England // Devon and Cornwall //

The Isles of Scilly

The Isles of Scilly are a compact archipelago of about a hundred islands, 28 miles southwest of Land’s End. None is bigger than three miles across, and only five of them are inhabited – St Mary’s, Tresco, Bryher, St Martin’s and St Agnes. In the annals of folklore, the Scillies are the peaks of the submerged land of Lyonnesse, a fertile plain that extended west from Penwith before the ocean broke in, drowning the land and leaving only one survivor to tell the tale. In fact they form part of the same granite mass as Land’s End, Bodmin Moor and Dartmoor, and despite rarely rising above 100ft, they possess a remarkable variety of landscape. Points of interest include irresistible beaches, such as Par Beach on St Martin’s; the Southwest’s greatest concentration of prehistoric remains; some fabulous rock formations, and the exuberant Tresco Abbey Gardens. Along with tourism, the main source of income is flower-growing, for which the equable climate and the long hours of sunshine – their name means “Sun Isles” – make the islands ideal. The profusion of wild flowers is even more noticeable than the fields of narcissi and daffodils, and the heaths and pathways are often dense with marigolds, gorse, sea thrift, trefoil and poppies, not to mention a host of more exotic varieties introduced by visiting foreign vessels. The waters hereabouts are held to be among the country’s best for diving, while between May and September, on a Wednesday or Friday evening, islanders gather for gig races, performed by six-oared vessels – some of them more than a hundred years old and 30ft long.

Free of traffic, theme parks and amusement arcades, the islands are a welcome respite from the tourist trail, the main drawbacks being the high cost of reaching them and the shortage of accommodation, most of which is on the main isle of St Mary’s.