Day 6 Monday 23 May
My deadline loomed. I had only two days to reach Penzance in time to catch my ferry to the Isles of Scilly, around 140 miles by back roads. So I caught the train to Truro, sitting opposite a woman who’d taught drama (my subject) at Hurtwood House, a school very close to Dorking. I also marvelled at the casual way in which a young man accepted the fact that he’d left his mobile phone in Exeter. ‘It’s fine. I’m insured,’ he told the train guard, who was making every effort to be helpful.
As I left Truro station a long-bearded man came up to me, wheeling a cycle. ‘Can I look at your panniers?’ he asked. I have heard many chat-up lines in my time but this was definitely the most original. He’d been cycling for nearly four years… four years!
‘What do you do in winter?’
‘I cycle to Spain. Italy’s a bit far, but I might give it a go this year,’ he said. ‘It’s easy on a bike as long as you don’t go in a rush. Bit of seasonal work here and there along with my pension keeps me going.’
I tactfully declined his cycle-with-me-for-a-bit offer and set off into the wilds of Cornwall. Before cycling I’d assumed that Cornish roads consisted of the A30 and a few B roads. I was delightfully wrong.
I turned off the Truro bypass into rural heaven. A tiny road with overhanging trees and meadows to one side wound down a long and wonderful hill. Birdsong replaced traffic noise and I was soon gloriously lost. But did it matter?
An organic farm shop beckoned and I turned along a rutted track. There I met Ben, a young dark-haired man sitting in the sunshine carefully sowing parsley seeds into pots. ‘I’m living in a shed,’ he explained. ‘It’s better than it sounds. Moved here from Totnes to be with my friends and bought a field. I grow enough to eat and also sell a bit to keep me going. I’m working here because I want to build a small extension, so need some extra money.’
I decided to head for Hayle on Cornwall’s north coast, simply because it has an excellent cycle route to Penzance, but didn’t get that far. I stopped at a tiny campsite and sat for some time in the sunshine before pitching, just gazing at rolling hills with broccoli woods.
The slender round tower of a mine building stood on the horizon.
Closer to hand, two Shetland ponies chomped at grass as rabbits appeared at the edge of the far field. They scampered off and I noticed a farm cat slinking towards them, keeping to the bushes for cover. Luckily for the rabbits it was ginger and white.
Day 7 Tuesday 24 May
Penzance or bust! But first I had a stately home to visit: Godolphin, one of about four places in Cornwall which claim that King Charles I spent his final night in England there before heading for the Isles of Scilly and safety.
The house was grand but the actual room had been remodelled out of recognition, whitewashed into sanitation and decorated with four strange and modern paintings. Though I loved the doors.
The family made its fortune from mining, and their grounds include a derelict tin mine as well as a deer park, rabbit breeding warrens and woodlands with bluebells.
• • •
‘Must avoid the A30,’ was my mantra as I pedalled towards Penzance, but a road closure sealed my doom and I had to cycle almost five miles of the dreaded road. Luckily it wasn’t too busy but I decided to take the first turn-off possible.
I pulled off into the car park of a hotel at the top of a hill. ‘Parking for guests only’ it stated, and I could see why, for it had a magnificent view of St Michael’s Mount.
Even better, it showed the tide to be out, the causeway exposed and people walking across.
I had tried and failed to visit the mighty mount at least three times in my life: would I actually succeed this time?
And, yes, I did, sauntering across the causeway and climbing the many steps to the castle. It was a strange place, with rooms and a chapel added to the flat roof of the castle, probably to make the most of the views over Mount’s Bay.
I saw a photo of the Queen visiting the castle three years ago. ‘How did she manage the climb?’ I asked a volunteer.
‘It was arranged by the Palace,’ she said. ‘They said to use a golf buggy.’
‘Golf buggy? Why not a 4WD?’
‘That’s what they wanted so we had to go along with it. But when their driver reached here and saw the bad surface, he refused to drive.’
‘So what did you do?’
‘Dan said he’d drive – and he did. He’s a bit of a character, there’s nothing he can’t do. He delivered a baby once, when the mother was stuck on the island and the helicopter couldn’t get out because of high winds.’
‘How did the Queen cope with the ride?’
‘She looked a bit shaken when she got out but managed a smile. She had to do it again on the way down. Rather her than me.’
• • •
It was a short and flat ride to the hostel in Penzance, which was an excellent place with a large lounge and kitchen. I went out for a Thai meal and took with me a tourist book about the Isles of Scilly. Could it possibly live up to the hyperbole?
I’d find out tomorrow.
Day 8 Wednesday 25 May
Ah, the Scillonian. As I settled into its lounge I noticed a large number of sick-bags deposited ready to use. ‘Watch out for dolphins and basking sharks’ stated the publicity I’d read the previous evening. And don’t forget to watch out for rough seas…
‘The Scillonian’s old and its stabilisers are rubbish,’ said a young mum the day before. ‘Last time I travelled I was sick as a dog, but he’ – pointing to her four-year-old boy building sandcastles – ‘was absolutely fine, which didn’t help.’
Despite the swell, I had no problems. But not everyone was as lucky. I saw an older woman using her stick to balance as she tried to move on the lurching boat. ‘Need a hand?’ I asked and helped her to cross a gap in the railings.
‘Thank you so much,’ she said. ‘I’ve recently had my knee done so it’s hard to get around but I’m desperate for the loo.’ So I helped her to the nearest toilet.
‘Might just hang around for a bit,’ I thought and waited outside. And waited. And waited. Eventually I went in.
‘Are you OK?’
‘No I’m not,’ she said. ‘I sat down all right but I just cannot get up. There’s nothing to hold on to to pull myself up.’
‘Ah. Um. Can you open the lock with your stick? Or I’ll go and fetch someone.’
‘Let me try. Here – yes!’ and she managed to flick the lock open.
I entered and managed to help her up. My good deed for the day.
And by the time we arrived at Hugh Town on the island of St Mary’s the sea lay smooth as silk.
The Isles of Scilly are beautiful, remote and peaceful – the most wonderful holiday experience as long as it doesn’t rain. A campsite in the rain is not pleasant; an entire island in the rain is miserable, especially if you have booked a return journey in five days’ time.
But it DIDN’T rain. Not one single drop the entire time I was there. The rest of the country had hail, thunder and rainstorms; I had sunshine and warmth, although it was breezy at times.
So, points about five wonderful days:
- The harbour, Hugh Town, has the wonderful advantage of having beaches on both sides, so whatever the wind you can have a sheltered sunbathe somewhere – if there’s any sun, that is.
- It also has the steepest climb up to a campsite I’ve ever known.
- Black rabbits scamper regularly across the campsite. This has nothing to do with evenings spent at the pub.
- The island has so many prehistoric sites that whenever anyone wants to build anything, anywhere, they have to get the site examined by an archaeologist. The photo shows a burial cairn near the Iron Age village of Halangy Down.
- Every Wednesday and Friday the islands have pilot gig races between boats with six rowers and a cox.
In past years, as ships approached the islands, the gigs would race to them and first to the boat got to pilot it in. Nowadays the islands host the World Pilot Gig Championships in early May.
- Now uninhabited, it has long, beautiful beaches, cairns and derelict cottages.
- Three years ago the sea flooded the central part and made it into two islands but now things are back to normal.
- Michael Morpurgo’s book When the Whales Came made it into a cursed island.
- It has long, beautiful beaches, cairns and derelict cottages.
- Eighty-five people live there. The tiny island of Gugh next to it has a further three inhabitants.
- Despite the assertions of at least three people I met, it is the furthest point south of the British Isles. And I stood on a rock as far south as I could get on that memorable island. Every footstep I took after that had to be north.
- Yes, it has long, beautiful beaches and cairns, but cottages are not derelict. They are holiday cottages and extremely expensive.
- The island is famous for its tropical gardens, which are indeed beautiful but extremely expensive. So is the café.
- It has two pubs which sell expensive beer and very expensive ice-cream, which is 20% cheaper on Bryher, its neighbour.
- But the bird hide is free.
- And red squirrels run wild.
This was my favourite island and I spent three exquisite, blue-sky days there, wandering along tiny paths, buying random foods (especially fudge) from roadside ‘honesty’ stalls, paddling, climbing hills and watching birds nesting on rocks.
There are no cars on Bryher. A tractor pulling a trailer met us at the ferry and we campers loaded our gear on board and walked. The site was one minute from a tiny beach and pub, the people friendly and with time to spare.
Enjoy the view from the bathroom window:
‘Would be useful to have a small chair or table by my tent,’ I mentioned to the campsite owners. Moments later one appeared, but: ‘You’ll probably find that people coming tomorrow [the start of half-term] will forage on the beach for some pallets and make their own,’ they said.
The next day the tractor reappeared loaded with bags then set off to make another journey. Around 40 people appeared, mostly families. Through the afternoon I heard the sound of sawing and nail-banging and almost from nowhere appeared a long wooden table made from three pallets by two teenage girls.
‘Could be a GCSE project,’ I suggested as I admired, accepting a cup of tea from the Mackenzie family who ‘adopted’ me and offered me breakfast and unlimited tea.
I walked around the southern part of the island on my first day:
To me, Bryher was perfect – small enough to be friendly and untouched by too many people, but large enough to have a shop, a pub and a church. Along with a very posh hotel. And various artists’ studios, this one right on the beach:
It also had a large community centre, with board games, pool table and even tea and biscuits – perfect place to go on a rainy day. The sounds were of birdsong, a few tractors, motorboat engines – and people sounds. People talking, laughing and playing.
These photos sum up Scilly for me…
And this, taken as I waited for the ferry back to St Mary’s…
I’d now visited the furthest south point of my travels and it was time to move on and start cycling again. Ah well.