The tiny Isles of Scilly might seem an unusual destination for a Big Walk, but exploring them on foot makes for an unforgettable trip that ought to be on every walker’s wish list
Words by Matthew Jones, photography by Ellie Clewlow
Never has a phrase been more apt. ‘Small but perfectly formed’ was surely coined to describe the Isles of Scilly. This tiny archipelago may have a total land mass of just over six square miles, but it offers some of the most incredible walking, serene vistas and spectacular sunsets to be found anywhere in the UK.
A mere 28 miles off the Cornish coast, the isles are less than three hours away by ferry. Yet with white sandy beaches, aquamarine water and more hours of sunshine than anywhere else in the UK, they have a distinctly tropical feel. Just five of the islands are inhabited – the largest, St Mary’s, and the four ‘off islands’ of St Agnes (including Gugh), St Martin’s, Bryher and Tresco. Walking the coastlines of each, with a few detours inland, is by far the best way to experience them.
Historical St Mary’s
The Scillonian ferry is the lifeblood of Scilly, carrying food supplies, cargo and mail into the harbour of St Mary’s. It is also how most tourists arrive and we were no exception. We disembarked on a perfect blue-sky day, raring to begin the 10-mile circumnavigation of the largest isle. Just a short climb out of Hugh Town rewarded us with great views out over the islands of Annet, Samson, Bryher, Tresco and St Martin’s. It was a unique experience for a Big Walk – to be able to look over almost all of the landscape that lay ahead.
St Mary’s is particularly rich in history. We passed the remains of an ancient village at Halangy Down, the burial chambers of Bant’s Carn, Innisidgen and Porth Hellick Down, ruins of an old blockhouse and decaying military defences. We also visited the memorial stone to Sir Cloudesley Shovell, Admiral of the Fleet in the Royal Navy. Shovell was drowned in a notorious shipwreck off the Isles of Scilly in 1707, though one local legend has it that he reached the shore at Porthellick Cove, barely alive, before being murdered by a St Mary’s woman for the sake of his valuable emerald ring. Back in the early 18th century, the islands were a wild and lawless place – a reputation that seems entirely at odds with their tranquil nature today.
After passing the picturesque Watermill Cove, we descended to a white-sand beach that was tantalisingly close to a tiny tidal island – Toll’s Island. At low tide you can walk across a sandbar to reach it. Alas, the sea frustrated us, so we wandered on, rounding rugged headlands where weathered rocky tors loomed large, a feature that would soon become a familiar island scene.
The final stretch of our walk around the headland of Peninnis Head revealed some of the most unusual scenery of the day. Here, granite cliffs and tors are scattered among maritime heathland and grassland. Some have wonderful names, including Tooth Rock, the Giant’s Foot, Walrus Rock, Sleeping Bear and the Tuskless Elephant. We also took the chance to admire the unusual Peninnis Lighthouse on the southernmost tip of St Mary’s.
Having explored the main island, we now had to decide in which order we’d visit the off islands. Each is a 15- to 25-minute boat ride away, and we wanted to spend a night on as many of the islands as possible.
Stunning St Agnes & Gugh
We decided to make St Agnes our next stop, and pitched our tent right on the water’s edge at Troytown Farm campsite, the most south-westerly place you can camp in the UK. This picture-perfect island captured our hearts with its spectacular Atlantic sunsets.
The harbour on which the campsite nestles has two resident seals, Frank and Jemima, and we spent time looking out for them basking on rocks or playing in the clear waters, with views out towards the unoccupied island of Annet. Troytown Farm is also the only dairy farm on the Isles of Scilly, producing milk, butter, clotted cream and delicious ice cream; all are available from the tiny shop at the campsite.
At only a mile or so across, it’s easy to explore the entire island on foot in a single day, even with an inland detour to visit Middle Town, and a trip to the neighbouring island of Gugh, reached via a sandbar at low tide. Gugh is wild and rugged, with only two houses. Their curiously shaped roofs were designed to withstand the Atlantic gales that occasionally batter this exposed island. We enjoyed the 2½-mile circuit in splendid solitude. From the sandbar, it’s a short wander to Cove Vean, where pretty boats bob in the water. Further on, we reached Wingletang Down, home to the ringed plover, which can often be spotted around Wingletang Bay, otherwise known as the Beady Pool, thanks to the coloured beads that are apparently sometimes still found on the shore, the enduring spoil from a 17th-century shipwreck. As we rounded Horse Point, the sea lashed the next stretch of boulder-strewn coast. We soon spotted the prominent horsehead-shaped granite pillar that is Nag’s Head.
Past the campsite is a pretty church with beautiful stained-glass windows. One depicts two pilot gig crews rowing through the waves, above the fitting line from Isaiah 43:2 – ‘When you pass through the waters, I will be with you.’
Tresco likes to think of itself as the more upmarket off island. It has the feel of a glamorous resort, with uniformed staff driving golf buggies to whisk visitors to their luxe holiday cottages. Famous for its Abbey Garden, filled with subtropical plants, Tresco is a popular tourist trap, with cruise ships frequently offloading people onto the island. But we found that by walking its six-mile perimeter, we were easily able to escape the crowds.
Appletree Bay, a sweeping white-sand beach with sparkling clear blue seas, was the perfect place to stop for a picnic and take a dip before heading north, where you’ll get a glimpse of the Great Pool right in the centre of Tresco. While the island’s southern half hosts most of the tourist hot spots, including the Abbey Garden and some stunning beaches, the northern part is a complete contrast, with heather-clad slopes and the ruined forts of King Charles’s Castle and Cromwell’s Castle. We paused there to enjoy panoramic views across Men-a-Vaur and the striking lighthouse on Round Island, its glass surround glinting in the sun.
Relaxed St Martin’s
Known for its artisan bakery, easy-going vibe and beautiful beaches, St Martin’s is a haven for hungry walkers. We were blessed with another perfect day as we dropped our packs off at the island campsite before heading to the bakery to pick up fresh Scilly crab sandwiches, Cornish pasties and delicious cakes to sustain us on our six-mile island circuit.
We barely saw another soul as we meandered around St Martin’s. Our circuit took longer than expected, in part because we made so many stops to explore hidden coves and deserted beaches, each prettier than the last.
After lunch at the delightfully named Bread and Cheese Cove, a short climb led us to the rocky point of St Martin’s Head, where the striking red-and-white Daymark stands, built in 1683 as a navigational aid for sailors. On a clear day, the views stretch all the way to Land’s End. The cliff path takes you down heather-clad slopes before turning left downhill, passing a vineyard. An evening on St Martin’s is best spent in the rustic Seven Stones Inn, which boasts mesmerising sea views and the attentions of staff who describe themselves as ‘strange but friendly’.
Our final island stop was Bryher. Measuring just 1½ miles long by half a mile wide, it’s the smallest of the inhabited islands, but the winding and varied coastline means a total walk of some 5½ miles if you plan to walk around the whole island. The sheltered eastern shore shares a channel with Tresco, while the western side is exposed to the full force of the Atlantic Ocean. Most visitors seem to congregate in the most popular spots, rather than walking around the coast, so again we explored alone, other than at Church Quay, where the boat arrives and departs, and at the bustling Fraggle Rock café.
A wonderful coastal track lined with agapanthus led us to Green Bay, before climbing Samson Hill. As we rounded Works Point, we admired the views out over Norrad Rocks, a series of uninhabitable islands rearing their heads just above the water. They are important to seabird colonies and are home to 10 species of breeding seabirds, including puffins and cormorants. The rocks surrounding the islands are also breeding sites for the Atlantic grey seal. Continuing around Droppy Nose Point, we headed over Heathy Hill and the crest of Great Porth. Here, we stumbled upon the tiny Golden Eagle Studio, filled with gorgeous landscapes painted by local artist Richard Pearce.
The summit of Gweal Hill offered views that were now wonderfully familiar, with prospects out across Tresco to the distinctive Daymark on St Martin’s. As the day waned, we made our way around to the incongruously named Hell Bay, where the Hell Bay Hotel provided us with a memorable evening meal, accompanied by another spectacular sunset. It proved the perfect way to end our time on the Isles of Scilly, one of the best weeks of walking we’d ever had. Leaving the hotel, a couple remarked on the beautiful evening sky, streaked with pinks and oranges. ‘Isn’t Scilly beautiful?’ we said. ‘Oh, yes – but don’t go telling everyone,’ they replied. It seems we weren’t the only visitors to feel protective about this low-key paradise. But on the other hand, it’s just too good not to share.
St Mary’s coast walk 16km (10 miles); St Agnes and Gugh 4km (2½ miles); Bryher 9km (5⅔ miles); Tresco 9½km (6 miles); St Martin’s 9½km (6 miles). Total distance 30 miles (48km) over five days, allowing a day to explore each island.
OS Explorer 101; Landranger 203.
Most people base themselves on the largest island, St Mary’s, but there are various accommodation options on all the off islands, too, from cute campsites to bijou B&Bs.