Paradise in England
Nothing quite lives up to the idealisations of a childhood memory. Nothing perhaps, except The Isles of Scilly and Tresco…
Article by Lara Protheroe
People raised an intrigued eyebrow when we said we were bound for The Isles of Scilly. I was amazed by the sizeable minority of people who assumed I was mispronouncing Sicily (I kid you not) and somewhat less amazed by the great majority who had no idea where the Isles of Scilly actually are. This little archipelago is clearly a pretty well-kept secret, and having now returned there after many years I understand why…
We all know what it is to visit a historic town or city – a place in which the past seems to ooze from the very fabric of the buildings and monuments – and yet more often than not such places are interspersed with the seemingly inevitable trappings of contemporary living. However, there still are a few places – even whole islands, it turns out – where time appears quite simply to have stood still, even for decades, and one can delight in a sense of bucolic calm that elsewhere seems ever more elusive.
Our journey began at Exeter airport, where we took off in the small but perfectly formed Skybus. It was a truly exhilarating experience, and the views of the Cornish coast – with a spectacular vista over Land’s End – were a real treat. As we came into land at St Mary’s my heart – and stomach – leapt as I saw (through the cockpit windscreen!) the short runway starting at the edge of the cliffs. Clifftop hikers gazed up at us in awe and wonder as we dropped towards the sea and looming landmass, coming in for a landing that was so delicate and smooth I could have shut my eyes and barely known we’d hit the ground.
Our bags were whisked out of the plane and into a minibus in a matter of minutes, and after a five-minute drive through the pretty town of St Mary’s they (and we) were out of the bus and aboard the small jetboat transfer to Tresco. At New Grimsby Quay we hopped onto the benches in the back of a little covered flatbed electric truck and were taken in a few minutes across the island to the front door of our Sea Garden Cottage.
Why all the detail of this somewhat (but necessarily) convoluted itinerary? Well, one of the challenges of visiting the Isles of Scilly, one might think, is actually getting there in the first place. Not so! From the moment we left the plane both we and our luggage (which we did not touch) were seamlessly transported from runway to final holiday destination via those three further modes of transport with a minimum of fuss. This takes some doing, especially when you have a small child to wrangle, and in the event the journey (in both directions) felt like an enjoyable part of the holiday.
I have enormously fond, if somewhat hazy, memories of childhood holidays spent on Tresco, and part of me wondered if returning to the island might be asking for disappointment. Nothing quite lives up to the idealisations of a child’s memory. Nothing perhaps, except Tresco.
The weather was spectacular and we were fortunate to be catching the final heat of the summer. The Isles of Scilly are washed by the warming Gulf Stream, giving the cluster of 100 small (some of them tiny) islands the mildest climate in the UK. They are close together around a shallow lagoon, with white sandy beaches, clear waters and a wonderful mixture of sub-tropical and more familiar British plants. The hedges are full of honeysuckle, pink campion, small seaside daisies and seemingly endless blackberries. Succulents adorn stone walls and agapanthus grows in abundance, along with striking red hot pokers and palm trees.
The Sea Garden Cottages boast jaunty nautical names, and ours – ‘Shrimp’ – sat close to the water’s edge on the eastern side of the island. The luxury accommodation has an open-plan kitchen and sitting room with French doors out onto the private patio and a view of the sea to the rear. The first floor comprises a double bedroom with en suite bathroom and a balcony looking out over the lush vegetation of the exuberantly planted and immaculately maintained gardens to the nearby beach.
Our little one loved his new-found freedom on Tresco’s island beaches; playing in a mesmerised state in the gentle waves as they lapped at the shore, picking up handfuls of sand to enjoy the texture and coolness whilst swallows swooped low over his head. Tresco has no crowds and no cars. Life moves at a different pace. A child is free to explore at will with far less constraint that would ordinarily be required, and ours was simply delighted. The sea air clearly suited him and throughout our holiday he napped beautifully after all that lovely play.
Right outside the front of our Sea Garden Cottage was a building housing the swimming pool, sauna, Jacuzzi and gym. The facilities are unmanned, and swipe card access lets you in to grab a towel and then swim undisturbed in what might as well be your own private pool. I had a glorious time playing there with the boy, then just wrapped him in a towel and wandered back over to our own bathroom to shower.
The Ruin Beach Cafe sits on the beach less than a minute’s amble from the cottages, taking its name from the ruined smuggler’s cottage that forms part of its terrace. There’s a beautiful painted tile frontage to the wood-fire oven that produces fantastic pizza and bakes the roasts, fish and bread as well. The oven is of course fuelled with island wood and there’s a real sense of holiday eating. It has a relaxed, seasidey vibe but with first rate food. The evening scallop starter was absolutely wonderful and the breakfast mushrooms were salty, buttery and herbed to perfection. I am not sure what the chef did but all attempts to recreate it have thus far proved fruitless.
The beef on the island comes from the resident herd of cattle. As we wandered towards town, we spotted them grazing in a field by the church, bathed in sunshine and looking like they had been styled for a photoshoot. They are a glorious red-colour Limousine Cross, with lustrous coats and a look of smug contentment. Our toddler stared at them for a while before yelling ‘Baaaa Baaaa’ with great glee. We clearly have some homework to do on farmyard animal identification, but gave him full marks for engagement and enthusiasm.
I say we were en route to town, but that is perhaps to exaggerate, ‘town’ on Tresco being New Grimsby, a quaint hamlet beside the New Grimsby Quay and harbour; home to the Tresco Stores, bicycle hire (great for easy exploration), the Flying Boat restaurant and Tresco Island Spa.
We explored the Tresco Stores to pick up some supplies. Much of their stock arrives by boat from the mainland; I remember in my childhood there being one type of everything but not a lot of anything, and was therefore gobsmacked to be confronted on this occasion by eight different varieties of artisan sea salt and more flavours of Monty Bojangles chocolates than you’d find in Waitrose in Sevenoaks. We easily located everything we needed for toddler, and failed to resist a bottle of camomile gin, distilled on nearby St Agnes.
We had lunch next door at The Flying Boat on another glorious day of sunshine whilst our boy peacefully napped once again. If it sounds too good to be true I can tell you that it certainly felt it! The food was excellent and we could quite happily have followed it with a leisurely afternoon at the Tresco Island Spa situated just by the island shop and bicycle hire. Instead we chose to walk the island and visit the gardens.
The coastal pathway to the Abbey Gardens from New Grimsby is a beautiful walk – like so many walks on the islands far enough to not feel lazy but nowhere near far enough to feel like any sort of chore. At the entrance to the gardens I paused and a tiny red squirrel hopped out in front of us and bounced in a leisurely manner across the path. It was as if someone had given him a nudge to pop out from the wings on queue. I was thrilled at the sight and spent the next hours looking out for further sightings (and was not disappointed).
The Abbey Garden is home not only to a vast array of flora and fauna, but also to the Valhalla collection of ships’ figureheads. Each carved wooden statue was salvaged from a ship wrecked around the rocky coast of the islands. The human or animal forms are fascinating and document a final century of tradition.
The garden is quite magical – like the setting of some idyllic fantasy tale – a wonderful mixture of tropical foliage, quasi-religious stone arches, carved statues and bright blooms. We turned down one pathway and I felt a Proustian pang as my gaze fell upon the Tresco Children statue that I suddenly recalled from my own childhood exploring the gardens.
This might all sound like one big trip down memory lane, and it was, but my husband was new to the island and he too was clearly deeply enamoured and greatly impressed. After a stroll around the garden – three red squirrels and two lovely mice spotted – and valiant attempts by our toddler to catch a very tame robin, we stared up at the Abbey building nestled in the gardens with wonder, and dreamed of a life of island bliss.
This dreaming continued as we meandered back along the wooded pathway beside the pond, seeing bird-watchers eagerly setting up their hides in advance of twilight; on through New Grimsby where folks were exchanging friendly chit-chat at the gateways of their cottages before supper; past the gentle early evening buzz of the New Inn and across to the church, the field beside it now empty as the cattle had gone home for the night.