Take a day trip to the Scilly Isles
Variously called The Isles of Scilly (silent “c”, in Cornish Syllan or Enesek Syllan), Scilly Isles, the Scillies or just Scilly, this stunning outlier of the Cornish mainland is surprisingly easy to get to and well worth a flying visit.
The Scilly Isles is an archipelago, which is a group of islands, lying about 22 miles (35km) west of the very tip of Cornwall. Five of them are inhabited – St Mary’s, Tresco, St Martin’s, St Agnes and Bryher, but the first of these can be regarded as the main island with the lion’s share of the population and the main settlement, Hugh Town. The adjective “Scillonian” is usually the word for people or things on or from the Isles of Scilly.
Although there are some six hundred motor vehicles on the islands, you aren’t going there by car. You can fly, on the Scilly Skybus, from Land’s End or Newquay airports. Alternatively, drive to Penzance and travel on the Scillonian passenger ferry, a voyage of some 2 hours and 45 minutes. These modes of transport will deliver you to the main island, St Mary’s, from whence inter-island boats can take you to the other isles. It is also feasible to sail to the Scillies on a private boat if you have the appropriate skills, equipment and navigation, and some brave souls even row there in pilot gigs (see below) and other small craft. It’s a popular crossing for kayakers (experts only please) with the record being held by a Cornishman, Richard Sims, who completed the journey from Sennen Cove in just over four hours. The tides swirl around the tiny islands in an unusual manner, tidal currents are strong, and it is the open ocean, so please don’t even think about trying this unless you really know your stuff.
If you leave Penzance on the morning ferry, you’ll arrive before noon, having enjoyed a pleasant cruise passing the best of Cornwall’s fishing villages, the Minack Theatre, and with luck see some dolphins or a basking shark or two. You’ll have time for a spot of lunch and to visit one of the other islands before returning for the 1630h ferry. If of course you fly or combine ferry and plane, you’ll have much more time to enjoy. But either way, make a plan to include the things that interest you. We’ve outlined some great ideas below.
Scilly has been populated since the Stone Age, but it seems as though in the relatively recent past more of the islands were above water, and that they might even have been conjoined, at low tide at least, to form one large island called Ennor. In around 400AD the sea levels rose enough to separate the area into up to fifty different islands, although it’s possible to walk between some of them at low tide.
It’s possible that this is in part the source of the legend of Lyonesse, the lost land thought to be off the western Cornish coast. There is evidence that the islands were partly flooded by the tsunami from the Lisbon earthquake of 1755.
The community developed to subsist on fishing and subsistence farming as well as wrecking and smuggling, of course! In the late Middle Ages, the Cornish language declined as the Scillies became as interactive with the outside world as with the rest of Cornwall, perhaps. In 1707 the islands were the scene of the worst maritime disaster in British history, with six ships striking the rocks and 1,450 sailors lost. Since the mid-eighteenth century, the economy has relied on trade with the mainland. Lately, flower cultivation has been important, but tourism is now the primary income. Many services are shared with Cornwall, of which it is a part, but since 1890, the islands have had their own local authority. Since the Isles of Scilly Order of 1930, the authority has had the function of a county council and is now known as the Council of the Isles of Scilly.
This film by James Woodin showcases the beauty of Scilly perfectly
Unique. Although on paper the Isles are milder than the rest of the UK, the figures do not really do it justice. The Scillies have a temperate oceanic climate, with the warmest winters in the country and an unusual amount of sunshine. Indeed British visitors are usually unprepared for the Scillonian sun.
The pre-Roman history of the Scillies is clear from the Celtic crosses, megaliths including stone circles and mênhirs. The later Anglo-Saxon history is there too, in the churches and remains of old settlements. While Cornwall has this in abundance, it’s often overshadowed by the industrial archaeology of the mining era and the Victorian resort towns. Scilly has a different, older vibe.
Fauna and Flora
The islands are the first landing place for many species of migrant birds, which makes them popular too with ornithologists (known as twitchers), who turn up in large numbers if a rare sighting is reported. The climate also dictates that there is a lovely range of wild flowers. The diversity of sea life is greater than perhaps anywhere else in Cornwall, with whales, porpoises, dolphins, seals and basking sharks easy to spot in the shallow seas.
For a place with a population little greater than that of a small village, the Scilly Isles have a frankly extraordinary amount of places to eat and drink. As well as the pubs listed below, which all serve food, St Mary’s boasts the Tanglewood Kitchen, Juliet’s Garden, Tregarthen’s, Kaffeehaus Salbei, and the Golf Club.
The Scillies are not really a place for nightlife beyond the busier pubs on St Mary’s, which can be hectic if there’s an event of some kind. But there are pubs on all five of the inhabited islands of Scilly. Hugh Town boasts The Mermaid, once a famous haunt of pirates and smugglers, the impressive Atlantic Inn, The Bishop and Wolf (named for the two lighthouses) and the quieter Old Town Inn. If you’ve time for a boat trip, The New Inn on Tresco, The Turks Head on St Agnes, or Fraggle Rock on Bryher is worth a look. The latter is more of a café, but it does serve beer. The Seven Stones Inn on St Martin’s has arguably the best view in the world.
Easter – Daymark Festival
April – Walk Scilly Festival
May – World Pilot Gig Championships, Scilly Folk Festival, Art Scilly Week
August – Islands Regatta
September – Sea Swim, Taste of Scilly
October – Walk Scilly Weekend, St Martin’s Film Festival
December – Christmas Produce and Craft Market, Scillonian Street Party
Special Things to Do and Visit
For a beautiful walk on the heavily fortified headland with its guns that once defended St Mary’s, around the Star Castle and commanding views of the bays and other islands.
Also in Hugh Town, with a Camera Obscura and a Museum of Curiosities.
Regular boat trips are running throughout the season from April to November, allowing you to travel between the islands, visit the uninhabited rocks, watch bird and sea life, and even see underwater through a glass-bottomed boat. There are RIB safaris on high-speed boats, and a tour of the Bishop Rock lighthouse, too!
From Peninnis Lighthouse between Hugh Town and Old Town to the Bishop’s Rock at the western extreme of the archipelago to Wolf Rock which is between Cornwall and Scilly, it would be fun to try to see them all.
Each of the five inhabited islands of Scilly has a church, with St Mary’s retaining two – St Mary’s Parish Church c.1830’s and the old church of the same name c.1130. All are quite beautiful and have many interesting memorials.
Isles Of Scilly Museum
This museum, in Hugh Town on St Mary’s, is dedicated to preserving the traditions and the history of the island, and enhancing public understanding of the archipelago. The collections are diverse. They include material from numerous wrecks, a wild flower display during the summer months, and many Romano-British artefacts, as well as stuffed birds, local art and more.
Tresco Abbey Gardens
Described as a perennial Kew without the glass. One of the must-see gardens for any fan of horticulture, these 1830 gardens have Scilly’s trademark subtropical flora, as well as the ruined 11th-century abbey, and are decorated with somewhat eerie ship’s figureheads.
The Isles of Scilly Golf Club on St Mary’s is the most south-westerly course in Britain and enjoys the sort of panoramic views that only islands can provide. It’s a nine-hole course, but eighteen-hole competitions can be held by playing from different tees.The clubhouse is open to members or non-members for food and drink and spectacular views.
There is great fishing from the Scillies, from organised boat trips to private hires or just shore fishing from beach or rocks. There are plenty of shops to buy tackle.
Scilly has clear water, lots of sea-life, and more than nine-hundred wrecks. Enough said! It is for this reason that the islands are one of the most popular dive sites in the UK. Even just snorkelling is fantastic in such a wonderful location.
The rocky nature of the Scillies with its many outlying islands and reefs means that surf there is pretty much guaranteed if there is a decent sized swell. The odd thing is that surfing on Scilly is not publicised and indeed you probably won’t see anyone else out. The best-known break is called Golden Balls, a reef break off the north-west corner of Tresco. With a slightly intimidating 800m paddle to get to it, this is a barreling wave that takes on epic proportions in a big winter swell. Most surfers will prefer to hunt around for one of the many beach or point breaks that can work depending on swell direction. There are no surf shops on Scilly so make sure you have all your gear – wax and spare leashes for instance!
Sailing, kayaking and windsurfing/kite-surfing are popular on all the islands, with hire equipment available.
The beaches of Scilly are characterised by fine, white sand and clear turquoise water unrivalled anywhere. There are more than thirty-five of them – many of them quiet and secluded. Pentle Bay on Tresco is a classic. St Mary’s Town Beach is close to the town and has a bit more going on, while Port Loo is great for rock-pooling. Great Bay on St Martin’s or Great Par on Bryher are fantastic family beaches. The sand bar running from St Agnes to Gugh at low tide is a lovely spot, but disappears beneath the deep water at high tide!
Yes, you can take your dog to the Scillies, either on the plane or the Scillonian ferry. Pentle Bay, on the island of Tresco, is open to our canine friends all the year round. The other main beaches of the Scillies, sixteen in number, are subject to some restrictions, which vary. Some, like Apple Tree Beach, require dogs to be kept on a lead. Some have a seasonal dog ban from 1st of May to 30th of September. But generally, the Isles of Scilly are a very dog-friendly place. Dogs are allowed on all beaches in the archipelago out of high season.
Children adore the Scillies. While there might not be so many attractions as there are in some larger destinations, the great weather and the number of beaches, rock pools and secret coves is sure to please, and the warm shallow sea and numerous small rocks and islands make the place feel very exciting and adventurous for the little ones.
We have self-catering holiday cottages from which you can easily visit the Scilly Isles.
Self-catering in Cornwall has never been so good! Check out our Cornwall Guide to discover more about what’s on, where to eat, places to visit and things to do in Kernow, all from your Cornish Traditional Cottage.