At the most south-westerly tip of England, where the country breaks apart and scatters itself into the sea the jigsaw reforms into the Isles of Scilly. Twenty eight miles west of Cornwall lie 140 islands, five inhabited. Long hours of sunshine and the benevolent hand of the Gulf Stream mean a frost free, subtropical climate. Aloes grow in gutters, palms peep over rooftops.
Tresco is the middle island where everything exudes quality – magnificent heathland and rocky landscapes, white sand beaches, coastal paths, freshly caught fish and accommodation. The dining room at excellent The New Inn looks across glittering seas to nearby Bryer. There are holiday cottages, timeshares and the Tresco Stores and Deli: organic pasta for your dinner, quails eggs, giant prawns and chocolate fondant. This is Waitrose-on-Sea. At the Ruin Beach Cafe a ruined smugglers cottage forms part of the terrace. After spicy crab linguine and home baked focaccia a restorative walk, the best way to see the island, is called for, round the rocky coast – all 2 miles of it! Scramble up lumps of granite to a weathered perch and you can stare across an inlet to the ruins of King Charles’ castle and that of his nemesis, Cromwell.
Tresco is home to the world class Abbey Gardens. Over 4,000 specimens grow here. Ambassadors from New Zealand, Mexico, South Africa, Chile, the Canaries. If you were blindfolded you wouldn’t know which country you were in. I was shown round the gardens by Mike Nelhams, who’s been Abbey’s curator for 32 years. Flame trees, King Proteas and Norfolk pines mingle with beds that explode into a firework display of colour throughout the summer, in spring flowers are weeks ahead of the mainland – 18 flourishing acres, fertilised by sea spray. The Valhalla collection within the garden is impressive with its colourful figureheads salvaged from the islands’ shipwrecks. No wonder Mike Nelhams describes Alan Titchmarsh’s reaction as: ‘Like a child in a sweetshop.’
The gardens were born in 1834, when Augustus Smith, an entrepreneur and social reformer brought his extraordinary collection of plants together and began to lay them out according to their native lands. There are over 20,000 now from 80 countries. Smith built a house on Tresco and set about good works. He was the first person in Britain to introduce compulsory school education and rehoused the widows of Samson island after their husbands went down with the pilchard catch. The same family have maintained the premier league Abbey Gardens from the start. A barren headland has been transformed into the captivating gardens of today.
But you don’t have to be a gardener to appreciate Tresco. The Tresco and Bryer Food Festival, part of autumn’s Taste of Scilly Festival, brings together local producers: bakers, brewers, fishermen and chefs, to celebrate the abundance of produce across the islands. Tresco Boat Services visit other islands daily, as well as offering trips to see birds and seals. You can cycle, fish and dive. The Scillies have a magic that draws you back. They’ve been looking for a new policeman – life includes dealing with abandoned seal pups and pasty making. It’s safe to leave bikes and crash helmets unattended. Puffins fly in to nest, cormorants dive in the waters, children chase oyster catchers on the beach, shelducks, herons and egrets soar overhead. There are even 40 red squirrels in the Abbey Gardens after a successful introduction three years ago. You can get to the Scillies by train from London to Penzance, then Skybus to St Mary’s and on by boat to Tresco.
In these days of political upheaval it’s not often you’d want to be identified as a member of the ‘Scilly Party’. In the case of these islands though, I’d be proud.