A group of 23 Kew Guild members, including our President Jean Griffin, were gathered in Cornwall on the morning of 19th April, keen to explore the remote Isles of Scilly. We were to fly there from Lands End airport, but an early morning phone call alerted us to a change of plan due to fog. Instead we were to make the three-hour voyage on the ship Scillonian III, leaving from Penzance dock. This was no problem for those of us who had spent the previous night in Penzance, but seven of our party were already at the airport. However, all was well in the end as the fog cleared by afternoon and they were able to fly out to join the main group. Some of us on the boat were lucky enough to catch a glimpse of a group of dolphins swimming nearby.
We were based on the largest island, St Mary’s, staying in a converted 16th century castle (Star Castle Hotel) on Garrison headland above Hugh Town. The castle was founded in 1593 and was very atmospheric, with splendid views down to the bay and across to the other islands. Our President even had a room built into the surrounding old stone ramparts which she happily said felt like a gardener’s bothy! The food was exceptionally good, including much locally caught fish and seafood.
That afternoon most of us walked the 1½ miles through the lanes to the small Holy Vale vineyard set up by the hotel owner, Robert Francis. This is clearly run as a hobby, as they have not had a good grape harvest since 2014, but the wines are served in the hotel and we had a wine tasting at the vineyard, enjoying the sunshine and tranquil setting. Strolling back by a different route we went through the Carreg Dhu gardens, a shady oasis of fine old trees. One large silver-leaved tree had us all puzzled, so we took a few leaves to ask about it at Tresco Abbey Garden. On arriving back at the hotel there was time to relax and go for a swim in the hotel pool built inside a glasshouse, which ensured nice warm water.
The plan was that we should spend each of the remaining three days on a different island, with both an organised visit and time for members to explore on their own. Luckily we were blessed with fine weather for the whole of the trip, as this plan could easily have been ruined by stormy weather preventing the boats going out. We had our own boat reserved for each day, but all were small and open without any roof protection.
Day 2 was our day on Tresco island, home to the famous Abbey Garden, renowned for its tender plantings which can survive outside nowhere else in the British Isles. The Gulf Stream and abundance of sunshine mean that many plants from Mediterranean and other warm temperate parts of the world can be cultivated in its 17 acres of terraced garden. We immediately saw a number of examples of the silver-leaved tree which had puzzled us the day before. It turned out to be Leucadendron argenteum (Proteaceae) from South Africa. We were met by Mike Nelhams, the Curator, who kindly gave us a garden tour. Almost straight away we saw imported red squirrels, the greys not having reached the Scillies. The garden has many large palms, bamboos, tree ferns, Echiums, King Proteas, Cape Ericas and cacti. Particularly noteworthy were the species of Aeonium, with their large flat leaf rosettes, often growing in abundance on the old stone walls.
After lunch in the garden café members were free to spend the afternoon as they wished. Tucked away in a corner of the Abbey Garden is a fascinating collection of ships figureheads in the Valhalla Museum. These came from old shipwrecks and some were representations of real people. The path running along the east side of the island has views over the many rocks and islets towards St Martin’s, and down to fine sandy beaches, deserted at this time of year. The path goes to the little hamlet of Old Grimsby, where a welcome ice cream is to be had. From there the north part of Tresco is covered in heather and gorse moorland, with the remains of old fortifications from the Civil War. Our return to St Mary’s was from a different quay at a quite different part of the island, necessary because of the difference between high and low tide levels.
Day 3 was our day on St Martin’s island, lying to the northeast of Tresco. Once again we landed in the morning at a different quay from where we would be departing at the end of the afternoon. We were met by Zoe Julian, who with her husband runs Scilly Flowers at Churchtown Farm, a business growing scented flowers in which orders are sent out in gift boxes by post. Most of our group set out to walk the ½ mile up to her farm, with those who would find the walk difficult travelling with Zoe in her vehicle. The morning was spent on a tour of the farm, comprising a number of small fields protected by tall hedges of Pittosporum and Euonymus. Their main crop is scented Narcissus, most of which had already been harvested, but they have recently started growing scented pinks as a summer crop, buying in plugs from a source on mainland Cornwall. The bulbs are grown on a 5-year cycle, being dug up at the end of 5 years and the field put down to grass for 3 years to recover, when it is grazed by cattle. We were taken into the machinery sheds and shown the packing process. We were impressed by the way they have built up their niche market of scented floral gifts by post, and especially by the enthusiasm and energy of Zoe herself.
Lunch was taken at Little Arthur’s Café, involving a walk down a steep grassy slope and up again to the café. This was little more than a hut with a view, but produced a surprising variety of delicious cooked and presented food. As before, the afternoon was free for members to enjoy as they wished. Some of us walked up to a prominent red and white striped daymark (for shipping) on the eastern headland, and then followed the coastal path looking down on white sand beaches and across heather moorland. There was just the sound of seabirds and the waves on the shore on this beautiful island.
Day 4 was our last full day, and we visited the smallest of the inhabited islands, St Agnes in the southwest of the group. The boat trip over seemed quite rough in the small boat, which rocked from side to side in the waves. Members had about two hours on this small island before lunch in the pub just above the quay. The little paved lane leads past stone cottages to the church, surrounded by its graveyard in sight of the sea. This has fine stained glass windows depicting local seamen in their boats. From the church a footpath leads up on to Wingletang Down, a heathland area with amazing rock formations, granite boulders piled up in weird configurations. The views westward extend over the uninhabited island of Annet and out into the Atlantic. The numerous rocks and islets in the foreground are terminated by the lighthouse on Bishop Rock.
After lunch in the pub we returned to the quay for a two-hour wildlife boat trip round Annet and the western rocks. We were delighted to see Atlantic grey seals lying on the rocks, and many seabirds, including a few puffins although only fleetingly. Shags were plentiful, and we learned that a group of them sitting on the sea is called a “raft”. We had a good view of Manx shearwaters wheeling above the waves. These birds have been encouraged to return to St Agnes and have bred there since 2014 after an absence of many years.
As this was our last evening in the Star Castle hotel we all dined together, with our President raising a toast to the Guild which is now in its 125th year. The flights back to the mainland the following morning went according to plan, the small propeller aircraft flying low over the sea to Land’s End airport. We all felt incredibly lucky that the weather had held, enabling us to fully appreciate the peaceful atmosphere and special way of life of these beautiful islands at the extremity of England.