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.

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.