The Teän adventure

One of the highlights of our recent trip to the Scillies was being able to go to Teän, an uninhabited island in the northern part of the group. It’s easily seen from many parts of the Scillies, but isn’t easy to get to in the normal course – unless you’re part of an organised trip, as we were, or have your own boat, which we don’t(!).

The approach to the island is quite impressive as one goes fairly close to a number of other uninhabited islands.

St Helen’s, Round Island lighthouse, and the beginning of Teän

Teän from the sea as we approached it, with Round Island lighthouse visible to the left.

As there is no quay on the island, the landing has to be by boat, by disembarking onto an inflatable dinghy which does the final part of the journey to shore.

Landing on the island via inflatable.

Landing on the beach on Teän.

When we landed, we were surprised by the amount of natural beach debris there was, presumably allowed to accumulate undisturbed by humans and their animals. Jen quickly acquired an impressive handful!

Jen easily acquired some interesting finds from the landing beach.

What was more depressing was the amount of plastic and other waste that had washed onto the island, and reflected the growing problem that’s being recognised locally as well as globally.

Remains of St Theona’s chapel in front and to the right. The wall is more recent.

As well as enjoying being on a deserted island, I was very keen to see the place where St Theona had had her dwelling. She was a Celtic hermit living in about the 8th century. At that time the island was connected to St Martin’s at low tide and would have been a bit less isolated than now; but despite that it still reflects the desire of Celtic mystics to seek out and live in desert places.

Ruins of the chapel and adjacent buildings on Teän.

The other location known for it’s Celtic hermitage is St Helen’s, an island we weren’t able to get to because of the weather, but easily seen to the west of Teän.

St Helen’s and Round Island Lighthouse viewed from Teän.

St Helen’s from Teän

The chapel of St Elidius on St Helen’s – probably the low stone wall just visible above the shoreline left of centre. (Click to enlarge)

After we’d got back to St Mary’s, Jen and I spend some time poring over the photos of St Helen’s to see if we could see the chapel of St Elidius, the 7th century Celtic monk who was a hermit there. By correlating the information on maps with the photos, we’re fairly sure it’s the low stone wall just above the shoreline to the left of centre in the photo to the right.

As Teän has one of the higher hills in the Scillies, it also has one of the best views. The panorama below takes in a 180-degree view from Tresco on the left, past St Helen’s and Round Island (with lighthouse), to White Island and St Martin’s to the right.

Panorama from the Teän main hilltop – from Tresco on the far left to St Martin’s on the far right. Click to enlarge!

View from the top of Teän – St Helen’s and the Round Island lighthouse being the obvious island landmarks.

It was a very memorable trip – and if we get the chance to go again, we’re keen to go to some of the other uninhabited islands.

Indulging the island cravings in the Scillies

Jen and I may be developing a serious case of nesiophilia (according to the dictionary, the inordinate fondness and hungering for islands). Going to the Scillies in the first place feeds the condition – but small islands cut off by the tide offer plenty of opportunities to indulge it still further.

Take, for example, Toll’s Island on the north-east corner of St. Mary’s… we had to cross to it as soon as we saw it, and I soon began speculating about how much fun it would be to camp on it when the tide is in.

Tolls Island, on the north-east side of St . Mary’s

Gugh, the much larger tidal island east of St Agnes, has a similar attraction. Jen wanted to stand in the middle of the bar just as the tide was receding. The only trouble was, the tide didn’t recede evenly, and still washed intermittently across the bar after we thought it had fallen enough, so Jen found herself running to avoid the sea washing over and into her boots! (She wasn’t quite quick enough though!!). A picture from later on in the day shows how much the sea level had fallen in a few hours.

The tide hadn’t cleared the sandbar to Gugh quite as completely as we’d thought.

This really was low tide on the Gugh bar!

We stayed on St Mary’s for the eight days we were there, and walked most of the coastline on the Saturday. It’s a photogenic island in itself, especially with views across to the other ones.

Round Island Lighthouse from the Town Beach.

We visited Bryher on one of the days, partly because there was a wildlife walk during  the afternoon. The channel across to Tresco is particularly photogenic – both to the north (from one stretch of moorland to another) and to the much lusher south.

The view across to northern Tresco from Shipman Head Down on Bryher

Looking south to Tresco from Bryher’s Shipman Head Down

My idea of a wildlife walk generally involves birds and mammals, so I was surprised to be enthused about lichens by the excellent leader from the Isles of Scilly Wildlife Trust, Darren Hart. The moorland on Bryher has lots of lichen – which indicates a good air quality. In particular, the golden hair lichen is restricted to only a few places in the south-west of the UK, which are fortunate to have relatively clean air.

Golden hair lichen on Bryher – rare in the UK, and an indicator of clean air

a native 7-spot ladybird on Bryher

While on this walk I was very excited to see a 7-spot ladybird. I should not be excited about this, but the spread of the invasive Harlequin has meant that seeing a native 7-spot was an event. Six years ago when the species was spreading I heard stories about it cannibalising our native species. I didn’t believe it – until the first one I saw in Cheltenham was, grotesquely, doing exactly that to a native 2-spot. Since then, the only species I have seen has been the Harlequin – until last week when I saw a 7-spot on Bryher.

One island we were keen to visit more thoroughly was St Martin’s, which tends to get overlooked, but has a quiet charm of its own – definitely helped by an outstanding bakery! We decided to explore the eastern and northern coasts. As we approached the daymark in the north-east corner, a group there were about to take a photograph of themselves – so it made far more sense for me to take theirs and for them to return the favour!

Jen and me at the daymark on St Martin’s.

Panorama of the St Martin’s coast from near the daymark in the north-east corner.

Iceland Gull off The Garrison on St Mary’s

The bird-watching during the trip as a whole was less exciting than I was expecting, and I was not anticipating the most notable bird being a gull! I’d seen reports of a couple of juvenile Iceland gulls at Porthloo on St Marys, so saw my first one there – but then found another by chance just off The Garrison at Morning Point. Its whiteness meant that even with my relatively low interest in gulls, I couldn’t really miss it!

Jen: “Do I look fat?”
Me: “Yes. That’s because you’re preggers”

We were keen to take a photo of Jen being preggers, and had several goes at doing so. We eventually realised that a deliberately posed one would look better than one that was meant to look natural while Jen was holding an unnatural pose! We took this one on our walk around the Garrison, shortly after encountering the Iceland Gull.

My attempts at wildlife photography were more limited than I expected but the trip around the Garrison was more fruitful – partly because of an obliging meadow pipit and a couple of showy song thrushes – which are renowned for their approachability compared to the mainland. So I’ll finish with those!

Being stared at by a Meadow pipit

Song thrush on St Mary’s. Getting down to the thrush’s level helped with this photo.

Some Cornish refreshment in Polruan

Jen and I have just come back from a much-needed few days of rest and refreshment in Cornwall. We were able to stay in Polruan thanks to our friends Rico and Lucy, who have a house there.

Not too bad a view from the bedroom window!!

Polruan is a very picturesque large village at the mouth of the river Fowey, directly opposite the town of Fowey, to which it is connected by regular ferry trips throughout the day.

Fowey from Polruan Harbour

We were extremely fortunate with the weather – hardly any rain, and even a cloudless sky on the Friday. We took advantage of this by going on several coastal walks. Two of these were east of Polruan: one to Lantic Bay and the other from there for another couple of miles. The third was from Fowey round to the headland named ‘The Gribbin’, and which gave some stunning views back towards the Fowey river mouth. We also did the ‘Hall Walk’, which is a 4-mile loop around Polruan, Fowey, and the lower parts of the river, and also involves two ferry crossings! Most of these walks we were able to do straight from the front door.

Lantic Bay, a couple of miles east of Polruan

Polruan harbour, viewed from the path going west towards the Gribbin.

On Sunday we went to the church in Fowey, and we were impressed by the warm welcome and the commitment to the faithful teaching of scripture. We met and chatted with a lady called Anne, who then invited us to join her and her husband Dick at the local sailing club for lunch. This was an unexpected and very enjoyable occasion!

Boatyard at Polruan

From the house, we could see a boatyard which was in active operation throughout the working day. One of the people we met at the sailing club happens to be the owner of the boatyard. The orange boat above (and you can tell that I’m really into precise sailing lingo!) is being built from scratch and is nearly complete, while the blue boat, which is from St. Martin’s in the Scillies, is one that they built twenty years ago, and is now being refurbished. Tourism may be the main part of the economy, but there is clearly more to the area than just that.

 

A red start to a few days around Mousehole

Andrew – Jen’s bro – booked us all in for a few days in Mousehole over the New Year weekend. I was much looking forward to this anyway – but when an Eastern Black Redstart turned up there about ten days’ previously, I started to get a little twitchy…

I don’t normally take that much interest in sub-species but this one is a bit different… it’s much prettier (and redder) than the normal European black redstart, which is present in small numbers in the UK throughout the year; but, more notably, as it breeds in central Asia and winters in the Middle East, it shouldn’t normally be here – so why a small handful have turned up in the UK this winter is anyone’s guess. [A good guide to the black redstart subspecies is here: ref.]

Thus the first morning we were in Mousehole I headed down to the beach where it was residing (having briefly seen it the previous night), and spent a couple of hours trying to get some good photos.

Eastern black redstart, on the rocks at Mousehole.

Eastern black redstart, on the rocks at Mousehole.

Eastern black redstart in Mousehole, peering up to the top of the wall of the garden it also frequented.

Eastern black redstart in Mousehole, peering up to the top of the wall of the garden it also frequented.

As we did during the summer, Jen and I also went in search of some of the ancient archaeoloigcal remains in the area. One of these is the Tregiffian Burial chamber from around the late Neolithic/early Bronze Age. This type is unique to the area, with around a hundred on the Scilly Isles (eg here) and only about a dozen in west Cornwall. It’s bizarrely close to the B3315!

Tregiffian Entrance Grave - similar to ones found in the Scillies

Tregiffian Entrance Grave – similar to ones found in the Scillies

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Rachel’s amazing Thomas the Tank Engine cake for George. Photo by Andrew.

Jen and I had a windswept coastal walk near Porthgwarra on the Saturday morning. We started near the Minack open air theatre, and passed St Levan’s holy well: this is one of the more impressively natural of the wells that I’ve seen, and lies close to the ruined foundations of an early Comish church. Later that day, we had another windy trip to Land’s End with Andrew & Rachel, Sophie & George in the afternoon. Not exactly photogenic weather conditions – but an attack of the flu later on put paid to other chances!

Despite this, it was great to be able to spend a few days with Jen’s family. We celebrated George’s second birthday on the Saturday, so Rachel cooked an amazing Thomas the Tank Engine cake for him!

Jen near Porthgwarra

Jen near Porthgwarra

Jen with Rachel, Sophie, Andrew and George, blown around by the wind at Land's End

Jen with Rachel, Sophie, Andrew and George, blown around by the wind at Land’s End

We did however manage a little bird-watching on the morning of our return…. I’d like to say that the photo of this whimbrel took lots of careful thought with the lighting, shadows and reflections on the beach – but it was just luck…

Whimbrel on the beach at Penzance

Whimbrel on the beach at Penzance

Wandering among the stones in Cornwall

After our week in the Scillies, Jen and I had a week with my mother in Cornwall near St Cleer. The week mostly revolved around stones and gardens!

Mum and Jen at the Lost Gardens of Heligan

Mum and Jen at the Lost Gardens of Heligan

We visited both the Lost Gardens of Heligan and the Eden Project. Both are very impressive, though in some ways the Lost Gardens were a bit more relaxing to go around, possible because there were fewer eco-political messages.

Our location on the edge of Bodmin Moor meant that we were very close to a number of impressive ancient monuments. One of these is the Hurlers, a collection of three Bronze Age stone circles (around 1500BC) which is, apparently, a unique arrangement. Within two miles was an even older monument, the neolithic Trevethy Quoit, dating from about 3000BC, which may have been as much a shrine as a tomb. These are fascinating and tantalising insights into the communities that lived in the area five millennia ago.

Two of stone circles at the Hurlers.

Two of stone circles at the Hurlers.

Trevethy Quoit, dating from about 3000BC

Trevethy Quoit, dating from about 3000BC

Jen and Rich at the Cheesewring, Bodmin Moor

Jen and Rich at the Cheesewring, Bodmin Moor

Yet more ancient – because it’s entirely natural – is the Cheesewring, a granite tor a mile or so beyond the Hurlers. Jen and I went there on what was meant to be a nice long walk. Instead, we ended up trying to cross a bog (Witheybrook Marsh), and in trying to avoid getting soaked we ended up getting deeper and deeper into it, until we retreated a short distance from where we entered. Jen said, “In a few days’ time you’ll find this funny”.

After we’d extricated ourselves we went up to Craddock Moor and looked for an un-named stone circle that was up there. We succeeded in finding it – and what was interesting was to see what a circle looks like that hasn’t been excavated (although some maintenance does appear to have been carried out).

Stone circle on Craddock Moor

Stone circle on Craddock Moor

We took Mum to Golitha Falls, a lovely wooded stream not far from where we were staying. When we came to a steep section, Mum decided to wait while we descended – but, ever alert, she was soon pointing out grey wagtails flying along the stream. The photo below is some distance from being my best, but it does capture a moment quite nicely!

Grey wagtail feeding a juvenile at Golitha Falls

Grey wagtail feeding a juvenile at Golitha Falls

Jen and I had more walking success going along a short section of the coast path from Looe on our final day. Although the weather was cloudy at the start it cleared up during the afternoon and provided us with some excellent views – and a very showy, if rather flighty, juvenile stonechat.

The coast path west of Looe

The coast path west of Looe

Two snaps and it was off - but this juvenile stonechat was very showy while it was there!

Two snaps and it was off – but this juvenile stonechat was very showy while it was there!

Searching for the desert in the Scillies

There's a good reason why humans are not allowed on Annet... two of the present residents swimming offshore

There’s a good reason why humans are not allowed on Annet… two of the present residents swimming offshore

The Scilly Isles has a large number of deserted islands and rocky outcrops, each of which have their own history… Nornour, in the Eastern isles, was only recently discovered to have housed an important Roman shrine on the way from Gaul to Ireland; Samson was populated until the middle of the nineteenth century; and islands such as Annet now house important seabird colonies.But there were a number of others, which lay close to St Martin’s, that particularly fascinated Jen and myself.

One of these, White Island, lay tantalisingly opposite our lunch spot on our final full day. Seals bobbed around in the sheltered channel, entertainingly curious. I was sure that the map showed that a bar across to the island would appear at low tide but while we were there the sea remained a barrier.

White Island from St. Martin's

White Island from St. Martin’s

We left after lunch, but the lure of exploring a deserted island proved too strong and I persuaded Jen that we should try to cross. By this time another young couple (sorry, a couple who were themselves young) arrived, peered at the sea, and then trod across carefully, trying not to slip from the rocks into any unseen gullies.

So we followed, removing boots and socks, and gingerly waded in… not, in my case, very elegantly… but having learned from the other two we picked our way across without getting too deep. Ten minutes later we looked back and saw that the shingle bar was almost clear of the water… had we waited we’d have crossed with little drama.

White Island at low tide

White Island at low tide: no longer an island

Yet there was still the excitement of being on an uninhabited island, knowing that if we stayed on more than about three hours, we’d be stranded until the next low tide. We were experiencing the allure of the desert… more than a millenium ago, this drew Christian hermits to these islands – and specifically to two that lay a short distance further west.

St Helen's - the home of St Elidius around the 7th century, as seen from White Island

The island at top left is St Helen’s, the home of St Elidius around the 7th century – as seen from White Island

Fifteen hundred years agothese two (St Helen’s and Teän) would have been tidal islands – much as White Island is now. The name St Helen’s is a corruption of St Elidius, the name of a 7th or 8th century hermit about whom little is known, except that he was reputed to be the son of a British king and a bishop. His cell is still visible on the island, as are the mediaeval buildings connected with the monastery on Tresco. In 1461 Pope Pius II granted an indulgence to “the faithful who go in great numbers to the Chapel of St Elidius” [ref] which, whatever the pre-Reformation tone, indicates the great significance of the site locally.

Neighbouring St Helen’s is Teän, a name more obviously derived from ‘Theona’, a female hermit from the same era, about whom even less is known than Elidius. Her influence also seems to have inspired a monastic community that survived for centuries. In the 1950s, an archaeological investigation discovered sixteen Christian graves. One belonged to an elderly lady, who may (because of the location of her grave under the altar of the mediaeval chapel on the island) have been Theona herself.

Teän and St. Helen's - homes to the hermits St Theona and St Elidius - with Round Island Lighthouse in the distance

Teän and St. Helen’s – homes to the hermits St Theona and St Elidius – with Round Island Lighthouse in the distance; viewed from St Martin’s

Like St Cuthbert on Lindisfarne (and later, even more remotely, on Inner Farne), these Celtic saints were heading for the British equivalent of the desert. They were following in the footsteps of Antony the Great towards the end of the fourth century, and the thousands who followed him, in subsequent centuries, into the Egyptian desert. Their purpose was to become holy by battling demons, and to intercede for others in spiritual warfare.

This view of what it is to live a holy life seems alien to us in the 21st century, used as we are to comfortable western lifestyles. But perhaps the island mystics had a better insight into Biblical spirituality than we do today: after all, John the Baptist spent his life in the desert eating locusts and wild honey (Matt 3), and Jesus went into the desert for 40 days and nights specifically to be tested by the devil (Matt 4).

I’m fascinated by St Elidius and St Theona – about whom so little is known except what has been found archaeologically, but who represent a deep strand of Celtic spirituality about which we ourselves have very little understanding.

Exploring the Scillies with Jen

Jen and I have just come back from a couple of weeks in the Scillies and Cornwall. Having been to the Scillies before, I was delighted to be able to introduce Jen to these beautiful islands; although having gone as a birdwatcher previously, many of the sights were new to me as well.

Bants Carn tomb, a Bornze Age entrance grave on St Mary's

Bants Carn tomb, a Bornze Age entrance grave on St Mary’s

For example, there’s a lot of archaeological interest on these islands, and among the most notable are the remains in the north-west of St Mary’s. The Bants Carn tomb (above) is a Bronze Age entrance grave – a style which is prominent in these islands but unusual elsewhere. A short distance below is the Halangy Down village, which dates to about the first and second centuries AD. This is quite extensive: the layout of the village is still prominent, with the remains of 11 stone houses being evident.

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Halangy Down village, dating from about the first two centuries AD. This photo shows part of the Courtyard House.

We stayed in Hugh Town on St Mary’s because of its central location and greater amenities. From there we travelled around the islands during the week: we landed on all of the main ones, but also toured around a few of the outer ones. Whenever we landed we headed out to the wilder areas… about which, more later.

On Shipman Head Down - the northern tip of Bryher - looking towards Men-a-vaur and Round Island lighthouse.

On Shipman Head Down – the northern tip of Bryher – looking towards Men-a-vaur and Round Island lighthouse.

From Bryher to Tresco: with the grimly-named Hangman Island in the middle. The guy waiting by the boat later ferried a load of shellfish across to Tresco.

From Bryher to Tresco, with the grimly-named Hangman Island in the middle. The guy waiting by the boat later ferried several box-loads of shellfish across to Tresco.

Puffins near Annet

Puffins near Annet

We did do some birdwatching… including a rather grim pelagic trip. From the website I’d been led to expect something which was dedicated to birdwatching: instead it was a fishing trip with a few birdwatchers on board. Enough said! In fairness though I did see a number of European storm-petrels which I’d been keen to see – and which only come to land to breed, and only then at night.

We had better success with a more conventional day-time trip to the uninhabited island of Annet, which is closed all year to help conserve the wildlife. We were lucky to see a good number of puffins, which were coming to the end of their breeding season, so are about to leave for the winter. Then as we left Annet and began a return to St Agnes we were attended briefly by a couple of porpoises!

We were very fortunate with the weather, which had been poor in previous weeks but was stable throughout much of our time there, improving towards the end. The best day was our final one, so at the last minute we decided on a tour of the Eastern Isles – which are currently uninhabited, except by seals and sea-birds. I took the photo below as we arrived in the harbour at St Martin’s, before returning to St Mary’s and the boat back to Penzance.

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The view as we arrived in the harbour at St Martin’s, having done a trip round the Eastern Isles (visible on the horizon)