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Rough and smooth: A Journey to the Isles of Scilly

William Gray braves rough seas on a voyage to the Isles of Scilly to discover that the 'subtropical outpost' takes the brunt of whatever the Atlantic decides to hurl at the British Isles

This article was originally published in The Sunday Telegraph

Sheltered harbour at Hugh Town on the Isles of Scilly ©William Gray

Messy. That was the weather forecast and that, undeniably, is what we’ve got. No wonder there’s a grim silence on board the Scillonian III. The ship’s commentary, waxing lyrical about Mousehole and Wolf Rock, is obviously pre-recorded. We can barely see the Cornish coastline, let alone any landmarks. But it gets worse. “As we head towards the Isles of Scilly,” the voice croons, “you can sense the ship lift eagerly as she meets the great swells that have travelled across 3,000 miles of open ocean…”

A woman next to me flinches as the ship shudders from another crashing broadside. There’s a pale, stoic look about her as she clasps an empty cup and tries to ignore the fresh slick of coffee at her feet.

The Isles of Scilly are something of an enigma. Despite being just 28 miles south-west of Land’s End, they seem to have a toehold in the tropics. Abbey Gardens on Tresco, one of the archipelago’s five inhabited islands, runs rampant with exotic plants, while the surrounding seas are brilliant turquoise – teeming with corals, sponges and sea fans. All this is nurtured by the Gulf Stream and one of the UK’s mildest and sunniest climates. But the flip-side, of course, is that anything the Atlantic decides to hurl at Britain reaches the Isles of Scilly first.

After three stomach-churning, coffee-drenched hours we reach Hugh Town on St Mary’s – home to most of the islands’ 2,000 inhabitants. People with ruddy faces and hunched shoulders are waiting for the Scillonian III’s return run to Penzance. Spray cascades over the jetty wall onto their heads, blending miserably with a grey squall racing across the harbour. It’s the kind of weather that would make the toughest Doberman turn tail and hide its walking leash under the sofa.

In the town centre a sodden procession of holidaymakers browse the curio shops. Clad in waterproofs and with droplets of rain dangling from their noses, they scowl at the brazenly sunny postcard stands. A long weekend in the so-called ‘Sun Isles’ promised a short-cut to spring – a few lazy days of warmth while the mainland struggled to shed a bitter and stubborn winter. I feel a big mope coming on as I trudge towards my B&B at the far end of the waterfront. But an unexpected glimmer of inspiration is hanging on my bedroom wall in the form of an old travel poster promoting the Isles of Scilly. ‘Ocean air,’ it boasts ‘is the greatest of all curative agents.’

Thirty minutes later I am stalking Old Town Bay on the southern shore of St Mary’s, snatching breaths from the full force of the gale. A small church provides momentary calm before I scale the ruthlessly gnawed headland of Peninnis. Thick gobs of sea spume quiver around granite cliffs that have been chiselled by rain and sea into a spectacular gallery of leering faces. Buffeted by the wind, I stagger around like a drunkard, my jacket flapping wildly like a loose sail on a doomed yacht.

Thick gobs of sea spume quiver around granite cliffs that have been chiselled by rain and sea into a spectacular gallery of leering faces. Buffeted by the wind, I stagger around like a drunkard, my jacket flapping wildly like a loose sail on a doomed yacht.

The following morning, gusts are still reaching force 8. I wake from a deep ozone-drugged sleep – my face flushed with windburn; my eyes red and sore. It hasn’t taken long to shed the wan pallor of a newcomer. After devouring an enormous cooked breakfast I stride down to the pier where boatmen are chalking up the day’s excursions. Only Bryher and Tresco are on offer – heavy seas have severed St Mary’s from the other islands. So I take an exhilarating, gunwale-grabbing ride in an open launch called the Guiding Star.

On Bryher, surf is blooming on the headlands above Hell Bay – a relentless procession of sinewy waves hurling themselves on to the rocks and filling the air with the salty sweat of their exertions. The smell of angry sea is like a pheromone and, along with dozens of other day-trippers, I watch transfixed as the sea flexes its muscles.

A scything blast of sleet finally sends us scuttling back to the jetty. Huddled in the bows of the Guiding Star, I am unaware of the brightening sky to the west. As quickly as it arrived, the wintry squall is whipped away and the wind ushers in paler wisps of cloud. By the time we reach nearby Tresco, I look up to find an insipid, but promising sun.

Emerging spontaneously, like mayflies from a Scottish loch, children descend on sandy beaches and ride bicycles along the traffic-free roads of New Grimsby – a cluster of timeshare cottages, a shop and a café. It’s only a forty minute stroll to Abbey Gardens, but the sub-tropical oasis (built around the ruins of a 12th century priory), seems to sprout from another world. Not only do I find Mexican yuccas, South African proteas and Australian bottlebrush plants, but the fine, calm weather that goes with them.

Shedding waterproofs, hat and gloves, I stretch out on a stone bench snugly situated in a sun trap. If ocean air is indeed the greatest of all curative agents, the last 24 hours must have equalled a month in a health farm. Now it’s time for some indulgent sunshine

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