Below is an article that I wrote about last summer’s trip to the Isles of Scilly, located off the far west of England’s mainland. It was previously published in Canoe Kayak UK magazine. Enjoy…
A Week of Scillyness
- A jaunt to the best sea kayaking location in the World. Ever.
“Arguably the most exotic place in all of the British Isles.” – Martin Clunes, Islands of Britain.
The alarm goes off and the next thing that I hear is the crashing of surf. I peer at my watch – 4.30 am! – and then peek out of my sleeping bag. I’m lying on the tarmac of the car park at Sennen Cove, Cornwall’s most westerly beach. I tap on the car I’m sleeping beside and a bleary-eyed face appears at a fogged window; Eurion, my paddling companion. I feel as if I could snooze for another year or so, but there is absolutely no way that I’m going to allow myself to drift back to sleep. 48 kilometres further west into the Atlantic is our destination at the Isles of Scilly, and time and tide wait for no man…
27000 paddle strokes later, the bows of our kayaks touch land. The midday sun is blazing mercilessly, painting the fine sand blinding white and the surrounding shallow seas cobalt blue. Palm trees offer the illusion that we’ve crossed all the way to the Bahamas, but sunburned children holding ice creams are a reminder that we’re still in Britain, more or less. Eurion and I crawl ashore and barely summon the energy to stick our tents up before collapsing and sleeping like the dead. Later in the afternoon, we awake to be joined by the rest of our group. They’ve arrived by more sensible means, carrying their kayaks on the ferry from Penzance.
Compressed into an area just 16 by 10 kilometres, the Isles of Scilly are a granite archipelago of approximately a hundred islands, only six of which are inhabited. This is Britain’s smallest Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty, surrounded by shallow seas designated as a Marine Special Area of Conservation. We’ve all converged here because we are looking at a week spent exploring these Isles together by kayak. We are all pretty excited about this because, frankly, life doesn’t get much better. Hopefully the article which follows will give you some idea why…
Our first paddle is a circumnavigation of St Martin’s, the island where we’re camped. This is a simply magical trip as St Martin’s sits at the centre of a constellation of smaller uninhabited islands. After a bit of a faff carrying our boats across the sands (bloody tides) we launch and first venture west into the Northern Isles. Even though these are just tiny islets, we lose ourselves here for a few hours (a common Scilly problem!) as we walk and paddle randomly. A few hundred metres away, Atlantic swell is pounding the reefs on the outer rim of these Isles, but we’re completely sheltered. Rounding the north tip of St Martin’s, we take on just a little of this groundswell and Maria our numpty beginner gets an impromptu lesson in surfing. Thankfully she figures it out pretty quickly, not that she has any choice! The Eastern Isles are next; here we float among inquisitive seals and land to explore prehistoric ruins, as well as squeezing a bit of sunbathing in. Paradise.
Without looking too hard at the forecast, we head off around the top of Tresco Island. Oops. Yesterday’s Atlantic swell is still going strong, and not everyone finds rising and falling through the huge crashing tidal rapid to be their idea of fun. Lizzie even turns out to be susceptible to seasickness, something I’d always assumed sea kayakers were immune to. Thankfully we all survive to land and visit Tresco’s famous Abbey Gardens. Truth be told, this isn’t usually our sort of thing…but if you’re only going to explore one sub-tropical garden in your lifetime, make it this one.
Getting to St Agnes Island is half the fun (or terror, depending upon your viewpoint). The landing beach is hard to locate, hidden behind jagged rocks and reefs. With surf breaking across them as you approach, the whole thing seems like a Seriously Bad Idea. We make it ashore without tears, and plonk our tents up on the campsite with the Best View Ever; out towards Bishop Rock lighthouse, across endless serrated reefs. Howling winds and big seas curtail our kayaking for a couple of days, but somehow this doesn’t stop our friend Chris from paddling across to meet us from his BnB on St Mary’s Island. His partner Julia is sensible enough to arrive by boat, and we spend a great day exploring the island’s granite shores by foot. A Venetian ship carrying glass was wrecked at Wingletang Bay, and we while away a pleasant afternoon by sifting the sands for beads. The windy weather isn’t all bad; all paths on St Agnes seem to lead to the Turk’s Head pub, where we spend far too much time. Eurion supplies a Comedy Moment when he arrives late and places an enormous live crab on the table in front of our vegetarians, ignoring their shrieks as he outlines his culinary plans. Well, perhaps you have to be there.
The Western Rocks
Once the bad weather has passed on, we dip our toes into the Atlantic proper. The Western Rocks of Scilly are the graveyard of hundreds of ships, a vast barrier of reefs forming Britain’s uttermost edge. Paddling out through ocean rollers towards the reef, the sense of commitment and exposure builds with every paddle stroke. On arrival, the Rocks are very much alive; inquisitive seals surround and follow us, whilst thousands and thousands of seabirds crowd every surface. Dozens of comical puffins, everybody’s favourite seabird, blunder through the skies. Ruined walls are visible on one of the larger rocks, Rosevear; this was home to the nineteenth century engineers who built Britain’s tallest lighthouse on Bishop Rock. Out alone past the reef, this incredible manmade spire reaches skyward, absorbing the full brunt of the waves. Being shameless cowards, we decide that the Bishop can wait for our next visit! Instead we surf back towards Scilly via Annet. You’re not really supposed to land on this low windswept island, as its glorious pink carpet of thrift is dotted with birds’ nests; however our screaming bladders force a brief hop ashore to dampen the rocks…
After a quick diversion to the ferry quay on St Mary’s to offload some of the team (due back at work, unlucky people), we relocate to the island of Bryher. The campsite is a bit of a slog up a hill, but the reward is yet another ineffable view from our tents. A paddle around Bryher proves to be pretty memorable, mainly due to the oh-so-inviting narrow channel that offers a shortcut through to exposed Hell Bay (we don’t make these names up). Chris and I paddle through during a lull in the waves, and wave confidently to the others to follow. Inconveniently (but amusingly), a large set of waves arrive at this point, and funnel down the granite gorge onto our chums. Oops, sorry about that. Later, we share a laugh when a heap of seaweed with a snout mysteriously rises up like a periscope from the water to study us; this seal wins the Most Rubbish Camouflage award. In the evening, we climb to a high point on Bryher overlooking Hell Bay. The sun slowly sets into an Atlantic horizon punctuated by hundreds of isolated rocks. I’ve been to Scilly on numerous previous occasions (and even written part of a book about it), but only now does it strike me that Bryher might just be the loveliest island of them all. Or perhaps it’s one of the other many lovely islands, whatever. Bryher certainly casts its spell over two of our group (naming no names), as a new romance blossoms…
Samson is Scilly’s largest uninhabited island, recognisable by its two rounded hills. We drag the kayaks up the Caribbean sands and head inland to explore. Samson’s current occupants are thousands of back-backed gulls, and we walk carefully through the long grass to avoid disturbing their nests. Despite only possessing a dribble of a water supply from a natural spring, Samson was home to dozens of families in the nineteenth century. Augustus Smith, landlord of Scilly (and creator of the Tresco Abbey Gardens) relocated these poverty-stricken folk to houses on St Mary’s. We explore the ruined cottages of Samson, marvelling at how people managed to survive in this breathtakingly beautiful but inhospitable place. Somehow (and despite the gulls) Samson is eerily silent.
All good things must come to an end, and the time comes when we have to return reluctantly to the real world. We’re all taking the ferry back to the mainland, necessitating a trip to St Mary’s, the ‘big’ island of Scilly. After a brief debate with the slightly pompous Harbourmaster of Hugh Town harbour, we land on his pontoons to offload our gear and kayaks. Hugh Town basically consists of a rather short high street, but it feels like a teeming metropolis after the smaller isles. With a few hours to kill before the ferry arrives, we take in the Isles of Scilly Museum (which for some reason displays a waxwork of former Prime Minister Harold Wilson) and walk the coast. St Mary’s is studded with prehistoric remains; ducking and crawling into chambered tombs to play at ‘pagan sacrifice’ is surprisingly good fun. We return to Hugh Town to get our boats loaded onto the Scillonian III. This involves the distressing experience of watching our beloved and expensive kayaks pendulum to and fro in a sling as the crane driver attempts to swing them intact into the hold. Definitely an event best watched through your fingers!
The Isles of Scilly quickly slip from view under the horizon, as the Scillonian steams ahead past an escort of porpoises and basking sharks. The bulk of Land’s End rears up and slips by, and then we turn into Mount’s Bay to arrive at Penzance. Stepping ashore, it already seems hard to believe that, only two hours and 40 minutes previously, we were perched on the very edge of the world.
Mark Rainsley enjoyed the Isles of Scilly with Eurion Brown, Claire Cheong-Leen, Maria Dolton, Liz Garnett, Mark Gawler, Julia Hopkinson, Andy Levick, Heather Rainsley and Chris Wheeler.
Getting There and Away
Paddling to Scilly from Cornwall is a pretty serious undertaking and you’ll already know if it’s your sort of thing. If this option doesn’t appeal, then you are looking at sailing on the ferry MV Scillonian III, also known (with good reason, take our word for it) as the ‘Vomit Comet’. You have to book ahead and pay extra to take your kayak, which will be craned aboard from the jetty at Penzance. Sailing times and prices from www.ios-travel.co.uk.
Further Reading and Information
South West Sea Kayaking by Mark Rainsley. Hey, I wrote a book. With long words and everything.
Secret Nature of the Isles of Scilly by Andrew Cooper. A great readable guide to the wildlife of Scilly.
Isles of Scilly Guidebook by Neil Alistair Macaulay Reid. Excellent guide to the Isles with detailed maps.
Why the Whales Came by Michael Morpurgo. A children’s tale based on the island of Samson. Adults will enjoy it too, but to avoid ridicule tuck it inside a copy of The Times whilst reading.
Ordnance Survey Outdoor Explorer Map 101: Isles of Scilly. Excellent map with details of landing restrictions.
www.kayakscilly.com – These folk offer guiding and also hire out kayaks.
www.seakayakguidebook.co.uk – Useful general resource.