The last piece of England
At the boat dock at New Grimsby Quay I set out in the direction of the family seat, Tresco Abbey. A handful of squat stone cottages line the seashore, but within a mile the well-maintained tarmac road gives way to emptiness. The prevailing silence is broken only when the occasional passing cyclist, or one of the green golf buggies used to service the estate, overtakes at modest speed. Soon, a canopy of Monterey Cypress trees, similar in size to Californian Redwoods, looms into view, towering over tall palms and attention-seeking flowers. Making the most of the Scillonian climate, the Smiths created Abbey Garden – a cultivated jungle of 20,000 species of subtropical plants, growing among the ruined walls and arches of a 12th-century Benedictine priory. Its shady terraces are a curious mix of the acutely exotic and the resolutely parochial. Brown sparrows and squirrels hop between the hothouse flowers and, hidden among the clusters of bamboo and trailing ferns are Victorian grottoes, ornamental fountains and classical busts.
The mild climate has proved useful for more than just show gardening – for decades, cut flowers were the Scillies’ chief agricultural export. Bruce Christopher, Tresco born and bred and the island’s only remaining tenant farmer, grew narcissi before the popularity of cheaper, imported blooms meant he had to diversify. ‘The season starts with asparagus, then it’s strawberries and traditional salad stuff,’ he tells me as he dismounts his red tractor, having just finished ploughing the fields. ‘Sweetcorn is always very popular, and our fresh eggs.’
Some of Boro Farm’s produce is sold at a roadside stand via an honesty box system – seen all over the Scillies, but not so often in other parts of Britain. ‘The way of life here is completely different to that on the mainland,’ says Bruce, wiping his muddied hands on blue overalls. ‘Some might say it’s a slower pace… but to be honest I’m always bloody working.’ He and his wife Maggie have more time to themselves come September, when most of the islands’ visitors disappear. ‘In the winter we have the odd night at the pub, or I’ll take the boat out fishing. Tresco is a fantastic island, but then I would say that; I’ve never really lived anywhere else.’
Bruce is not alone in displaying a fierce partiality to his corner of the Scilly Isles. Every local claims that the island they live on is the real diamond in the crown. Yet they’re all in agreement that the main hub of St Mary’s, where the aeroplanes land and the boats dock, isn’t Scilly Isles ‘proper’. Despite possessing only one tiny, picturesque town – Hugh Town, its main street, lined with b&bs and cafés offering cream teas – St Mary’s is a metropolis by local standards. It has a small hospital, a comprehensive school and even a football league – albeit the smallest in the world, consisting of just two teams.
Such is the peace and quiet enjoyed in the off-islands, it’s easy to forget that those who live on them have to work hard to do so. ‘Living here is expensive. Most people have two or three jobs,’ says Val Thomas. Val, who grew up on St Martin’s, left island life behind to spend 30 years working on the mainland, where she met her husband – but the urge to return proved irresistible. ‘This is a peaceful place. People say that the Scillies are like the mainland was back in the 1950s. But, as my mother used to say, we cannot be expected to live in picturesque poverty. We work hard.’