Starting mileage: 16216 km
Day started: 08:00
Day ended: 22:00
The day started early: the ship to the Scillies, the Scillonian III, departs only once per day at 9:15 and we still had to get to Penzance Quay from the campsite. Managing a new records of getting the car ready from waking up to start (with ingenious ways of stowing away the gear without actually packing anything), we raced into Penzance ten minutes before departure, ran to ticket shop (note: you need to buy tickets from a well hidden booth opposite the quay) and ran back to the check-in booth, as the last passengers to board after a group of Chinese tourists. Return tickets for one day trip are about £35.
I’ve mentioned the Chinese tourists earlier; they are a relatively new phenomenon, but we meet them everywhere, always travelling in organised groups, carted here and there by the coachloads. Whoever comes up with their itineraries has a penchant for small, remote islands: they were on Wight, on St Michael’s, and now on Scilly.
I’d love to know what they think about it all. Here they are, half-way around the world, at the very ends of Europe, on an island off an island off a small continent; not exactly Shaolin, Shanghai or the mountains of Guangdong – the equivalent of what English tourists see on a journey to their country…
Anyway, we boarded the ship – not exactly a ferry, rather a big passenger carrier, built specifically for the route in the late 70s (and the third of her name), and headed for The Isles of Scilly, advertised on billboards and TV screens everywhere as a semi-tropical paradise.
It was a boast hard to believe as the ship rocked and rolled on the waves off Penzance; freezing cold and typically (as we later learned) for this route, rough seas left us with two ways of spending the nearly three hour journey: cold and wet on the upper deck, or violently seasick below. The lower decks soon turned into a scene from Dante’s Inferno: the lower you climbed, the more hellish the conditions, with the most wailing and gnashing of teeth happening on the lowermost “lodge” deck, which soon started resembling a frontline infirmary after the Big Push; half-way through we, and I can only assume most new arrivals, began to question whether the trip was at all worth the price and effort. The weather in the open Atlantic resembled the middle of English winter, the sky was overcast and visibility poor to none. The only entertainment was provided by several gannets (including a grey-feathered youngling) and swift shearwaters, and by spotting huge container ships sailing past the spectacular Bishop Rock lighthouse – one of the tallest and most remote in the UK.
Our fears were proven wrong in the most spectacular way. As soon as the ship reached the waters immediately around Scilly, the sea calmed down, and the clouds parted in a manner so fast and dramatic we could almost hear the Hosannas and the trumpeting cherubs. The sky revealed was of the perfect azure, the sand dazzlingly white, and the cliffs overgrown with tropical greens.
Truly, if an ancient mariner had experienced what we have just witnessed, he’d have no doubt as to where he had reached through the trials and tribulations of the Land’s End currents to the blessed land, the magical Lyonesse of myths.
Our journey was more prosaic. The Scillonian departed at 16:30, so after warming up and eating brief lunch at a local cafe, we were left with just three hours to see most of the island on foot. We departed on the path along the northern coast of St Mary’s – the largest island – towards the ancient burial grounds. The Scillies, like the Orkneys in the North, have an overabundance of prehistoric sites – the most per square mile in fact, if brochures are to be believed. On our short route, we hoped to see two of them.
Once you get past the pubs and chippies of the harbour, St Mary turns into a postcard-perfect Greek or Portuguese island; the vegetation is lush and indeed semi-tropical in places; the palms and tall, slender pines hang over the white sand coves, with groves of box and laurel trees deeper inland; even the usual heaths, ferns and bramble grow taller and denser here than anywhere else.
Roughly a mile and a half walk from the quay took us to Halangy Down, remains of an ancient Iron Age village on a cliff-side, and Bant’s Carn, one of the Scillonian “entrance graves“. The village is fairly well preserved for its age, with clearly visible foundations of the long houses; it was inhabited almost throughout the entire Celtic and Roman period of the Isles, until the 3rd century CE. The grave is at least two thousand years older. Half a mile further east lie two more such graves, the Innisidgen chambers. The Upper one, four thousand years old, is particularly large and impressive, best preserved of all the Scillonian graves; the scientists suspect this kind of grave was the oldest preserved style on all of British Isles, with roots reaching as far as neolithic or even further.
Time was pressing, so we headed back the coastal path; now, the problem with the paths on St Mary’s is that they are not as well marked as they are on the mainland; the ferns and brambles overgrow them in an instant, and it sometimes takes a bit of looking to spot where they lead or branch out. I wouldn’t be myself if I hadn’t had the silliest of accidents on the way back, as I slipped in a hidden ditch crossing one of such paths and fell straight into the brambles, tearing the skin on my hands on the thick thorns.
Despite this mishap, we did manage to get on the Scillonian III on time; the sea was calm and the journey back was a good half an hour shorter. Back on the mainland the weather was foul again, and the mist was hanging low.
PS: A note about our bizarre finding on the Scillian beach: a whole cemetary of mysterious oval, flat fish-like objects made of what we first thought was salt. We’ve later discovered these were cuttlebones or cuttlefish bones, an internal structure of cuttlefish used for buoyancy control made of aragonite – CaCO3 – quite popular finding on the Cornish coasts and used as bird feed and mold-making material by jewelers.
The Treen Farm campsite is an accommodation of choice for those starting or finishing the Land’s End to John O’Groats tour. As such it has a youthful, almost hippie, and international vibe; for the first time I believe we were older than the average of the visitors. It’s also quite cheap – £13 without hook-up.
I’m told the campsite is beautifully situated on a cliff side, but the fog was so dense by the time we got there that we could barely see the facilities shack from where we pitched. The toilets were rather basic and crowded, and had the silliest, most useless taps we’ve seen so far. The leaving time is a drastic 10am, but the staff aren’t too fussy about it if the site isn’t busy.