The weather for the next few days was forecast as wet, cold and windy; not good for our Spring break in one of our favourite places in the world, the Scillies. But, although it had rained all night it had dried by the time we awoke the next morning.
It is strange how we awake at seven a.m. everyday to our first job – letting the dogs out for their toilet before they are fed. Today, we wanted to be up early, so Cherry insisted on putting on her alarm clock for 6.30 a.m. As usual, I woke up several times before that to check. It was still dark, so I lay in bed listening to the early bird calls. As always, the first call was that of a crowing cock pheasant warning the other cocks in the area that he was the boss. Next, a heron harshly called “krarck” on his way to the big pond. Still dark, both cuddly wood pigeons and collared doves cooed their early morning greetings. The nesting jackdaws started arguments with their noisy neighbours. As the light came with a sky striped like a raspberry ripple ice cream, various tits, including the tiny black and white acrobatic long tailed tits, goldfinches, nuthatches and house sparrows visited the peanut, fatball and sunflower seed hangers outside our bedroom window. We arose on the dot of 6.30 a.m. fed the dogs and placed our cases with our car. The sun came up and we enjoyed a fairly easy trip to Penzance. Cherry noted a perched male kestrel on the roadside, we now note these stunning little falcons because we feel they are becoming less common.
We arrived on the ship Scillonian III just 30 minutes before departure. It was not as our normal summer visits and it was easy to find a seat outside on deck with good views, but a little sheltered from the cold wind.
It was a very good trip as far as wildlife seen. Between the ship and the coast soon after leaving Penzance, a substantial group of gannets were fishing, circling and plummeting down like arrows, one after the other, probably after herring or sardine. A circling, skimming, group of manx shearwaters were circling over an area where very quickly we saw a few Atlantic dolphin leaping effortlessly over the waves. Indeed, we saw three more small groups of dolphins and then three puffin flying and several odd razorbills in small groups and one tiny petrel skipping over the waves. A large sole cormorant flew in front of the ship as we neared the islands. As we reflected, coming into St Marys, we decided it was one of the best ever trips seeing the beautiful lemon sided Atlantic dolphins.
Once we arrived at the Atlantic Hotel, booked into our beautiful room overlooking the harbour bay, we enjoyed a quick drink of Cornish beers in the bar awaiting our cases. We went for a short walk and then retired after a quick supper. The tide was high and as we looked out over the harbour, a small flock of turnstones was forced up to the tiny areas of sandy beach picking over the seaweed for sandfly and shrimps.
Our room is magnificent although up several flights of stairs as would be expected in an old property. We have a picture window, on one side of which is a small settee and on the other an impressive and very comfortable, winged, soft material chair, both with an open view of the bay and harbour.
Just as dawn broke we looked out at stunning dark grey cotton wool clouds with an underbelly of golden yellow where the sun was rising. The tide was high and came right up to the houses and protective walls lining the bay. The water had only the lightest ripple on the mercury reflecting surface. When we were here last, there were hundreds of small boats, now there were very few so the bay looked larger and not as colourful.
Instead of being woken by pheasants and herons, we were woken by the peevish whines and mews of herring gulls, a sound that has always been most evocative to me since our family holidays at Beesands in the Devonshire South Hams, when I was just 8 and 9 years old. With a good feeling and having enjoyed a traditional breakfast, Cherry and I made our way to the harbour to catch the boat to Tresco. Due to the Spring tides, we landed at Carn Near, the furthest away landing pier on the island. As we walked across the most exposed area on the island, we looked at the various flowers and plants and took many photos. A male stonechat sat in his lookout tree and watched us, but he did not call as the seven oyster catchers who flew past as we arrived peeping and piping extravagantly as though welcoming us back to Tresco.
As we walked on through the woods around the famous gardens, we were constantly surprised at how tame the various birds were. Blackbirds, wood pigeons and robins ignored us completely. When we came across a song thrush within a few feet he was so tame and photogenic that he posed as we took a snap of him. We heard an early blackcap singing and near the large pond Canada geese, mallard, mute swan, coot and moorhen, all washing themselves in or around the water, together with the massive great black backed gulls as they bathed the salt from their plumage together with the smaller herring gulls.
We enjoyed a tasty lunch of crab on toast and scallops in cauliflower purée and walked slowly back to the New Grimsby landing where we caught the boat back to St Marys. On the way, we watched a garden warbler and a pair of pied wagtail and heard a curlew and several oyster catchers piping continuously. On the boat trip back we saw a cormorant drying itself with wings held out and the first arctic tern of the summer, the beautiful sea swallow after its massive immigration.
(Day 3) Sunday looked very dull and potentially wet. Over breakfast, we watched a pair of starlings building their nest in the eaves of part of the hotel. We decided we must not waste a day so dressed up for all possibilities; wet and/or cold. We then caught the Sapphire, Joe Renders boat, on a trip to see the birds of the outer islands and Annet, the uninhabited rat free island. On our way we spotted a great northern diver and then another almost immediately afterwards. Shags, great black backed and herring gulls flew over. On a major island on the way to Annet we saw a huge number of puffins, razorbills, fulmars and oyster catchers.
We saw just one guillemot a little further on and there were many Atlantic grey seals in the sea and on the rocks. Gannets flew above us and a peregrine falcon sat on a high rocky outcrop some way off.
On St Agnes, we enjoyed some more crab and a proper pasty, and on a short walk took more photos and watched flights of starlings.
Weather improved and the rain never materialised, and by 6pm the bay was lit by sunlight, so the whole sea looked like a blue mirror.
Although it rained that night; by 7 am there was a streak of orange sunlight in the west and below a fairly misty canopy. The bay was still, the water looked as though the whole was iced over as the light reflected on it.
The male starling is settling on the ground above his nest site but below our room, so he is completely oblivious of being watched. There is no human life as the tide is very high and not receding anywhere for man to take his dog for a walk. There is no movement on the boats, only the herring gulls are action players in this still life, almost painting like scene. It is peaceful, beautiful and charming. I can now see quite clearly the church where a single cross lit the tower last night. The starling is now whistling a slow melody to his wife who has started to sit on her pale blue eggs and shaking his wings just a little in this early morning cool. This is my Scilly. A man and his dog are now walking on a little sandy beach as the tide lowers. The day has started. There is now a shimmering line of light reflected on the water from below the real rising sun.
We caught the Meridian to St Martins. On the way, herring and great black backed gulls flew over the boat. Shags swam and dived for fish staying down for a minute or so every dive.
When we arrived, we walked past fields full of flowering daffodils, very much symbolic of the history of St Martins. A tiny field of less than a quarter of an acre was well filled with rows of neat potatoes; again part of the history of the island, but now even early growth doesn’t beat economy of scales of other countries, mainly the Mediterranean. Pheasants crowed, greenfinches tinkled and a wren sang at the top of his voice. A stonechat called like a stone being hit against another. The blue flowers were mainly bluebells, the white flowers are like a white bluebell with thin leaves but not actually a white bell, although there were some white (blue) bells. Gorse abounded but what was the white flower? We visited Scilly Scents and Churchtown Farm and they told us the flowers were wild garlic. It was certainly not like our garlic which has very green blade like leaves and a smaller head of single flowers. We will have to investigate when we return home.
The sighting of the day was a peregrine falcon flying over the centre of the island. We saw all its plumage including its moustaches and barred breasts. On the return journey we watched all the usual gulls, shags, gannets and kittiwakes.
(Day 5) The weather continues to confound us. The temperature had risen. The wind has dropped and the sun rose strongly with a clear blue sky.
It certainly brought the visitors out. We were to catch the Meridian today to Bryher, but it filled way before half the queue had boarded. The boatmen immediately put on the Seahorse as a standby and everybody eventually reached Bryher, today via Tresco.
We were welcomed by the cries of individual cock wrens singing their territorial song, very loudly for such a tiny bird. We saw one barn swallow flying, the first of the year.
We enjoyed lunch at Hell Bay Hotel; we both had a crab sandwich. The surroundings look wonderful the vibrant green full of flowers, the lee a little deeper blue than the lighter sea. Apparently, three pairs of ringed plovers are breeding on the beach, but we did not disturb them.
We saw our first peacock butterfly, only our second butterfly to-date.
We enjoyed a pint of cider at Fraggle Rock Inn, while awaiting our return boat. A starling was whistling and bubbling. I looked around and spotted him on a chimney pot. Almost immediately, he started to initiate a mobile ringing tone. He continued whistling free style. Suddenly, we both heard a curlew calling down on the beach, but no, it was our starling. We wonder how many other birds he could imitate.
The sun shone all day through to the evening, the first time this week.
Day 6 It rained quite hard last night and was grey when we awoke. By 8am some lighter clouds began to show through. The herring gulls were particularly noisy and flying around more than usual. Yesterday was such that we actually felt the heat of the sun in the form of sunbeams. We can hope for the cloud to clear in the next hour or two.
We will have breakfast soon and have noted how sweet the local tomatoes are and how beautiful and deep ochre are the egg yolks. We have therefore decided we will have a small group of hens (with a cockerel) and of course keep them on a free range basis in a moveable electric netting fence which will be moved on a regular basis. At night they will be locked away in a portable house made with a side entrance on a ramp that locks up, a netting front, a slanted roof, 4 nesting boxes accessible from outside, all set on legs and transportable by 2 pairs of handles.
The weather improved and we again visited Tresco. A very good day as usual. Only one new wader seen; black tailed godwit feeding on tide line, only one. Our third butterfly, a common blue was seen near the new Inn and a flock of linnets flying near Carn Near.
(Day 7) We awoke at 7am to a perfect sunrise, a bay with hardly a ripple reflecting the orange sun. Our starling is on guard uttering little whistling calls and shivering his outstretched wings. Gulls are floating in the bay with the tiniest rings of bright water. It bodes well for the day. The sky is a perfect washed out blue and the little boats are sitting quietly on their heavy black shadows, the only movement being the tiny wavelets lapping the tide line where seaweed from earlier stronger tides sit full of sand shrimps for the starlings and turnstones to find.
A mature herring gull has just landed and is sitting on one of the lower buildings. He is uttering short mews but otherwise standing quietly. He is snow white with a pearl grey back and black and white wing tips tucked above his tail. His eye is bright yellow and his beak too is yellow, large and dangerous looking. On the end he has a drip of salt water that sparkles like a diamond with a blood red spot at the end of his bill like a ruby. He shakes his head and the diamond shatters. He starts some delicate grooming and plumage readjustment. He is a fine fellow. Why is he maligned so much, purely for being a finely evolved opportunist? After all, is that not what successful humans are?
Today, we caught a boat to St Martins again, as, if we had gone to Bryher, which we had planned, we would have only 2 hours on the island due to the difficulties of the tide. We first went to “North Farm Gallery,” Highertown, St Martin’s TR25 0QL (01720 423028, Nick). We spent a little time looking at all the wonderful pictures of views, birds, flowers and plants and animals. We particularly liked an island picture map and a photoprint of a pair of courting gannets. We bought both to be sent to us at Tredivett Mill.
On the walk to Kharma, St. Martins Hotel where we planned lunch, we saw a couple of interesting birds; Greenland wheatear , whitethroat as well as linnets flying over. We took some interesting photos; first a group of very restful North Devon ruby red cattle, then a fantastic picture of bright orange flowers, a beautiful field of bluebells, a picture of Cherry under a cherry tree in full bloom. We enjoyed a lunch of crab cakes and a crab sandwich, both of which we shared with a bottle of Pinot Grigio. As we looked out we watched a fishing boat returning to base but since they are not allowed to gut fish in port, they stayed out gutting fish in the straight between St Martins and the uninhabited island surrounded by hundreds of black backed gulls, taking advantage of the free meal.
Day 8 Talking to a couple of the young lads working in the day boats we learned that today a cruise ship is due carrying 600 passengers. The boats will bring most of the passengers off, mainly to Tresco and St. Marys. This will bring in substantial income to the boatmen, some £8,000. With 56 cruise ships due in a year this brings in the boating fraternity almost half a million pounds. And of course the visitors spend money in the inns, hotels, cafes, and restaurants and at Tresco gardens and other attractions.
Today, no specific sunrise took place but the glow in the water reflects on the bay as though it’s a huge tray of metal beaten by a craftsmen’s hammer. It is alive, and no 2 days does it look the same. Tide level, light and wind all make delicate touches. Sitting by the window in our bedroom, looking over the harbour and bay is simply one of the happiest parts and a wonderful start to each day, especially with a cup of Earl Grey and a couple of chocolate digestive biscuits.
An hour later, the sky was full of heavy grey clouds mildly interlaced with some swathes of silver and yellow light and just a little blue peeping through. The beaten tray of the bay was now a slightly lighter silver. It could be a pleasant day but nothing was certain as yet, only a betting man would have made such a decision and with coats, hats, warm pullovers as well as lighter clothing, neither Cherry or I had ever put even one pound on the Grand National. We would wait to see. But first, breakfast.
Again we boated to Tresco. On the way and on the return we watched gannets plummeting into the sea, wings drawn hard back, beak and head like an arrow, entered the water with a splash. Our first house martins were flying over the big pond on the island and some rock pipits were feeding around Carn Near.
We bought some seeds from the gardens. We met a girl called Zoe Quinney who is moving to Plymouth and might like to volunteer with our charity.
A good day, our last full day
(Day 9) Saturday started dry and sunny. We pottered around St Marys and ended up at the Atlantic having sent our cases on to the Scillonian III. We sat outside and enjoyed a snack lunch and a drink in bright sunshine.
The tide was out sufficiently for the largest flock of turnstones to feed, some 40 in all, running this way and that, flipping up seaweed and eating the sand shrimps exposed. They are one of our favourite little sea shore birds, beautifully camouflaged in brown, blacks and creams and whites.
We got onto the Scillonian early for our trip back to Penzance quite unprepared for what turned out to be a really unpleasant journey.
We left the islands in bright sunshine but it soon clouded over and once we were away from the shelter of the islands it was obvious we were being rocked by a force 6 south-east gale. This really took affect when we were in the Atlantic away from the island where the ship was forced over to one side almost all the way. The wind blew slabs of the seawater right over the boat to land on the few passengers sitting outside. Cherry is a brilliant sailor in all weathers however rough. I am not so good and have to sit outside in such weather with eyes fixed on the horizon. As soon as I go inside I feel seasick and anyway it was out of the question as inside so many were actually being sick – that finishes me off! So, we braved the outside with huge splashes of sea water braking over us. Once wet it is surprising how quickly the whole body gets cold although we were completely covered head and body in waterproof clothing. Our feet and legs were becoming colder and wetter. A few gannets braved the south easterly and swerved behind the ship, lower to the sea and then shot up and away like the true ocean birds that they are. Eventually, after a journey which took a full three hours, we neared the harbour at Penzance. But this was not the end.
The Captain brought the ship into harbour but the gale kept pushing the ship away from the harbour wall and eventually with heaving engine power the Captain moved the ship out to make another clean entry. It was not to be. Only on his third attempt did the ship move to the landing site with a noticeable ‘bang’. Immediately, ropes were swung from shore to ship and we were eventually tied up. This exercise took over an hour and we were thoroughly wet and cold. I can never remember being so cold and was shivering uncontrollably. As we all queued to disembark there was one last warning “beware of the squalls reaching over the top of the wall and be very careful of the “acres” of seaweed, very slippy indeed, deposited on the pier.” We collected our luggage and our car. By this time it was becoming dark and we realised it had taken over an hour to disembark rather than the normal twenty minutes. A dramatic end to wonderful holiday. We have already booked to return to the Atlantic Hotel next June – our more normal time of the year to visit.
Gallery of Photos from our trip
- A collection of short stories -
Tony is a passionate writer as well as an active conservationist. He is currently working on a number of books and we are delighted to be able to share a few stories from them.