Hell Bay heaven on The Isles of Scilly
Review by Lara Protheroe
Leaving Tresco by boat, beneath a sky heavy with ominous fog, we alighted a few minutes later at the quay on the adjacent island of Bryher. Another few minutes by car took us to Hell Bay Hotel, those few minutes being sufficient to see that, despite their proximity, Bryher and Tresco are very different islands. Windswept bracken and gorse appeared a far cry from the manicured perfection of Tresco’s luscious gardens. Bryher, the island that shelters Tresco from the expanse of the Atlantic Ocean, presents an altogether wilder and more rugged aspect.
The low-lying clapboard cottages of Hell Bay Hotel, picked out in Wedgwood blue, have a New England style to them. Our studio suite had plenty of space, a sizeable bathroom, floor to ceiling windows, wicker Lloyd Loom furniture and a pleasingly seasidey vibe. A door led out onto a private patio area that opens onto a lawn at the bottom of which lies the coastal path and the natural sea water pool beyond.
We couldn’t wait to get out and explore, and off we wandered back along the road towards the east coast of the island and then northwards towards town. Town, on an island with a population of 84, consists of a small shop and café, both of which are simple and welcoming. A few minutes further we came across a beach and boatyard, beside which a vintage (but operational) Massey-Ferguson tractor stood in the dirt looking tired but proud. Our little boy could hardly believe his luck. He stood there just drinking in the magnificent spectacle, before poddling up to it to stroke and hug the enormous wheels. Much circling, fondling and cooing followed, before we tearfully tore ourselves away to continue along our way.
Bryher, unlike Tresco, is not completely car-free; but the network of roads is small and one rarely sights a vehicle. Our little boy was in heaven therefore, free for the first time to roam pretty much as he pleased, discovering boats, pigs, enticing hedgerows, patches of dirt and other intriguing places to explore. He quickly became more confident and less worried about our proximity quite happily running off around corners and off into the distance to see what new joys he could discover.
Wandering around Bryher, the smallest of Scilly’s inhabited islands, you stumble upon a variety of small unmanned stalls with honesty boxes at the foot of people’s driveways, displaying fresh vegetables, posies of wild garden flowers, homemade jams, fudge and assorted craft items. There are only a few dozen houses, mostly in the vicinity of the aforementioned town centre, and there is naturally a real sense of community.
Just beyond the town and boatyard is the humorously named Fraggle Rock cafe and bar. This sits on the east side of Bryher overlooking the Tresco coast and indeed, when the tide is right, it is possible to walk between the two islands in about 10 minutes. Evening was creeping in, so we headed back to Hell Bay Hotel, resolving to return the following day.
The return to the hotel was a welcome one after our wanderings. It feels upmarket but is nonetheless family-friendly. The staff are fantastic – professional without being overly formal or aloof. The art that hangs in the public areas is by world famous artists from the Newlyn and St Ives schools of art, including Barbara Hepworth, Patrick Heron and Sir Terry Frost; and the overall impression is of casual understated class.
The bar and lounge area has a slight touch of the Agatha Christies to it. The pre-dinner chatter between guests was polite and delicately restrained. The clientele is friendly and refined, very open to chatting to our tiny pre-verbal son and then continuing on their way. It is clear that guests return year after year and are very fond of both the hotel and the island. And who wouldn’t be?
The food was flawless. The ingredients are local and seasonal and daily-changing menus are imaginative and well executed, with highlights during our stay including a fine duck confit, rich braised blade of beef and local cheese board; and if one chooses to dine from the bar menu the steaks are frankly unmissable.
After a peaceful night’s rest in the clean sea air, I was delighted to have some fine kippers for breakfast. They are a favourite of mine (when I haven’t got to cook them myself) and I was gratified (if a little nonplussed) by the extent to which my toddler relished them as well.
Thence once more to explore. The actual Hell Bay, the location of many a Scilly shipwreck, is a short walk from the hotel across heathery moorland. The rugged landscape is breathtaking, with white sands and enchanting clear turquoise waters. An abundance of succulents cling to the stones walls and cottage roofs. The hedges were packed with honeysuckle and laden with September blackberries. At one bay a small dinghy beached with a couple and their two dogs, all hopping out to enjoy a walk and some food. It was like a scene from The Famous Five.
The tiny island is one and a half miles long by half a mile wide and we took in as much of it as we could, sometimes carrying our toddler sedan-chair-style in his buggy over the rougher parts. The heath is packed with gorse, heather and ferns. Butterflies hover delicately over the terrain and the wild craggy coast overlooks the Atlantic Ocean to the west and sheltered waters between Tresco to the east. The husband climbed out as far as he could across fierce looking rocks on the north side to stand on an outcrop and take in the view of the island from afar. We felt as though we were alone in a wilderness and the sense of freedom and space was exhilarating.
Outside the Fraggle Rock cafe sits long-defunct red phone box that is now a home to a mass of bright nasturtiums. We took a seat on the terrace, with its view through a row of red hot pokers and marram grass out past the distinctive Hangman’s Rock (complete with gibbet!) to Cromwell’s castle over on the Tresco coast beyond. The cafe has a hearty menu and a vast array of gin, and there is a signed photo of Gary Lineker’s sitting above the ladies’ loo. What’s not to like?
The weather by now was delightfully warm, and we enjoyed the rays of the late summer sun whilst our toddler obligingly slept throughout lunch. We enjoyed nachos with chilli, fresh squid rings and crunchy whitebait. A tiny wren bounced along the dry stone wall next to us and the sparrows sat in rows on neighbouring tables gazing at us imploringly in the hope of dropped or discarded morsels. Our meal set us up well for a wander on the nearby beach, where our toddler ran delightedly through the seaweed on the sand flats of the low tide, and I collected jewel-like pieces of sea glass as mementos of the trip.
Upon our return to the hotel, the outdoor heated pool provided a welcome afternoon activity, and we enjoyed the last of those rays in the water whilst other guests lay resplendent on the adjacent sun loungers. There’s a small children’s playground outside near the pool, and the changing room complex also houses a treatment room, games room, indoor whirlpool and sauna.
It isn’t hard to see why people return here year after year. Hell Bay Hotel is the ideal base from which to enjoy the simple delights of Bryher – an island that is so accessible and yet feels so remote; that is so contained and yet upon which one can feel like a true explorer. There is a vivid sense of getting close to nature: the sunsets, stars and tides are beautiful; and with patience and luck you may see sharks, seals, puffins and dolphins. For those wishing to explore in other ways one can windsurf, dive the wrecks, cycle, walk, and ride horses.
Enquiries: Hell Bay Hotel / 01720 422947 / www.hellbay.co.uk/