The island’s one road curves along a half-mile of drystone wall. Eventually mossy rocks give way to dense hedgerows, coloured with foxgloves and buttercups, then a red telephone box. Further along the car-free lane, past the parish notice board, an unattended stall offers homegrown strawberries in exchange for a pound dropped in an honesty box. The path ends at the village pub, its windows glowing in the summer twilight. A tethered white billy goat called William bleats out a welcome.
This is no trip down memory lane, no backwards glance through rose-tinted spectacles, but an evening walk on Bryher in the Scilly Isles. Getting here doesn’t require time travel; a 30-mile journey off the coast of Cornwall will do. Added to this appealing Englishness are flashes of otherness. Lining the roadside are rosettes of Aeonium ciliatum, a succulent green plant more common to the Canaries than Cornwall, and towering fronds of agapanthus, or the lily of the Nile. A palm tree dwarfs the island’s only post box. This subtropical growth is possible because of the Scillies’ prized microclimate: far south and squarely in the path of the Gulf Stream, this is one of the warmest places in the UK.
Even the landmarks punctuating the rugged path around Bryher’s shore seem otherworldly: storybookish and semifictional. The island’s one pub is called Fraggle Rock. From here, a short stroll along a white-sand beach offers a good view of Hangman Island. Over the headland is Hell Bay, where the Atlantic Ocean lashes against great square boulders neatly stacked like Tetris blocks. At the island’s southern tip, Droppy Nose Point, the weather has sculpted a protruding rock, tinged green with lichen, into the shape of a cockerel’s comb.
From this craggy outcrop I can see boatmen at work, cutting a foam trail through the water as they ferry passengers between the main port of St Mary’s and the ‘off-islands’: Bryher, Tresco, St Agnes and St Martin’s. Most islanders own their own boat, but for visitors these regular ferries are the equivalent of a country bus service. The 9.45am-10am ferry to Tresco departs from Bryher’s low-water landing jetty. ‘We have to work around the tide,’ says boatman Dave Hooper as he helps passengers aboard, ‘but the boats run every day except Christmas.’
Boats have always been essential to island life here, Dave explains, and for years, pilotage was the main source of income for local men. ‘We still have gig races here, every Wednesday and Friday. It stems from when islanders used to row a pilot gig out to big passing ships to help navigate them through the rocks and avoid shipwreck.’ But being fast wasn’t just a matter of pride. The crew that reached the vessel first would get the job and the spoils. ‘The oldest gig we have was built in 1830. Back in the day they used to use them for smuggling, too.’ Dave’s cargo is mostly human, but he does do the occasional favour. ‘Earlier this year we shipped boxes and boxes of pheasants out to Tresco, for a game shoot they had planned. I’ve never seen such a mess!’
Tresco is certainly the only place in the Scilly Islands where you might find the air alive with sporting rifle fire. Mention the island to an inhabitant of one of its neighbours, and they’re likely to lift their nose in the air and give you a conspiratorial wink. Because, let there be no doubt about it, Tresco is posh. Instead of the meagrely stocked one-stop shop most islands rub along with, Tresco Stores is a sort of Fortnum & Mason-by-the-sea. I count over 10 different types of marinated olive, 14 brands of muesli and a dazzling array of gourmet crisps.
Those filling their baskets are mostly the wealthy urbanites who’ve arrived by helicopter from Penzance. Their days are spent rock-pooling or seeking out shells on one of the island’s disconcertingly un-Cornish-looking beaches, such as Appletree Bay. The Scillies’ ritziest island is also the only one that is still privately owned. Merchant banker Augustus Smith bought the lease from the Duchy of Cornwall back in the 1830s, and his descendants, the Dorrien-Smiths, now run the Tresco Estate as a family business. Everybody who lives here is in its employ, from the barmaid pulling pints at the island’s cosy New Inn to the gardener mowing Tresco’s manicured green lawns.
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.’
The article 'The last piece of England' was published in partnership with Lonely Planet Magazine.