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.

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.