Scilly, but it’s only now that we are finally leaving Land’s End, watching that familiar coastline grow smaller – me and my husband – heading to an unknown land and unwalked paths. But as we step on to St Mary’s, I begin to understand these islands aren’t so unfamiliar. The blocky granite stacks along the coastline of Scilly’s largest island echo those that surround the western tip of Cornwall. This outcrop of islands might be separated from the mainland by 28 miles of sea, but it’s firmly connected by granite.

We’re here for Walk Scilly, a week of guided walking tours of the archipelago, although our tour will be self-led.

Colourful boats in St Mary’s harbour, Isles of Scilly, Cornwall, UK.

Grabbing pasties for later from Hugh Street Cafe, where everything is made from scratch, we drop our bags at Tregarthen’s Hotel and moments later are on a boat crossing crystal blue sea to the northernmost island of St Martin’s. Within minutes of stepping on to the island the other passengers have disappeared down tiny lanes that lead from the quay, but we’re transfixed by the immediate sense of otherness. These islands might share the same geology, ever-present wind and salt air as the mainland, but the vegetation is of another world – succulents, palms and Allium triquetrum grow from every crevice, giving it a Mediterranean feel.

A narrow lane leads through a scattering of houses, where the only vehicle is an electric trike. We seem to have slipped into another time – older, simpler; even the wind has dropped to a softer warmth. But we’re drawn to a path leading to the northern side of the island and a totally different landscape of jagged rocks falling to an empty white beach, with gannets diving into a turquoise sea. And everywhere gorse is in full flower, covered in bees, carpeting the island in gold and filling the air with the rich smell of coconut.

View from St Martin’s across the sea to the eastern Isles Scilly Isles, England, UK.

With our backs to the warm stone of the red and white striped daymark on the headland, we eat our pasties, lost in the wonder of the view. But time is pressing and the last ferry can’t be missed, so we hurry down easy paths along the eastern edge of the island, through tiny fields protected from the winds by high pittosporum hedges and filled with wildflowers, vegetables and potatoes.

Men-an-Tol standing stones at sunrise, Cornwall, UK.

A lot of food is grown here (although most supplies come from the mainland), creating a need for self-reliance, and also for good neighbours. Along the sand road behind the dunes to St Martin’s Vineyard and Winery, we could have stayed to sample the wine or visit the little independent shops that line the one street on St Martin’s, but we’re too late: everywhere has closed. We’ve spent too long on the wild side.

Back on St Mary’s, we stop for tapas at Dibble and Grub, overlooking Porthcressa beach as the sun goes down – and I wonder if the patatas could taste any better, or the view be more special, if we were actually in the Mediterranean.

View from St Mary’s across the island on a blue-sky day. Channel Islands, UK
The following morning takes a slower pace, enjoying the breathtaking view from Tregarthen’s towards the islands of Tresco, Bryher and Samson, and talking to the hotel staff who all, homegrown or incomers, hold a passion and knowledge for these islands. Beyond a collection of small shops we find a path heading to the north of St Mary’s, past racks of gig boats lined up waiting for the world pilot gig championships the coming weekend.

Then over the white sands of Town beach and Porthloo, on to a narrow path between gorse and bramble to Halangy Down and the ruined prehistoric village. Each of these islands has a spectacular circular walk, their very own coastal path, and I’m drawn to keep going, to stay on this path and explore the east of the island, but we’re attending an author talk in Hugh Town so retrace our steps, still finding time to divert into Juliet’s Garden and drink tea in a restaurant garden with a view like no other.

The writer, Raynor Winn, left, and her husband taking in the landscape of the Isles of Scilly while sat on a grassy hill at dusk.

It’s evening when we walk up to the Garrison – built to fend off the Spanish in the 16th century – with a viewpoint that takes in the whole archipelago. As the sun slips below the horizon the sky is lit into a deep, rich red and orange, and I’m lost in the magic of these islands.

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