Going Scilly (By Alan Townend)
A word of warning – the second word in this title isn’t a typo or a spelling mistake. In fact it’s perfectly all right. I’ll explain later.
Now to my main point, which is about what different countries call themselves. Generally, with a few very honourable exceptions, countries choose one word to describe themselves. Let me list a few examples – Spain, Australia, India, Italy, Namibia and so on. After all that’s the easiest way to do it, isn’t it? But of course things are a bit different where I live. We just don’t seem to be able to settle on one name. In the 19th century when we were rushing around the world colonising different parts of it and telling the local people how they should organise themselves, people simply said that England is doing this and England has done that because the word ‘England’ was used to stand for the whole country. Of course not everyone was happy about that. People in Scotland weren’t too bothered about it as they’ve always considered themselves superior to the English and anyhow most Scots in those days were also dashing around showing off their skills as administrators, inventors and engineers throughout the world. The Welsh on the other hand didn’t take too kindly to being lumped in with the English because they have always been very sensitive souls and after all said and done, they do have their own language. ‘Britain’ is another way of describing the country, which is i think a bit colourless but it will do. You can of course make this somewhat grander and talk of Great Britain but then the trouble is that sounds a tad pompous. If you like abbreviations, you can simply say ‘UK’, which obviously stands for United Kingdom. Then you can go the whole hog, describe it in exact detail and read out what it says on my passport – The United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland. There is a huge chunk (mass) of history behind all that but I won’t bore you with it now. For me the best description is ‘the British Isles’ because let’s face it, that is what it is – a collection of islands. There are some relatively large islands, one off the south coast of England, the Isle of Wight, one off the north west coast of England called the Isle of Man, where for some reason cats don’t have any tails and one off the coast of north Wales, called the Isle of Anglesey. Now that last one is interesting. The Romans called it ‘Mona’. The story goes that Julius Caesar was at a loose end one day (had nothing particular to do) and decided to take a trip to our islands and he landed at what is now called Anglesey. True to form it was raining and on top of that there was a thick fog everywhere. He and his troops didn’t think much of that and hotfooted it back home. Of course some years later he had another go and the Romans stayed a long, long time and got us all very well organised. Then there are hundreds of islands off the coast of Scotland, some of which are so bleak and remote that no one lives there. But I must come to the point and talk of the islands that I have already mentioned at the very beginning – the Scilly Isles. These lie off the tip of the south western corner of England. The word ‘scilly’ is supposed to come from the old word ‘sully’ meaning ‘sunny’ because the weather is very mild here and then there are the romantics among us who like to think of them in the old sense of ‘silly’, which meant ‘happy’ or ‘blessed’. But whatever the word means, they are delightful places to take a holiday in and that’s the reason why I went to stay in one of these isles, St Mary’s, last summer.
To reach this destination, you first have to travel the long road down the county of Cornwall. The sea is never far away in the UK and in this thin strip of land you are very much aware of its presence. You enter the country by crossing a river that almost turns the whole area into yet another island as it crosses the greater part of it. In fact the locals (the Cornish) would rather like it to be one because they consider themselves quite different from the rest of the country. After all they too have their own language and a very distinctive history. Remember that this is the land of King Arthur, the legendary leader of the 5th and 6th centuries. You are getting nearer and nearer to Land’s End and from there it’s a straight line across the water to America. But back to the real world. You can get to the Scillies by boat, by plane or by helicopter. The main boat that crosses to the isles, the Scillonian, has a flat bottom and you need a steady stomach to endure the voyage of some three hours. The plane, the Skybus, is subject to weather conditions and the noisiest, the quickest and the most reliable is by helicopter. That’s what we chose and have later discovered that this service no longer operates. The airport or the ‘heliport’ as they like to call it, is a far cry from those airports throughout the world where you go through various security checks – are you by the way like me who whenever I go through one of those archways set all the bells ringing for no apparent reason? Embarrassing, isn’t it? Here in the heliport you hand over your luggage to a friendly baggage handler, walk a couple of paces and a smiling young person asks you whether you’d like a snack or a drink. And of course you accept. In what seems just like minutes because of course you don’t have to get there hours before a flight, you are ushered into a small room to watch a film on the procedures of flying in a helicopter. This is a very practical step because although your air hostess on the helicopter smiles a lot at you during the flight, you couldn’t possibly hear a single word if she wanted to talk to you because of the loud noise of the engine. From the helicopter you see the tail end of England, a little bit of sea and then an array of small islands down below. Within minutes of landing you hail a taxi that is waiting to take you to your destination.
We had chosen a self catering cottage for our week’s holiday. The landlady was of the strict variety. She had obviously had experiences of awkward tenants and was taking no chances with the four of us. After a brief introduction, she called out: ‘Shoes off before you go into the living area’. We all meekly obeyed and slippered we followed her as she gave us the tour. I think as we kept making appreciative noises on entering each room, her tone became a little softer. A smile appeared on her face at the end and she wished us a pleasant stay. I think we had passed the test. After tea we went on a brief walk near our cottage to see the sea and already the calm and peace of this island was flowing over us.
Of course however small the island is, you have to visit the main town. And, unless you are very energetic, you have to go by bus. As there is only one, we have to call it THE bus. It is this vehicle that goes round and round the island day after day. As I sit here reminiscing about that holiday, it occurs to me that this splendid bus is doing precisely that at this very moment. Naturally this isn’t any old bus. It is unique and so is the driver. He, I never actually caught his name, is definitely an eccentric. He is, as we say, a character, He has a very loud voice and enjoys making up names for the places he stops at. On several trips I heard him call out: ‘Garden centre’ and I made a mental note to look in there one afternoon. It wasn’t until midweek that I discovered that the ‘garden centre’ was in fact a small table with two pot plants on it outside someone’s house! He frequently appears on the local Scillonian radio and interviews local people. It goes without saying that he knows all the locals that get on and off his bus by name. This is all part of the friendly atmosphere on the island. People get on the bus and tell you for example that they are going to a wedding or that they have just had their hair done. Everyone joins in the conversation including the tourists who are expected to make appropriate remarks. This all has to be carried out at the top of your voice because the engine is so noisy as the bus is very old. It travels at great speed round corners and other motorists know to pull in when it approaches. When it was first built, no doubt it was the last word in public transport but now you are not advised to check the condition of the tyres. The entrance door was no doubt electronically operated at the beginning but the driver now uses a long piece of string to open and shut the door. Once you are in the town centre, the air of contentment continues to surround you. People are smiling a lot. They know they are living on one of the happy isles.
Having travelled to one island you have to see the other islands as well. This is called island hopping and provides a flourishing industry for the local boatmen. As you struggle to get on to a boat, well at least I did, there is always a hand to help you safely embark and disembark. It is a firm suntanned hand ready to guide the elderly and infirm and especially eager to offer aid to the young and beautiful. I suppose if you spend your life on the sea, you develop a certain sense of humour. At the end of each trip the skipper will say with a wink things like: Well, I reckon we’ve been lucky to get back in one piece! or Thank goodness we just about had enough fuel to return to land. You know they are joking but somehow it adds that little air of excitement.
One of the culinary delights to savour on any of the islands is indulging in a cream tea. You can of course get these anywhere but here the cream is that bit creamer, the jam is that bit more luscious and of course the scone is that bit larger. As you sit there foaming at the lips with cream and jam, with the sun shining and within view of the bright blue sea, who cares about the economic recession? And after that huge feast of cream, scone, jam and tea, it’s time to get back home on the bus. It’s then as you hurtle round corners that you think that maybe it wasn’t such a good idea to have asked for an additional scone. Apart from the food, the sea and the charm of the islands, they also offer, at least for British tourists, a wealth of plants that would not normally survive in the erratic climate of the mainland. One island in particular called Tresco, which has the famous Abbey Gardens is the one to visit for rich and exotic plants. Here you find that everything is a little bit more expensive than on the other islands and there is, to a certain degree, a sense that the island feels superior to the others. There is an air of correctness about the place and it’s somewhere that it seems most sensible to make use of the buggies, These are like the devices used by golfers to get people over distances that would take too long to go on foot across a golf course. They are powered by electricity and can carry four people. Two sit in the front (one of whom is the driver) and two are at the back facing in the opposite direction. When you sit on the back, you have no idea where you are going and you can’t help feeling a sense of superiority as you are facing walkers as they make their way along the road. Somehow that seems just right for Tresco.
Back on the main island where we started we decided we would do a sort of cultural tour. Once again we hired a buggy. There are many artists who live on the island and they are happy for tourists to come and see them in their studios. There is none of the quiet reserve that you find on the mainland. One local artist showed his own paintings and was also pleased to show those of his late aunt. As time passed we became familiar with all his relatives. When he had finished the story of his family, he invited us to look through all the prints and post cards that he had produced. Now this is the moment of truth. As you have almost become part of the family, you can’t really just politely make your exit without buying a thing. Anyhow the exit is strategically placed so that you can’t get out without bumping into him. You huddle together and discuss what would be a decent amount of money to spend. One year later I still have a wide range of postcards that I bought because after a while you can’t really keep on sending out views of the islands to people you know. On our second studio visit we made it clear to the artist that we were rather pushed for time as we had to return the buggy by the end of the afternoon. Further artists’ work was admired by us as briefly as possible. Then we came to a pottery studio and that was where I remember going slightly mad and buying too many vases and mugs, But this was no ordinary potter. He is internationally known and worked for over 30 years in different parts of the world before deciding to return to his roots and set up his studio in a country lane on the island where we were staying. He is regarded by some of his colleagues as a bit of an alchemist as he is able to mix various glazes together and produce lustre ware that is housed in many expensive collections throughout the world. But here on the Scilly Islands there is a sense of equality where everyone is taken at face value. To us visiting he was simply John, hands covered in clay willing to chat about his work and show us round his studio. These islands are a great leveller. You can’t assume airs and graces here, no matter who you are or what you have done. Interestingly a former Prime Minister of the UK decided to retire to St Mary’s over 50 years ago and was keen to join in the daily life of the island. No one is phased as they say by what happens here as perhaps they would in other parts of Britain. For example one afternoon we were climbing a hill to have a different view of the sea when we came across a woman walking alongside a reindeer on a lead. No one turned a hair. i asked a local standing nearby what it was all about. ‘Oh’, he said as casual as you like, ‘Mrs *** always takes her reindeer out for a walk round about tea time.’ Of course, I thought what could possibly be more natural?
That week went by very quickly and just as we were almost becoming Scillonians ourselves, it was time to pack our bags and make once more for the heliport. Our landlady came to bid us good bye but I knew she was anxious to check and see that we hadn’t wrecked the place. By the extent of her smile it was obvious that we hadn’t. Our holding deposit to cover any breakages was returned in full. As soon as we reached the heliport it started to rain. The weather had at least stayed fine for our week. As I looked back at the islands through the mist I naturally experienced a sense of sadness and regret that we were leaving. I knew just then that I would probably never come back again. This wasn’t because it hadn’t been an enjoyable break. It was a simple belief that once you have lived a magical dream surrounded by calm and beauty, it is not a good idea to try to recapture the experience again. If you do, you are sure to be disappointed.
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