The Isles of Scilly: of helicopters, gardens and shipwrecks

I’ll never forget the first time I saw the Isles of Scilly, early one misty, summer’s morning more years ago than I care to remember – from a helicopter. On what promised to be a glorious day we took off from Penzance for the 15-minute flight. As we rose into the air, the castle on the summit of St Michael’s Mount appeared as if floating in the mist, and then, in a matter of moments, the shadowy but distinctive shape of Land’s End was slipping by as we headed out into the vast emptiness of the Atlantic Ocean. All too soon, specks of green land edged by empty beaches appeared on the horizon out of the mist. We could have been flying into the Caribbean. Within minutes we were over St Mary’s – high enough to be above the birds but low enough to see calves ambling around with their mothers in the fields below.

The rugged coastline of Land’s End in Cornwall, the most westerly point of England on the Penwith peninsula

Out to sea, 45 kilometres off the rugged coast of Land’s End lies a group of some 150 low-lying, mysteriously beautiful islands and outcrops of rock. According to legend, the islands became separated from the Cornish mainland in the days of King Arthur, some 1,500 years ago, when the lost kingdom of Lyonesse, home to the hero Tristan, of Tristan and Isolde fame, sank beneath the sea. Truth to tell, we must go back 10,000 years to the end of the last Ice Age when the islands were part of the Cornish mainland. As the ice caps melted and sea levels rose, one large island was formed. In the Bronze Age, some 3,000 years ago, this island became heavily settled, so much so that today there are more archaeological remains per square kilometre than anywhere else in the British Isles. It is most likely that the Cassiterides, or Tin Isands, mentioned by the 1st century AD Greek geographer Strabo, refer to this one island. It was the last land-fall before Greek and Phoenician traders reached the tin-rich lands of Cornwall (tin was a vital ingredient in the manufacture of bronze). As recently as 450-500 AD, as the sea levels continued to rise, this one large island became many small ones, the largest of which, St Mary’s is just 6.5 square kilometres.

St Mary’s Harbour at dawn, Isles of Scilly

Today, only five of the islands are inhabited; St Mary’s, Tresco, St Martin’s, St Agnes and Bryher, with a total population of just over 2,000. Above all else, the islanders, or Scillonians, pride themselves on their quality of life: simpler, kinder and more peaceful. In 1975, the islands were designated an Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty, which has led to an unprecedented level of conservation and lack of development.

The five inhabited islands of Scilly

Due to the prevailing Gulf Stream of the Atlantic Ocean, the climate of the islands is mild compared to mainland England. Indeed, although lying on the same latitude as Winnipeg in Canada, snow or frosts are very rare. This climate means that the main agricultural produce is cut-flowers, especially daffodils, which it can get to the markets earlier than suppliers on the mainland. Although mild, the weather can be tempestuous with the ever-present threat of wild Atlantic gales. This is reflected in the landscape. At the sheltered southern end of Tresco, for example, lie the extraordinary and lush Abbey Gardens while the exposed north end is a moonscape of blasted rock and heather.

A field of yellow flowers on the Scilly Isles

More than 85% of the islands’ income is generated from tourism. Sea and air connections are therefore vital. Ferries, however, stop running over the winter months, between November and March, and the small planes that land at the tiny airfield on St Mary’s are prey to the weather. Six years ago, after nearly 50 years of continuous flights, the more robust, but sadly out-dated helicopter service stopped. With great relief all round, a more reliable service will be restored in 2019 and once again all year-round access to the Isles will be all but guaranteed.

The approximately 100,000 a year visitors to the island come for its simple pleasures: the scenery and unspoilt beauty, the beaches, the peace and tranquillity, nature and the wildlife. The most popular activity is simply walking. Each year, October sees an influx of twitchers. Twitchers? Birdwatchers or birders. The islands are one of the most important stopping off points in Europe for migratory birds. With its shallow waters, golden sands and climate more akin to the Mediterranean, it’s an extraordinary place to be when birds are on the move. In 2017, over 100 different species were identified including such fabled and colourful avians as the Dusky Thrush, Pallid Swift, Red-flanked Bluetail, Red-eyed Vireo, Eastern Yellow Wagtail, and Britain’s second only sighting of a Pale-legged Sakhalin Leaf Warbler.

Cromwell Castle Tresco and Bryher, Isles of Scilly

Tresco Abbey Gardens

The islands are also home to the world famous Tresco Abbey Gardens, a highlight of my upcoming Gardens of Cornwall and Devon tour next June (click here for more details). In 1838, the 30 year old social reformer and philanthropist Augustus Smith acquired the leasehold of the Isles of Scilly from the Duchy of Cornwall, styling himself Lord Proprietor of Scilly. His descendants hold the leasehold and title to the present day. Moving to the Isles, Smith built himself a house on Tresco in the grounds of a ruined Benedictine Abbey. The Abbey was founded in 1114 on the site of an earlier monastic settlement founded in 946 AD. Following the Dissolution of the Monasteries under Henry VIII, the abbey fell into ruin. It was these ruins that appealed to Smith as the site for his new house as he looked to incorporate them into his intended gardens. This was very much in the fashion of the time, Romantic and Picturesque. First, though, he had to build walls and plant windbreaks against the Atlantic gales that swept the islands.

The exuberant Tresco Abbey Gardens

Today its 17 acres are listed Grade I in the Register of Historic Parks and Gardens. The garden incorporates Smith’s original walled enclosure, terraces and two great cross-walks with dramatic views. Many of the plants are large and exuberant. The statuesque and graceful echium pininana are described by one visitor as ‘growing like weeds’. Another describes it all as: ‘Kew with the roof off’. It is often said of the islands that ‘spring comes early, autumn stays late, and winter hardly exists’. Certainly, at the time of the winter solstice, in late December, over 300 plants are still in flower.

A map of the Abbey Garden

This mild maritime climate and the prevalent free-draining granitic soil ensure that the mixture of plants and trees that flourishes here is like no other, with tender plants from countries such as Australia, South Africa, New Zealand and Mexico. The result is a unique collection of plants in an idyllic setting which includes modern sculpture, classical features and a beautiful ruined archway from the original monastery, as if straight out of the work-book of those contemporary geniuses of Classical garden ‘ruins’, Julian and Isabel Bannerman (whose house, Trematon Castle near Plymouth, we’ll also be visiting on the tour). Indeed, the title of their new book could well describe Tresco Abbey Gardens – ‘A Landscape of Dreams’.

Tresco Abbey Garden Archway


Situated in the approaches to the English Channel, at the crossroads of sea-routes linking Scotland, Ireland, England, France and Spain, the islands have been a source of many shipwrecks; one of which has fascinated me personally for years. It involves one of the great romantic, tragic figures of the late 18th century, Sir William Hamilton. Best known as ‘The Volcano Lover’ of Susan Sontag’s eponymous 1992 book, Hamilton was the British ambassador in Naples from 1764 to 1798, where he was ideally placed, both as a social magnet for the Grand Tourists of the day, and to indulge his three great passions: volcanoes – Vesuvius was very active; Classical antiquities – Pompeii was ‘rediscovered’ the year he arrived; and his very much younger second wife, the magnificent Emma. In 1798, Hamilton and Emma fled Naples in the face of Napoleon’s advancing army – together with Emma’s lover, the naval hero Horatio Nelson. As this scandalous ménage à trois left to return overland to England, Hamilton packed up his collection of precious antiquities, his pension fund, and put them on two ships bound for England, HMS Colossus and HMS Serapis. On the night of 10th December 1798, the Colossus, while sheltering off St Mary’s, sank in a great storm that hit the Scilly Isles. Hamilton was devastated. Several months later, now back in London, Hamilton despondently opened the 16 remaining cases that had arrived safely on the Serapis. On the 12th March he wrote to Nelson: ‘It is quite beyond all expectations! Fortunately, the worst cases were taken on board the Colossus by mistake, when I thought the eight best cases were gone!’. In 1974, the wreck was rediscovered, as were Hamilton’s now very damaged antiquities. Over the next 25 years these were all meticulously restored by colleagues at the British Museum, and so proved a valuable source for my own research as a Classical archaeologist.

Michael Turner

Michael Turner is a cultural and garden historian. He has a strong personal and academic interest in the art, history, literature, and mythology of the Classical past and how these have shaped the gardens and landscapes of Britain and Italy – from the Renaissance, to the Grand Tour, to the present day. Michael holds a BA (1st class Honours with University Medal) from the University of Sydney. In 2009, he was elected a Fellow of the Society of Antiquaries in London and in 2018, a Fellow of the Linnean Society, the world’s oldest active biological society.


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