Conversation among the few passengers aboard this small Twin Otter aircraft are brought to an abrupt end by the sound of its twin propellers coughing and spluttering into action. After the pilot casually leans one arm over his seat and gives us the safety brief – ‘lifejackets are under the seats, emergency exits are just there’ – we’re up and away, leaving the grassy windswept airstrip on Land’s End far behind. Fifteen minutes later, I catch my first glimpse of the oval-shaped archipelago of granite looming out of the Atlantic Ocean below.
It’s a swelteringly hot day and there’s barely a cloud in the sky as we touch down on St Mary’s, the largest and most populated of the five inhabited Isles of Scilly. As I step off the plane, my senses are reeling, trying to comprehend the heat, the exotic vegetation dotted about and the spectacular panorama of neighbouring islands; not more than an hour ago, I’d been wedged inside a noisy train from London, staring out the window at a gloomy overcast sky.
Absorbing the exquisite blues and greens of the isles’ sheltered ‘inner circle’ and their sparkling white beaches, it feels as if I’m somewhere in the Mediterranean rather than on the rain-, wind- and tide-shaped rocks that form England’s most westerly point.
Mild at heart
The 200 or so islands, islets and rocks that make up the Isles of Scilly share the same latitude as Newfoundland, but that’s where the similarities end. Looking around at the practically empty beaches and subtropical plants, it’s baffling to think how the latter might have come here in the first place and, more importantly, how they can survive.
It’s all down to Scilly’s position at the end of the North Atlantic Drift, a branch of the Gulf Stream, explains Rosemary Parslow, natural historian, author of The Isles of Scilly and lifelong devotee of the isles (she even named her three children after various islands).
‘The ambient temperature is milder here than on the mainland, although it’s not quite as warm as it is in, say, Cornwall,’ she says. ‘You occasionally get snow and very occasionally get a frost, but otherwise, a lot of plants can grow throughout the winter because the temperature is just above the ground temperature they need [to survive]. This is why the flora here is rather special. And it isn’t just the flora – it’s everything related that that supports.’
The warm climate was seized upon by early entrepreneurs, who established a once flourishing flower-growing industry. By the turn of the 20th century, more than 40 tonnes of flowers were being shipped to markets in London several times a week.
‘Daffodils were one of the major economies on the island for a long time. Because of our geographical position, the sandy soils are heated up in the sun and the bulbs flower here before Christmas,’ explains David Mawer, senior conservation warden at the Isles of Scilly Willdife Trust. ‘That gave us a real advantage.’
Flower farming has had a significant impact on the landscape’s character. Narrow fields with high hedges designed to protect the fragile flowers from the full force of the Atlantic can still be seen. Interestingly, these features have also boosted wildflower biodiversity.
‘Some of the plants that migrated into the bulb fields – presumably from arable fields, heaths and sand dunes – were very receptive to the methods used to cultivate flowers, taking up residence among the bulbs,’ says Parslow. ‘So you have this whole suite of plants that are hardly found at all in mainland Britain, some of which have even gone extinct because of the decline of arable weeds.’
Away from the cultivated fields, the rich mixture of wild lowland heath, rugged coastline, sparkling white sandy bays, dunes and saline lagoons give this AONB (which encompasses ‘all the islands and islets above mean low water that together form the Isles of Scilly’) a very wild feel, making it an absolute pleasure to explore, as the 125,000 tourists that make the 45-kilometre journey by boat, plane or helicopter each year would attest.
Tourism sustains 85 per cent of the islands’ economy and employs 70 per cent of their 2,200 permanent inhabitants. Most visitors are drawn by the islands’ outstanding scenery and wildlife. ‘One of the first things people want to do when they get here is jump on a boat and see the seals and the puffins,’ says Mawer. ‘This is one of the premier seabird sites in England, particularly for black-backed gulls and storm petrels – for which I think we might be the only breeding site in England.’
In the autumn, thousands of bird enthusiasts descend on the isles, bristling with telescopes, lenses and cameras, hoping to catch the spectacle of rare migratory birds that stop to rest and refuel on the islands.
While the isles support wildlife in great abundance, they’ve been the undoing of many a mariner. Apart from the deep channel of St Mary’s Sound, located between St Agnes and St Mary’s, the sea here is no deeper than 13 metres. The islands are located at the junctions of the Bristol, English and St George’s channels, and are often shrouded in fog, making them a formidable obstacle to passing ships. Estimates vary, but there are thought to be more than 600 ships of all types and nationalities lying in watery graves around the islands.
‘Six hundred is probably a conservative count,’ says Dr Trevor Kirk, acting conservation officer and field monument warden for the local council. ‘There will be umpteen unknown ones as well. Only three wrecks have statutory protection around the islands, the most famous of which is the Association, which went down in 1707 [with the loss of some 1,400 lives] in what is still considered to be one of the worst maritime disasters in British Royal Naval history.’
The abundance of shipwrecks and other marine archaeology is matched above the shoreline, too. There are 238 Scheduled Ancient Monuments scattered all over the isles, representing some 4,000 years of human history and accounting for the highest density in England. ‘The range of sites is pretty bewildering,’ says Kirk. ‘For example, Scilly’s Scheduled Monuments include a maze on St Agnes, a deer park wall on Samson, kelp pits on St Mary’s, a quarantine hospital on St Helen’s, Second World War pillboxes on St Mary’s and early Christian churches on Tean and St Helen’s. But the vast majority of scheduled sites are prehistoric or Romano-British.’
The tide is high
The highest point on the Isles – at Telegraph on St Mary’s – is just 49 metres above sea level, but this wasn’t always the case. The remains of field boundaries can be seen at low tide on Samson, and together with submarine hut circles, provide irrefutable evidence that Scilly was actually a small collection of larger islands until relatively recently.
‘It’s widely understood that the central lagoon was once low-lying land and that Tresco, Bryher, St Mary’s and St Martin’s were one island and St Agnes, Gugh and Annet were a another,’ explains Kirk. ‘There is a school of thought that would suggest that this drowning might have occurred during the Tudor period [1485–1683] and was caused by a tidal surge breaching the sandbars between the islands. But radiocarbon dating of peat taken from the seabed suggests that it was more likely a result of a gradual rise in sea level that took place some time in the Bronze Age, 4,000 years ago.’
This historical evidence of sea level change and the effect it had in significantly altering the geography of the Isles of Scilly resonates strongly with the islands’ current and future position. Listening to the locals, it quickly becomes clear that this is a big concern.
‘I remember my gran telling me that they used to be able to get a pony and trap along the path between Porthloo and Carn Morval, but it’s disappeared by between three and four metres,’ says Mawer. ‘But that’s partly because the cliffs are made of decomposed granite and their erosion is being accelerated by sea level rise. It’s happening all over the islands – they’re being nibbled away.’
‘Sea level rise and coastal erosion are big issues for us,’ says Kirk. ‘Hugh Town [Scilly’s main town] is a major settlement built on a sand bar, just two metres above sea level. I think most people on the island are aware of [the threat] and it’s something we’re continuously thinking about in terms of new proposals for buildings or even extensions to existing settlements.’
Over the centuries, the Isles of Scilly have had to overcome all manner of threats and challenges – both manmade and natural. Whatever happens over the next century, particularly in terms of climate change, the Isles of Scilly and their inhabitants must continue to adapt – just as they have done in the past.
‘The whole history of the islands has been one of change,’ says Parslow. ‘I come back year after year and it’s never identical; I’m always finding new plants and new insects. And it seems that with each year, you actually seem to know less about the nature here than the year before. It’s a puzzling place, but also exciting and challenging. And I for one will always keep coming back.’
For peace and quiet
‘One of my favourite spots is Old Town Quay on St Martin’s. It’s just absolutely superb because, even on a sunny day, you can go there and there is absolutely no-one else around.’
Jen Bennison, senior tourism assistant, Isles of Scilly Tourist Information Centre
For boat trips
‘My favourite spot in the isles is the Western Rocks, specifically the Bishop. That’s my favourite trip: there’s nothing better than being out in a boat around there.’
David Jenkins, tourism assistant
For the love of granite
‘I love St Mary’s for the sea and the dramatic granite outcrops – there are just so many places to explore and enjoy a bit of rock climbing.’
Amy Willbourne, AONB assistant
For a stark reminder of sea level change
‘Go to Old Town Bay on St Mary’s. It has a nice beach, but it also has a wonderful medieval quay, most of which disappears under water at high tide, as a reminder of sea level change since that quay was built – sometime during the 14th century or something like that.’
Dr Trevor Kirk, acting conservation officer and historic environment field adviser, Council of the Isles of Scilly
This was published in the October 2008 edition of Geographical magazine.