At its best travel can be a decompression chamber. Sadly because most of us race to our destinations our holidays take place in the existential equivalent of the bends. Not so on a romantic, slow travel adventure to the Isles of Scilly, writes Dan Kieran.
We were walking on the island of Bryher the day after our arrival in the Isles of Scilly when I first noticed it. Everywhere. It started with the sand of Great Porth beach. I sifted it through my fingers and noticed how much coarser it was than I was used to. The granite rocks of the beach nearby were being ground down, grain by eternal grain. You could see the process taking place over thousands of years right under your nose. From that moment on I started calling it ‘granite sand’ much to Isobel, my girlfriend’s, amusement. It was also shining in the sun. Reflecting the light in tiny stars, a daytime reverse of the sky above at night. We walked on, clambering over rocks that were covered in beards of lichen. Not the fragile, crackling leaf of lichen I knew on the trees of North Scotland but a cross between hair and wire, stabbing out into the air. It was stuck fast. Un-tearable. The rocks led to shells and pebbles of the beach before the sea and then soft grass, tall brambles and the colourful flutter of the common blue butterfly. We touched everything as we went – and then I understood what ‘it’ was. We were deciphering the texture of the landscape with all our senses in a form of natural braille. We ‘read’ the wind as it clasped our faces while our fingers searched greedily, touching, stroking and holding, leaves, grass, stones, shells and then the comfort of each others’ hands. We followed the butterflies to the top of Samson Hill and the sun seemed to sweat and hum up from the lush grasses, trees and earth as well as pounding from above. The kind of rich, wet and warm heat nature explodes within. We stared out across the islands out of breath with eyes watering in the breeze.
For the first 38 years of my life the Isles of Scilly had been part of the British Isles I thought I knew enough about to safely ignore, but I was wrong. The word archipelago, more often applied to the Pacific than the British Isles, should have given me a hint. This is a place all travellers of the pre-flight ages knew – the part of Britain that signalled the boundary of our land all pioneering travellers heading for the new world said goodbye to.
Like all my favourite travel experiences, being here for only a day had already pulled out new thoughts and ideas that we were journeying through just in the same way we would explore the physical space of the islands. This is what I love about travel. Being in a new location unlocks a part of yourself that you always carry with you. Every place you visit accesses different parts of who you are. It’s not just the place you are in, of course, or how you got there but who you are with that combine to decide which bit of yourselves you will find. Fine dining and champagne are all well and good but it’s exploring the combination of you and the one you love and the thoughts and ideas you share while you are away that is the true definition of a ‘romantic’ break.
Our day before had begun in a taxi, then a tube and after that a relaxed five-hour train journey from London Paddington to Penzance. From that train we joined a minibus and then the grass landing strip of Land’s End Airport before a fifteen-minute flight in a twelve-seater plane to St Mary’s, the largest of the islands. The plane was like something out of Mad Men (in a good way). On landing we were collected by another minibus and driven to the harbour and put in a jet boat that took us to Bryher where another car waited to take us to the Hell Bay Hotel. By the time we sat down in our room to drink a bottle of champagne while looking out from our balcony that looked out to the sea, I felt like a cross between David Attenborough and James Bond. The Hell Bay Hotel is widely acclaimed as the best hotel on Bryher, something the locals inform you of with a grin. It’s also the only hotel on Bryher but by far the most luxurious and yet remote one I’ve ever visited.
We were spending the five days of our trip across three of the islands that make up Scilly and left Bryher for the even more remote and wild St Agnes the next day. One of my ‘rules’ of travel is never to set foot on an island unless you’re going to sleep on it. Otherwise you are a day-tripper and not an explorer. You need to spend a night somewhere to feel what it offers and be able to wallow in what you find. If you spend your time nervously looking at your watch as a day-tripper then you’re in the mindset of ‘leaving’ before you’ve arrived. The best place to stay on St Agnes is a campsite that makes its own ice cream – Troytown Farm. We dragged our suitcase across the island (quad bikes and golf buggies are popular on roads too small for cars but you can only rent them on St Mary’s) and collapsed in the bell tent we’d rented after waiting for Tom the owner to take his nine Jersey cows for milking before checking in. The campsite sits on the coast and looks out towards Annet, an island inhabited by Puffins. As the sun set the lighthouse began to swirl its gaze out to sea to warn of the treacherous rocks that have claimed so many ships over the years. We walked west until we found the Turk’s Head pub. Because of its position overlooking the harbour and the quality of the ale and food they serve it quickly became my favourite pub in the world.
The next morning we planned to walk around the coast of the island, which is not as great a feat of endurance as it sounds, but were waylaid by the depressing sound of rain on the tent on waking. The wind bumped and popped against the canvas. Truth be told camping makes me gloomy. It’s one of the few forms of ‘travel’ or ‘holiday’ where you are forced to bend to the will of the world by contending with it as it is and not as you would like it to be. There is nowhere to hide. No technology to bury yourself in. If it rained all day that tent is where we would stay, all day. I say that as though it’s a bad thing when of course this is precisely the kind of existential hump ‘travel’ helps you to clamber over. I realised that morning the sea is a multiplier for however you feel. In a gloom it looked eternal, ominous and unforgiving. Eventually the sun broke through and it began to reflect my change of spirit, offering the promise and excitement that would surely be delivered by the day ahead. The cheering up continued. We were joined by a group of thrushes and a couple of blackbirds who were so tame they almost ate out of our hands. The Scilly Isles have never been exposed to pesticides so the number of songbirds is over ten times that on the mainland. Lack of predation gives them a sense of confidence as though this is their land not yours. I couldn’t wait to explore. We should easily be able to manage a full circumference at a leisurely pace in a day, but again, the depth of the experience – not pointless fortitude – was what we were really after.
The texture of the landscape consumed us quickly as we walked around St Agnes. Huge cairns on the edge of the sea were too tempting not to climb. These are the kinds of rocks you read about people being ‘swept off’ and now I know why people are so tempted to do something so obviously dangerous. We delved up, over and into them knowing at any point we would be faced by the shock of an unforgiving sea. I felt the twang of danger in the backs of my lower legs for the first time since I was a child. I climbed up and up with no care of how I would get down again. Bliss. Every corner of rock and tip of each hill offered a more exotic, and private, place to roam. When I felt the day could provide no more magic we discovered a well and took that as a sign to stop for a nap. Isobel had bought a book from the post office to help identify the island’s flowers and we spent the rest of the day learning names for the sake of knowing them, if only for the moment.
Our final island was St Mary’s, where we first arrived, and we were glad of the Star Castle Hotel and its luxury after camping. Book ending a trip with luxury is always a good idea. It offers you a contrast of texture itself (authentic dirt versus fresh linen) while also freeing you from the ennui that comes accompanied by the thought of ‘I wish we’d stayed there’. The islands are too small to hire cars but you can hire golf buggies, so we spent our last day exploring the farthest reaches of the island and discovered a garden looked after by volunteers that we had all to ourselves for a few hours. Here we deliberately lost each other through the maze of bushes and flowers. After dawdling for a while I found my love on a bench feeding a menagerie of songbirds as I peered out from a thicket of bamboo. All to a soundtrack of bird song combined with her giggles. I know, it sounds absurd, but that’s the Isles of Scilly for you. It was like walking into a sonnet.
On the even smaller plane home (only 6 seats this time) I thought of a latin quotation I’d found in a 1967 Isles of Scilly travel guide. Multum in Parvo – it means ‘much in little’. That was certainly what we found. In each other, in the textures we had the time to notice and the eternal exploration of romance.