‘It’s pure viridian’ – Marianne, Halangy Down, St. Mary’s.
Long distance cycling can affect you in all manner of ways. First, there’s the continual smiling, laughing and singing. It’s impossible to keep a straight face as you plunge down a quiet cliff-road and into some tranquil fishing village or secluded aquamarine bay. Pleasure is your mainstay, even on those stiff hills back up again. Then there’s the loquaciousness. Starved of friends and loved ones, you’ll find yourself making conversation with absolutely anyone around. There is a very basic need for contact and communication with others. This, like the singing, or a new awareness and sensitivity to the weather and climate, are abilities that you’ll probably have neglected or not realised you had. The shape of the clouds or the cut of the breeze are things you can read. Experience corrects instinct, until one can glean the same information from these as a mundane work email. And then, strangest of all, is sleeping. Or a lack thereof. Despite the long gruelling days I am struggling to sleep for more than five or six hours. Perhaps this isn’t a common experience. Overstimulated with sights and scenes, my dreams are turbulent and often leave me as weary when I awake as when my head hit the pillow (– or forearm, as is the case when wild-camping).
I’m up early in Penzance, at a youth hostel on the edge of the town. The dorm is deserted except for a friendly old German man, who tells me about his Catholic faith and his travels across England. Rarely one finds any youth in these hostels, particularly from these islands. One can stay (or live) in these places very cheaply, but I can understand why. The thought of holidaying in the British islands elicits heavy laughter and grumbles about the weather. Yet these last few months, I’ve rode through one of the warmest summers, and never before has my skin been so tanned . The morning is cool but clear, and I cycle by the quiet and grey promenade to the Penzance’s busy harbour, where I wait to board the large Scillonian III boat. I’m leaving the mainland for a day trip out to the Isles of Scilly, a rocky archipelago set apart from the south-western tip of Cornwall.
Scilly, how I’ve looked forward to this!
The isles are set out some way from the rest of Cornwall, though fall under its county (a sore point, as I find). They comprise St. Mary’s, the largest isle and the one I’m off to explore, as well as Bryher and its beautiful beaches, Tresco and its abbey gardens, St. Martin’s, St. Agnes, and a further scattering of unoccupied islets. Once upon a time, this spattering of scenic rocks formed a single island by the name of Ennor. Its singular and secluded nature allowed a distinctive and possibly prosperous culture to flourish. Myths of Lyonesse, a single island kingdom central to the medieval courtly romances of Tristan and Isolde, are associated with it. Fishing, farming and trading sustained the populace here. The Phoenicians and ancient Greeks mention the ‘tin islands’, a mysterious and distant land where copper and tin were imported. Like the ancient stories of ‘Hyperborea’ and the garden of the Hesperides – mythically beautiful peoples and places in the distant north-west of the known world – the tin islands take on a kind of legendary status in the work of Herodotus, Ptolemy and in the fascinating (and most inaccurate) maps of Strabo. They’re often depicted as a ring, as the higher peaks of what remains of Ennor appear today, a circle of islands. From our ride yesterday, Cornwall has long been rich in metals, and it’s not so irresponsible to speculate that one ‘tin island’ might well’ve been Ennor and its surrounding rocks, a trading post between Cornwall and the rest of the European mainland. Two thousand, three thousand years ago, traders in Cornwall were trading and communicating with the rest of the known world. The imagine spins with delight as it pictures what suffusions and mixtures of international cultures, stories and ideas occurred as a result, even then.
At some point in its pre-history, around 500CE perhaps, or possibly as late as 1099, when chronicles record a huge flood across southern England, one island became many, as sea levels rose and flooded much of the farming plains between what are now the five populated islands today. William of Worcester describes there once being 140 churches across the land, alongside meadows, forests and urban settlements, each gradually washed away by the rising sea levels. At Marazion further up the coast, the remains of beech trees can be found when the tide is out, backing up this story of a drowned world. In Penzance I came across one delicious ghostly myth: on a stormy night on St. Mary’s, one can hear the bells of those drowned churches still trilling, beckoning their ghostly worshippers into an underworld mass.
It’s a two and a half hour crossing by ferry, a smooth crossing. The company charges an unjustifiably high fee to bring a bicycle, so I leave that behind and hire a bike on the other side. Out on the deck, eagle-eyed couples, most retired, hunt out dolphins and minke whales with binoculars. Aside from the Highlands I’ve met no other young travellers. Travelling across these islands for leisure and pleasure seems to be the preserve of the retired. One reason, perhaps, is cultural: Latin America, Europe or Australia are more exotic and otherly, places to cut one’s teeth, discover oneself in difference. But I wonder if money’s an issue too. The now-retiring Baby Boomer generation has benefited from hitherto unenjoyed opportunities: an expanding and free education, abundant employment , rising wages and affordable housing in their youth, and today, tax exemptions, free public transport, and a protected pension.
Fair play, this is the reward of an unwritten social contract established after the Second World War between unions and social democrat politicians, to create a new society that cared for individuals ‘from cradle to grave’. These people deserve it, and more – many of the elderly live in dire poverty, despite this. The only resentment I imply is that this will be denied to my generation. Is it because young people do not vote, and older people do? No, it’s not as simple as that. The problem is the rule of profit-making. To continue maximising their returns and increasing their wealth, businesses need to find ways to reduce the costs of their workforces. Pensions? Workers must see to that. Sick pay? Bad for business, red tape, highly uncompetitive in an international race to the bottom. Training our workers with transferable skills? Nope, they might take them elsewhere, or worse, go on strike, shutting us down. Their allies in the major political parties assist this agenda, tearing up regulations that protect these rights whilst using the state to subsidise low wages with tax credits. Many of the elderly have been shielded from the consequences of these processes, and as a result disbelieve that free market capitalism is in any way a problem.
Young against old? No, not at all. It’s just another instance of this disunited kingdom, of a land without a king and without a people, where so long as nothing is spoken, this veil of normality remains untroubled. Global diseases, child abuse, international sports events: images that make up a collective hallucination. But when pressed besides other travellers, my own youthfulness becomes depressingly apparent. I wonder, would Searching for Albion better aid the average traveller today by featuring recommendations about where to park motor homes or good spots for a cream tea, instead of this whisky and narcotic fuelled psychosafari through the nether regions of these islands?
The boat approaches Hughtown, a striplet of a small town that somehow contains most of Scilly’s population, 1700 people in all, of a total of 2000 spread across the islands. There’s a flurry of activity at the port as the boat docks. People stand around on the dockside, waiting for visitors who may be staying in their accommodation, or relatives from afar. Others loiter, delighted by the tumult, and others check their watches out of something to do, waiting for the day’s only ferry from here out to St. Agnes, or Tresco, or Bryher. Hughtown is little more than a village by average standards. There are a couple of pubs and restaurants, a small Co-op supermarket and a bank. Just up the hill, one finds the islands’ solo hospital. Hughtown packs a lot in for a such a tiny settlement. Stray for five minutes in any one direction from the centre, a concatenation of small streets around a thin park, and one will either tumble into the sea or out into delightful green gardens.
For there is nothing to call ‘country’ or ‘countryside’ here: St. Mary’s is far too small for that. And the landscape is particularly unusual and enchanting, even by the exacting standards of West Cornwall. Cast adrift from the mainland and surrounded by warmer currents, these isles are free of pollution and of frost, leaving the islands to flourish with exotic and unusual flowers. Narcissus flowers thrive here in winter, providing locals with an alternative source of income besides fishing and farming. There are no black rats or badgers, foxes or weasels, otters or stoats, and no moles, voles, hares, squirrels or snakes to be found here. Free of predators and with space to rove, song birds have flourished here too. As a result, the landscape feels like a beautiful and carefully-cultivated garden.
I pop into the island’s bike hire shop, run by Mark, a gruff but friendly man who has been here three years. He tells me about the islands’ history of subsistence farming and fishing , and the transition to tourism in more recent years. Holiday lets and services like this are now the main income. And in winter? ‘It’s quiet, very quiet’, but I don’t get the impression of any kind of mass exodus of local workers away. The islands are very self-contained, something Mark’s conversation further reiterates. ‘Small, very small. It’s a different way of life. It depends what you’re into. But it’s the people that make the place’. Make, and break. Living here is very expensive. B&Bs here are some of the most expensive in the country, and I expect that, despite all that, a better income is to be made here than in most other tourist resorts.
But the isolation? Island life is far tougher, psychologically, than one might individually reckon. Islands experience time more slowly, and hence more intensely. The island publication, Scilly Now & Then, is packed with stories about… local fun fairs, sporting feats, petty councillors’ witterings about parking restrictions, and a local bobby’s column, reassuring readers that he is firmly against hitting children. Right. The average inner city local rag by contrast blitzes readers with stories of grisly murders, undiscovered bodies, teenage arsonists, attacks on pensioners and the misdemeanours of scrap metal dealers. I prefer the Scilly news.
I board my hire bike, a clunky mountain cycle that feels heavy and secure. I don’t need to continually adjust the front brake after every time I pull it – what a pleasant relief! The bicycle is also able to travel in a straight line without wobbling, another novelty. It makes me realise just how bad a condition my bike has fallen into. Well, what to do with a day?
I cycle round the Star Castle, built on a large peninsula to the south-west of Hughtown. Castles and fortifications are scattered across the Isles of Scilly, some medieval, some early modern, harking back to a time when leaders of men spent their taxes on fighting other… leaders of men. Spanish, English, Dutch, French, German. Fortifications have been built and re-built across here since the 16th century, and the remains of ‘the Garrison’, ‘Harry’s Walls’, ‘Cromwell’s Castle’ and many others can be seen or visited with ease. I follow the fortifications of the Garrison around, passing canons pointing at Napoleon and pill-boxes pointing at Hitler, and imagine the men who once stood guard here, gazing into this same tranquil sea, of zealous Roundheads at war against their king, the Royal Artillery invalids, the schoolboys and shopkeepers conscripted into the battalions of the First World War, volunteering here three decades later.
Round the Garrison I go, then I follow the island round in a clockwise direction, back through High Town and by Porthmellon Beach, past the remains of Harry’s Walls, and along a weaving up-down-up-down trail between houses and fields that eventually links with the island’s small circular road. The islands are flat, though despite their isolated location are filled with healthy trees and thriving plants. Besides the coastline, I spy beached boats. They do not appear abandoned, evidence of the passage of time, discarded detritus, human waste, wasted potential, the ‘ruins’ I often describe. On gentle Scilly, they appear to be waiting to be used again, now resting, asleep.
I head up towards an old coastguard tower, and to a point on the northern headland where the road ends. In the distance, a BBC transmitter gently tears through the clouds. The noon is delightfully hot, and the humid and balmy climate, reflected by the flourishing shrubs all around and the twitter of birdsong, is paradisical. Here, through a path that roughly cuts through heather and bracken, is Halangy down. I brush aside the growth to find the well-preserved remains of an ancient Neolithic village, and the stone entrance to a burial chamber. I clamber down, tracing the outline of the drystone walls that once housed a community in closely linked roundhouses, each adjacent to the other, sharing sociality and warmth as a community whilst maintaining individual and familial boundaries. Their way of life is four thousand years prior to ours, yet seems sophisticated, based on farming and trading. Spinning, pewter casting and ironworking were all carried out here. Goods from across Europe have been discovered in the soils, the fruits of international trade. In the distance, across the turquoise bays, the islands of Tresco and Samson lie in the distance.
Close by is a large and impressive burial chamber by the name of Bant’s Carn, where the remains of four cremated individuals were found in urns. Here there is a distinctive culture of cremation, and of commemoration, quite unlike the rest of Cornwall. In place of evidence there can only be speculation about the religious practices of these peoples so many thousands of years ago, but like so many other geographically remote spots, religious cultures and communities thrived and survived here longer than elsewhere on the mainland.
There’s an older lady sat just by the cairn, a sketchbook in her hand filled with watercolour landscapes. ‘A beautiful spot’, I remark. Her name is Marianne, and she points out the different colours of the sea in the distance. We talk awhile about the landscape and its colours, and she tells me about life on the other islands, resting in the horizon. Looking out, there are ancient remains and monuments just ‘everywhere’, as Mark put it earlier, and as the eye surveys the scene, the point is proven.
The view is just wonderful from here, and St. Mary’s just gets better as I cycle along its small and quiet lanes, most of which are flat and easy to ride, and make driving a car round the small island somewhat pointless. The island is very small (I end up doing a circuit by accident, believing I’d only travelled a third of the way clockwise round), and the verdant and floral gardens everywhere remind me of the south Pacific, as well as the cool breeze and humid air. I think that this is as close as the British Islands will get to something approaching Hawaii: unpopulated, remote, serene, richly alive with plants yet curiously not of birds or small mammals, gentle, breeze and easy, hardly touched by roads or other evidence of modern humankind.
I cycle round the remainder of the island in a slow and gentle pace yet somehow manage to cover the distance in about 45 minutes. St. Mary’s would be best explored on foot, I realise, though it’d require no more than three days to cover most of the terrain. One could add in a day at the beach, and a few days to explore the other islands, and combine this into a perfect retreat of a holiday. I pass a number of small farms and guesthouses. Lunnon Farm sells narcissus bulbs, one of the island’s few profitable industries in growing and exporting during the winter. I pass by the island’s small airport. Somewhere round here is a labyrinth drawn into the landscape, a symbol that appears in paganism and in Christian worship, representing Nature, God, Infinity, as believers wish. Another labyrinth appears on St. Agnes too, I’m told – though I fail to find the former, and must return for the latter.
I ride along to Oldtown, of which there is no longer anything old whatsoever, just a couple of houses, a pottery and a café, and a school nearby. I have some lunch by Old Town Bay, a baguette with spinach and tomatoes, and close to a house beguilingly named ‘Nowhere’, so improbably beautiful and isolated this spot is that it could readily be the island of Utopia in Thomas More’s tale. The beach is beautiful – and there’s virtually no-one here. I look out at Tolman Point and distant Gull Rock, with Peninnis Head to my right, where a lighthouse keeps watch over the tumultuous seas. There have been thousands of shipwrecks here, the ghosts of Ennor’s drowned world still wreaking revenge on the living. Fourteen hundred lives were lost in one grim night back in October 1707, when Sir Clowdesley Shovell’s fleet ran aground on St. Mary’s rocks. The sea, always so deceptively tranquil.
It’s around half three by the time I get back to Hugh Town, and my ferry leaves in an hour. I drop off the bike and say goodbye to Mike, and pop into the island’s museum, where the questions I’ve pitched to various people have been deferred to. The friendly old boy here sadly doesn’t know anything about the two heretical bishops who were exiled here back in the 4th century. Named Tiberianius and Instantius, they were followers of the heretical Bishop Priscillian, whose hard asceticism, calls for celibacy and Gnostic mystical fervour brought him into conflict with the established Christian Church. Critics of Priscillianism accused it of free love and promiscuity. Priscillian would become the first Christian martyr to be killed by the Christian Church. It’s hard to imagine what these two Iberian clerics would’ve made of life on Scilly, but their asceticism may have helped them accustom to the life of berries and fish that awaited.
But the gentleman insists that the Scillonians must not be confused with the Cornish. They have their own distinct identity, he assures me, citing evidence of the island’s lack of postcode, and bemoaning Cornwall’s jurisdiction over it. The Scilly islands are the possession of the Duchy of Cornwall, currently held by Charles Windsor. Much of Devon and Cornwall also falls under the duchy, as do parts of Somerset and Wales. Charles pays no corporation tax on these lands, and indeed banks hundreds of thousands of pounds in EU agricultural subsidies. Like the Duchy of Lancaster and Westminster, the problem of parasitical land ownership isn’t some quirk of the Scottish Highlands. Windsor and his mother, and a fractional minority of other hereditary rich folk suck the value out of the land, which could be instead shared out fairly among the people. I wonder if there is some more simple and guttural Scillonian curse-word for them, but sadly the gentleman here tells me that there is no dialect on these islands he can think of.
I wander round the small museum, marvelling at the Neolithic remains and taking in a curiously twee stuffed animal collection masquerading as natural history. Harold Wilson apparently loved the island. The museum exhibits military history over everyday social life, sabres over saucepans, suggesting obsessive curation by older male amateurs. I head out, as it’s time to catch the ferry and say goodbye to Scilly, a lovely place to spend time in, though with its expensive rates, probably not the first call I’d suggest for a budget British escapade.
I board the ferry and find a cosy place. Like on most other ferry passages, our passengers are bonding over the topics of property and pets. One man brags about a flat in London, let out and providing a high investment-return. Lucky him. ‘People don’t think so, but it’s also happening in the north’, a northern man in his fifties replies, raising the stakes. ‘There’s so many crap places, people want all the good places’, he notes, glowing with arrogant pride. Conversation moves round to dogs, many of which have been turned into small and well-groomed infant children by their owners. ‘Princess, come here princess!’, their moods analysed and coats coiffured. The English!
Time to disembark at Penzance harbour. It’s a Friday evening, and I am overwhelmed with a most unusual desire for strong beer and stimulating company. Where to go? The nearby Dolphin Inn and Dock Inn cater heavily for the roast dinner and ensuite bathroom needs of tourists. I’m looking for somewhere more local, with a livelier atmosphere and good music. I cycle down by the harbour, then up ‘Market Jew Street’, a Victorian anglicisation of marghas yow street, meaning ‘Thursday market’. The Georgian Market House building is situated at the top, with the statue of Humphry Davy presiding over a series of predictable and unprepossessing chain stores with an air of aloof if naïve majesty, like Robinson Crusoe lording it over a bundle of coconuts. There are some architectural delights hidden around the town, from the old Egyptian House and Georgian Theatre on Chapel Street to the Regency and Georgian terraces cast further back. It’s a modest and unambitious town centre, homely and friendly, and the town in all is quite an affable, friendly place, with plenty here to discover.
I pass a Wetherspoons and a couple of small divey looking boozers, then decide to head up Causeway Head, an old pedestrianised high street that suggests being part of the older development of the town. There’s a small independent cinema and some curious looking shops, as well as places to let. At the other end is a lively and rambunctious boozer, the Farmers Arms. I head in and get a pint of local Skinner’s Dizzy Blonde. It’s a friendly joint for the locals, and there’s cheeky and cheery banter about ‘those la-di-da people with jumpers over their shoulders’, a them-and-us attitude with the more wealthy and socially aspirational people moving in to other nearby parts of Cornwall, but seemingly not Penzance. It still has a strong local feel. I find a table where I can drink and write, tuning in and out of conversation, and enjoying an excellent playlist of Linton Kwesi Johnson, post punk and Sixties’ psych rock, before a local musician comes on and sings a painful Cornish take on Townes van Zandt. A noisy group come in and play darts beside me, making wry jokes about the melancholic nature of the music, but the pub fills up and the atmosphere’s superb.
But where to sleep? I’m enjoying Penzance and feel no rush to leave. As it’s the end of the tourist season, the youth hostels are virtually giving away accommodation. I disappear around half ten, and pick up some pizza to cook back at the youth hostel, where I’m able to camp outside for three quid, the price of a pint, and well worth not having to trawl the secluded coves of Cornwall for the night in search of bed and board (though that would’ve been exciting too, just less conducive for writing). I call home, catch up with folks, before setting up bed beneath a tree at the edge of a field. After a wondrous day exploring Scilly, I’m worn out and happy, and hopeful to return again.