I’ve finally finished going through my photographs from our trip to the Isles of Scilly in 2006. I’ve put together a collection of my favourites. Click through to comment on any individual photograph.
The Lower Moors Nature Trail leads through a wetland consisting of a mixture of Sallow Thicket, Reed bed and wet pasture. There is a small pool in the middle of the moor overlooked by two hides. The raised path gives views across the largest Reed bed on St Mary’s and there is a circular board walk through the reeds on the western side of the main path.
A nature trail in the middle of an island with a pond in the middle – how perfect! On our second evening in the Isles of Scilly, everyone seemed content to do their own thing. That suited me just fine: I wanted to go exploring the Moors but it was unlikely to be suited to Anne’s wheelchair. I grabbed my camera, hoping for pretty photographs of exciting birds, and made my way to the trail.
I walked for about a minute and a half when I came to a junction. I shrugged and turned right … and arrived at another junction. I began to curse at myself for not looking at the map on the sign but slowly the tranquillity of the moors began to comfort me. I could still hear the seagulls from the coast but the lack of human noises was noticeable: no engines nor voices here. The scent had shifted from the salt and seaweed of Hugh Town to something completely different. Deep and green and sweet. Primal.
I kept going and the next right turn delivered me to one of the hides. It was a wooden shack, windows covered with hinged shutters that opened up and down like a letter flap on a door. I pushed one up and looked out. The pond was incredibly calm: if I breathed out too quickly, it might cause a ripple.
A man came in behind me with a pair of binoculars. Paranoia overtook me: what is the etiquette for sharing a hide? Should I say hello? Saying nothing seemed rude but if I made a noise I might scare the birds away. I nodded at him. He sat down at a window on the other side without a word. I took care to keep my breathing shallow and waited.
A grey heron flew slowly over the pond and then landed at the edge, looking statuesque. I stole a glance at my companion from the corner of my eye. I had no idea if I should tell him the heron was there, perhaps even tap his shoulder to gain his attention. Clearly he was here to see birds, is it not horrible of me not to tell him that there is a perfect specimen on my side? Or would that be the ultimate in rudeness?
In the end I said nothing and hoped the man might notice for himself. He stayed for a few minutes longer and then muttered something and left. I felt guilty for hogging the heron. By the time I looked back, it was gone.
But I was also relieved to be on my own again, relieved of the fear of doing something wrong. I relaxed and looked out my window. As the sun began to sink lower in the sky, the sound increased. I heard birds all around me, chirping and hoarse cries and one loud caw. They were everywhere: I just couldn’t see them.
Another heron, or perhaps the same one again, flew over the pond, skimming the water. I was quicker to react this time: I grabbed my camera and snapped a shot. A shocking blitz of light filled the area: I had forgotten to disable my flash. I look at the other hide: if anyone was there they must have seen my faux pas. I had frightened everything away for miles, no doubt. I moved away from the window, just in case someone in the other hide had a slingshot, and changed the settings on my camera to manual.
The clouds reflected light pink against the bright green algae of the pond. I didn’t dare move in case I scared everything away again. I could hear the occasional rustle of a bird in the reeds. A group of three young men stormed into the hide, lugging backpacks and high-powered binoculars. They looked out the windows and commented loudly on the utter lack of wildlife before thumping their way out again.
I rested my head against the side of the window. The wood began to vibrate, the thumpathumpathumpa of a helicopter’s pulse filling the hide as it drew closer, followed by the roar of the engine as it flew directly over my pond, as if to make absolutely sure there would be no birds within a five-mile radius of my spot.
I glared at the helicopter and then looked at the time: 20 minutes until sunset. I knew I should get moving but it was finally quiet again and I continued to hope that the heron might reappear and pose for me.
The door opened up carefully, a friendly-faced woman with ponytail of grey hair peeked in. She smiled at me and tiptoed to a seat, pulling a pair of binoculars out of an oversized handbag. I looked back out the window to see the heron standing at the far corner of the pond.
I started to lift my camera carefully and then changed my mind and turning towards the woman, whispered about the heron. She moved swiftly and soundlessly to my side and watched, rewarding me with another smile. The heron shifted its weight and then took off. I snatched at my camera, glancing at her before rushing to take the photograph in the failing light. She didn’t seem the least bit bothered and I breathed a sigh of relief. I had my heron photograph!
After I put the camera back down she began to whisper to me, pointing carefully out the window.
“There, a redshank, do you see it?”
I looked but saw nothing. I nodded. A black duck-type thing landed over on my side. I pointed to it and she whispered “Moorhen,” to me.
Meanwhile, the sun was setting. It occurred to me that this woman almost certainly had a torch in her bag but I hadn’t thought of anything that clever. Trying to follow that path back in the dark was not something I wanted to experience as part of my exploring. Nor did I want to admit to this friendly woman that I had come out quite so badly prepared.
A bird landed on the grass directly in front of us and hopped around. “Snipe,” she whispered. I didn’t dare stay but I didn’t want to move and frighten away the birds from her. The light was fading fast. It suddenly occurred to me that Cliff was probably starting to wonder where I was and he would probably – oh my god – ring my mobile phone. The thought of filling the hide with my Nokia ring tone finally got me to my feet. She gave me a tight smile as I nodded and made my way out as quickly and quietly as I could.
I followed the path in the fading grey light and quickly arrived back at the main road with the reassuring rumble and headlights of island traffic. I took one last photo of the night claiming the harbour before returning to the lights of Hugh Town to tell the others of my adventure.
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The following morning, we left our hotel to do some exploring. Our hotel was in Hugh Town, known locally as just the Town.
‘The Town’ has a feeling unlike any other part of Scilly – built-up and almost urbanised. But there is usually a friendly feel to the place with people stopping in the street (and the road!) to stop and talk…. Whilst off-islanders hate to admit it, Hugh Town is the centre of society on Scilly!
From North-East Sole, or Thereabouts, Island Life on Scilly by Jonathan Smith and Jinny Stevens.
With a population just over one thousand, it was a bit too hectic for us. We walked from Hugh Town to Old Town, which is not the same as the Town, lest you be getting confused. Old Town was the principle seat of population in the Middle Ages and the location of Castle Ennor. It currently has a population of just over 300.
The Old Town Church, with 800 years of history, is home to the beautiful Old Town Churchyard, the resting place of Sir Harold Wilson, British Prime Minister in the 1960s and 70s.
Against the wall is the grave of the naval surgeon Abraham Leggatt who, at his own instructions, was buried upright in 1809 in a strong granite coffin that doubles as his headstone…. Curiously (or perhaps carelessly) the mason has inscribed one word twice.
From The Scilly Guidebook
This obelisk, perched on the highest point of the Old Church graveyard on St Mary’s, was raised in memory of Louise Holzmeister by her husband. The monument serves as a testament to his grief but also as a reminder of the terrible shipwreck of the Schiller.
It was the 7th of May 1875. The Schiller was an iron screw steamer sailing from New York with passengers and freight destined for Plymouth, Cherbourg and Hamburg. There were around 372 people on board
They were running ahead of schedule but, as they passed the Isles of Scilly, they ran into thick fog. The crew immediately took in the sails, reduced speed and kept a good look out. However, they missed the lighthouse at Bishop’s Rock and ended up to the east of it, within the dangerous waters of the archipelago.
They struck the rocks and between the heavy sea and the angle of the ship, they were unable to launch all the life boats. In the end they launched three of the eight available. The bulk of the survivors remained on the sinking ship and hoped for rescue. They shot their signal gun half a dozen times and then sent rockets up but the thick fog blanketed out the results. Only one shot was heard on St. Mary’s and that was misinterpreted as meaning that the Schiller had passed Bishop’s Rock and was clear of the Isles of Scilly.
At daybreak, ships from St. Agnes went to try to help but they were not able to get near the Schiller, owing to the weather. Seven men who were swimming in the water were rescued but the rest were trapped on the wreck. By the time the lifeboat from St Mary’s made it to the location, the ship had sunk and there was nothing left to do but collect the bodies.
One of the three lifeboats capsized. The other two made it to Tresco with 27 survivors.
Louise Holzmeister was a passenger on the Schiller. She was 23 years old and travelling to Germany to join her husband. Her body was never recovered.
(References: Ships, Shipwrecks and Maritime Incidents around the Isles of Scilly and The Scilly Guidebook)
From that sobering story, we wandered out of the graveyard to Nowhere. I can’t help but consider the local naming conventions.
The name Scilly (or Sully) is ancient and of unknown origin. The first recorded reference is in the first century AD with the c being added in the 16th.
St Mary’s was fairly obviously named after the Virgin Mary and thus must stem from a later date.
Hugh Town comes from the Hew Hill which probably comes from Old English “spur of land”
I can’t be bothered to research how Old Town got its name. I can guess.
I don’t know why there’s a part of Old Town called Nowhere. And I’m not sure how to find out. It’s not like I can google it. Go on, try!
But I do know that if you are a parent driver, that’s where you should park.
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I took my time arranging the next island trip. After arriving home from the Channel Islands, Anne had suffered a heart attack. I felt guilty at my immediate reaction: thank God it didn’t happen in the plane!
I knew she was feeling better when she started nagging me about our next trip. Which island and when, she wanted to know.
“Are you sure your doctor thinks it’s safe to fly?
“I don’t care what my doctor thinks!”
She made it clear to me that she did not intend to sit at home waiting for the next medical issue to arise. It was, she told me, the right time for her to take risks.
So we planned the flight to the Isles of Scilly. Cliff brought the plane into Elstree and rather unfortunately, went off the end of the runway. The repairs were straight-forward and quick but he managed to get quite a bit of teasing at the airfield. Cliff grimaced and pointed at me. “That’s why she’s flying.” The men laughed a bit too heartily for my tastes.
I often have an urge to dress as unprofessional as possible – mini-skirt and 3-inch stilleto heels, Madonna-style corset (maybe not, with my tummy) and bright red lipstick. I can’t really justify this other than a desire to mess with peoples heads and challenge their stereotypes but I was tempted again that morning, all dolled up before climbing into the left seat. But then I always hear Tom’s voice in my head: “If there was a fire in the cockpit, what would you do then? No protection on your legs and unusable shoes. You deserve what you get.”
So I dressed sensibly in long trousers and flat boots.
Once at the airfield I got out the map and my ruler, plotting a route across the southwest to the Isles of Scilly.
I resisted the urge to make it a sightseeing tour – Stonehenge, Salisbury, Avebury, etc, and instead did a sensible and correct route … on the third try, after lots of cursing about danger areas and prohibited zones.
The sky looked to be full of cloud so I was going to have to fly low. There are three primary issues you must into account when deciding what height to plan a VFR flight in the UK:
The quadrantal rule splits the compass into four parts and you choose a height depending on the direction in which you are flying. Presuming everyone uses the rule, it means that there will never be oncoming traffic at the same height as you: clever, huh?
Specifically, a track between 000-089 has an odd flight level, so you can fly at an altitude of 3,000 feet or 5,000 feet above sea level but not 4,000 feet. A track between 090-179 is odd flight level plus 500 feet, so you could choose to fly at 3,500 or 5,500 feet. 180-269 is even flight levels and 270-359 is even flight levels plus 500 feet.
This applies only to flights outside of controlled airspace and is mandatory for IFR flights and recommended for VFR. Note: most of mainland Europe uses the semi-circular rule instead. This is the same concept but you must make sure you know the system in use for the country in which you are flying.
So based on the quadrantal rule, we needed to be at either 2,500 feet (a little lower than I felt comfortable with) or 4,500 feet above sea level. As I was planning, I heard a light aircraft which I decided was a good sign that the clouds were breaking up. I decided on 4,500 feet.
The clouds didn’t break up.
In the end we did it as a low-level flight, 2,400 feet above sea level most of the way because that was quite simply as high as we could get without flying into cloud.
I enjoyed a guilty pleasure at the view but it was a stressful flight – all of the VFR flights were pressed down by the weather and the radio buzzed constantly.
There was one radio call that has stuck in my mind:
“Can you state your destination again?”
“St Mary’s, Scilly!”
I turned bright red as I realised how it sounded. Cliff and Anne both cracked up laughing but the controller seemed to understand what I meant.
St Mary’s won my affection before we even arrived. The controller greeted me and asked if I would like to do an anti-clockwise circuit of the islands. We descended to 1,000 feet and took in the archipelago, an awesome sight-seeing tour that I wouldn’t have thought to ask for.
Once parked, someone came out to greet us and offered to order a taxi for us. Or possibly the taxi – certainly everyone was on a first name basis with Graham, our driver. He agreed to take us to pick up a buggy for Anne (Cliff had tried to rent a car but to no avail – not even a black-market vehicle was to be had) and then to Schooners hotel.
A man flagged him down as we drove away from the airfield.
“Graham, she’s looking for you. She said you have your phone off.”
“I do,” said Graham with a grin and shrug and drove off.
We pulled up in front of the hotel. A man stopped at the sight of us unpiling our stuff out of the cab. “Schooners,” he said. It wasn’t a question. “You’ll be lucky if there is anyone there.” He shrugged and helped us carry the bags in. Keith, who had taken our booking, was there as planned and happily greeted our helper.
“One room for the three of us,” Ron said with a wink, his glance encompassing Anne and me.
“No problem,” said Keith, “top floor”
“No chance,” said Ron. “I’ll take these bags up one floor and that’s my limit.”
(Our trip on the Isles of Scilly will be continued next Friday so be sure to pop by!)
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I loved the idea of landing at every one of the British Isles from the moment my boyfriend set me the challenge. One of the key reasons was that these islands have some of the most interesting airfields I would ever come across.
St. Mary’s airfield was no exception to this. At 600 metres, it was my shortest runway: my previous best had been Alderney at what suddenly seemed a luxurious 880 metres.
Obviously, I was not going to go to a short runway in order to practise my short-field landings – I wanted a large margin for error until I was confident that I could do this consistently.
So I took the Saratoga out a few days before the planned trip. I chose to do circuits at an unlicensed airfield with an 1100 metre runway and a friendly group of people who I hoped might give me some tips. As I sipped my coffee and explained what I was doing, the CFI said, “Hang on, just one moment” and dashed out. He came back in dragging two young men behind him, one of whom was grinning like a maniac.
He introduced the young men: the insecure looking one was John, a new instructor in his 20s. George was the one with the crazy smile. I was about to find out why.
“George is here for instruction but the plane he usually flies is out of action. We were about to cancel his lesson. How about you take them both out. John can sit up front with you and help you with your short-fields, George can see a different plane and how it flies.”
George was positively bouncing with excitement.
“Sounds great,” I said, wishing desperately I’d done some circuits for practice BEFORE coming here, so that I could look a little slicker.
John pulled me to the side. “I’m not complex rated,” he said in a low voice.
“That’s OK,” I smiled. “I don’t need help with that side of things. Just help me land it in less than 600 metres.”
It was a fine summer day and the circuit was busy. I stepped through my downwind checks out loud and smiled at John, who seemed a bit pale. Everything looked fine to me so I ignored him and carried on with my approach. Just before touchdown, I registered that John had said something but not what. I was concentrating on my landing point and didn’t take it in. We touched down with barely a bump. I cleaned up the plane, put the power on and once we were up in the air again I glanced at John.
“What was that?”
It was then that I replayed the sounds in my mind – what he’d said, in a low voice, with no conviction, was “Go around.”
I glanced at him again. He looked distinctly uncomfortable. Was my flying that bad? I continued around the circuit and this time listened out for him as I came down on final approach. He said nothing until we were back in the air.
I realised he was deeply uncomfortable in a plane that he could not control. He was estimating my landing run in order to give himself something to focus on. It seemed to work: his fists eventually unclenched. We did another few circuits, each one shorter than the last until John told me he thought I would have landed the Saratoga in under 500 metres.
“You are fine,” he told me. “Make this one to land.”
“That was fantastic,” exploded the teenager from the rear – I’d forgotten he was there. “What a great plane! I can’t believe how fast it goes!”
I felt bad. I fly the Saratoga slower than anyone I know – especially in the circuit where I’m going as slow as I can get away to give myself time to think. If he thought that was impressive, he should try going out with a real pilot.
I thanked John for putting up with me and he smiled, for the first time, and told me to enjoy my trip to the Isles of Scilly. “Great place. Great runway with an amazing hump. You’ll do fine.”
Now there was nothing left to do but get Anne packed up and head for St Mary’s.
[Names and identifying features have been changed]
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The first reference to flying at St. Mary’s appears to be 1917: the 34th Squadron of the Royal Navy Air Service were based at Porthmellon, including “seaplanes and flying-boats”.
The first commercial service was offered in 1937: twin-engined De Havilland Dragon biplanes which used a local golf course as their landing strip. They offered a service between St. Mary’s and St. Just-in-Penwith on the Cornish coast.
In 1939, High Cross Farm was converted to an airfield and has been known ever since as St. Mary’s Airport. Surprisingly, it is the 10th busiest regional airport in the UK! The islands have a healthy tourism industry and are a major exporter of flowers but it’s amazing to me that such a little airport could handle all that traffic. St. Mary’s is strictly PPR and has a transit corridor (SFC-2000 ft) between Land’s End (Penn an Wlas) and the islands.
I planned to use runway 15/33: the primary runway which was originally given a partial hard surface during World War II. Now it is 600 metres of asphalt, which isn’t much but it’s still better than runway 09/27 at 523 metres with only 273 of them asphalt.
There’s no flying at St. Mary’s on a Sunday – no one goes in or out. Visiting pilots are warned that a sudden and unforecast deterioration of the weather is not uncommon and, whilst PPRing, I was told to be prepared to turn back due to unexpected poor visibility.
None of this put me off. Not even the note in Pooleys:
Warnings: Pilots should exercise extreme caution when landing or taking-off as the aerodrome is severely hump-backed. The gradients increase to as much as 1 in 13 at runway ends.
I’m not very good at visualisation, so the one in thirteen gradient bit didn’t particularly bother me. If I’d realised that it matched the steepest slope in the Bernina Railway in Switzerland, I might have paid a bit more attention.
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The Isles of Scilly (the locals frown upon the phrase “the Scilly Isles” for reasons that I don’t really understand) are an archipelago of 150 islands off of the Cornish coast. St Mary’s, the largest of the islands, is home to Hugh Town, the thriving centre of the Scillies, with an airport and a working harbour and well as half a dozen pubs and hotels and at least twice that many restaurants.
For some reason, I keep spotting the airfield in the news. Directly before we flew to St Mary’s, I checked for details about the airfield and was told that “proposed strike by air traffic controllers at St Mary’s airport has been averted.”
I refrained from referring to the story I’d heard about ATC at Scilly: the on-duty controller was found asleep in a nearby rowboat as there were no flights expected. The airfield’s official history starts with: “September 1937 – August 1939: Golf course used as airfield”.
How could you not love such a place?
Recently, the airfield made it into headlines around the world when they put out an advertisment, in braille, for the position of an Air Traffic Controller. They did, to the relief of everyone involved, confirm that a successful applicant would need to have 20/20 vision. This reminded me that having been to the island, I never wrote about it. I’m ashamed to admit it was the summer before last and I have yet to type up my notes and go through the photographs.
This month, I am not going to get the chance to go to any new islands so I’m out of excuses – it’s time to catch up. So have you got any plans for August? If you think you can keep up with Anne, join us for a tour of the Isles of Scilly!
I’ll be updating every Friday.
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This trip, I learned how to tie down the plane after the housekeeper at our Bed and Breakfast warned us of an upcoming hurricane.
“It’s really a hurricane?” I asked Lynne.
“Yes, tail-end of one. Which one is it?”
“Gordon,” piped up someone in the corner of the room.
“No, not Gordon,” said Lynne. “That was last Thursday. This one is a woman’s name.”
In the end, it was a bit blustery but the only real damage was to my hairdo. If anyone happens to know the name of the hurricane that passed by the Scillies on Wednesday, though, let me know. ;)
(oh, and a warm welcome to visitors from Time Goes By! Do say hello. :))
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The Isles of Scilly are said to be the most isolated islands in Britain, which I have a hard time believing — in England maybe, but in Britain? It’s a total of 150 islands (five inhabited) but in line with my other destinations, I’m staying on the chunk of land with the airfield on it.
The Cornwall Wildlife Trust (www.cornwallwildlifetrust.org.uk) do some great PDF pamphlets including “An identification guild to the Carnivores of Cornwall and the Isles of Scilly” which I immediately downloaded with excitement. “There are six species of Carnivore found in Cornwall,” is said in the introduction, continuing on to say “None of the Carnivore species are found on the Isles of Scilly.”
There are half a dozen small mammals though, including the “Scilly shrew” which apparently isn’t a reference to the women, and I have a recording form in case I should stumble across one (hopefully not in the hotel room). As far as I know, it’s too late to see puffins but I’d like to go seal watching and maybe even search for orcas. I’ve packed a bathing suit in hopes of experiencing the “sparkling white beaches” and St Mary’s has enough prehistoric sites to keep me occupied for months. And then there’s the intriguing mystery of Lyonesse.
I’m quite looking forward to this!
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Finally have confirmed the trip to St Mary’s and the Isles of Scilly for next week. Looking forward to this, especially as I did all the leg-work last month. The flight in looks a bit confusing; I might go a bit of a roundabout route.
I was a bit amused by the local online news, reassuring me that “The proposed strike by air traffic controllers at St Mary
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