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Isles of Scilly: the exotic island paradise off the coast of England

(CNN) – It is mid-morning when three swimmers in velvet helmets suddenly appear from the depths of the turquoise sea.

Dazzles of light dance as kayakers paddle through the crystal-clear glacier water, propelling themselves over a kelp forest towards Nor Nour, a small deserted island.

That’s when the divers appear: the gray Atlantic seals a few feet away, rare in many places but not here on the Isles of Scilly, an isolated archipelago off the British Cornish coast, dived in the middle of the Atlantic.

Nornour is part of the East Scillies Islands. It’s about a 25 minute paddle ride from St. Martin’s, one of the five inhabited islands of the Scillies.

As usual, the lunar shores of Nornour are deserted, as is the prehistoric village that survives there.

The village has stone circles bordered by grass: remnants of Iron Age huts, still standing despite having been inhabited over 2,000 years ago.

Previously hidden under the sands, the houses were revealed in 1962 – with more than 300 enameled Roman brooches and Gallic clay figurines – by one of the storms that sometimes strike this distant place.

It is believed to be the site of a sea goddess sanctuary, where Roman traders once stopped.

Kayaks to reach Nornour can be rented from St. Martin’s Watersports, a small business owned by Anna Browne, who made the island her home after a diving vacation and fell in love instantly.

Now anchored in island life, Browne swims regularly, serves on the island’s newly constructed Stargazing Observatory committee, and runs the local book club.

The allure is understandable: these islands are like a piece of the Caribbean in Cornwall.

Protected by the Gulf Stream, they are (almost) never cold, so exotic plants, unseen elsewhere in Britain – and brought here by Victorian plant collectors – thrive. Under the waves, the archipelago is surrounded by an underwater garden.

“Beneath our ocean is an array of life, different from warm water reefs, but just as colorful,” Browne said. “We have pink, blue, orange, yellow and green jewelry anemones; gorgonians, cat sharks and wrasse. And you can dive among famous wrecks like the Cita and the Schiller. ”

Islands for all seasons

St. Martin’s – one of the five inhabited islands of the Scillies.

Matt Cardy / Getty Images

Back on the white sands of Par Beach, where Browne operates, she tells CNN Travel how once she spied on a bowhead whale – usually an arctic species – just yards from where it stands. “You never know what you’re going to see here,” she says enthusiastically. “Right now we have hoopoes and bee-eaters.”
There are a variety of places to stay in St. Martin’s, including its only hotel, the Karma St. Martin’s.
It is also possible to rent a cottage on the Churchtown Flower Farm; or Holly Robbins and James Faulconbridge, a young couple who recently moved from mainland England to take over the vineyard. They just finished building a shepherd’s hut which became available for rent in June.

In addition, there are regular ferries between the islands, particularly to St. Mary’s, the main island, which is only a 25-minute journey away. Day trips can therefore also be made to St. Martin’s.

Most visitors spend their time roaming the islands, but hardly ever discover St. Mary’s. It might be the largest population, though still under 2,000, but step away from the pint-sized capital, Hugh Town, and you will hardly meet anyone.

And it’s just as beautiful as the other islands. Chy Carn is a spacious and bright house perfect for a large family to rent. There is also the Star Castle Hotel, a 16th century star shaped castle.

A 10 mile coastal walk circles St. Mary’s. Part of this route bypasses the garrison which inflates like a balloon from the rest of the island, separated by an isthmus.

Here, walls built during the 17th-century English Civil War line the icy blue apron of the sea, once protecting these distant islands from French and Spanish aggression.

The islands have something to offer in all seasons (except maybe in winter when almost everything closes).

In the fall, the land is covered with ferns and heather. In the spring, they are traded for daffodils, golden gorse, and yellow fists of aeonium flowers that grow purple rosettes of the plant. In the summer, islanders say there are so many colors that it’s hard to know where to look.

The coastal promenade of St. Mary passes the Bronze Age burial chambers of Innisidgen – two tombs made of huge slabs of silver granite and covered with mossy mounds. Known locally as Entrance Tombs, there are over 80 of them on the Isles of Scilly. They are unique to these islands and to West Cornwall on the mainland.

Nearby is a swing on which children (or adults) can fly over the ocean.

Stormy seas

Isles of Scilly: the exotic island paradise off the coast of England

The Scillies have a generally more temperate climate than the rest of the UK.

Kate eshelby

The Isles of Scilly have always needed protection, not only from enemies, but also from the rough seas around them. Further around the headlands is the Peninnis Lighthouse, its metal base rimmed like the petticoats worn under Victorian dresses.

The Dark Legacy of the Ocean is found in the atmospheric cemetery of the Old Town’s Little Church. Here, in the midst of an Eden of palm trees and wild flowers, numerous inscriptions on the tombstones reveal the dead who were lost in the many shipwrecks that still surround these islands.

These islands have had a long and fascinating past, with centuries of ancient remains. Their history is particularly evident on Teän, another abandoned island near Saint-Martin.

The islands only archaeologist, Katharine Sawyer, who runs Scilly Walks, takes groups here or to other islands like St. Helena (which has a medieval hermitage) or Samson.

The Isles of Scilly have the largest concentration of ancient monuments in Britain, she says.

“Maybe it’s not that others were built here, but that their preservation has been so good,” says Sawyer. “We have always had a small isolated population, so less pressure on the land, and we have never had any commercial exploitation of the quarries.”

At the top of the great hill of Teän – where gorse gives off the scent of coconut in spring – is another Bronze Age burial chamber; as well as views of vanilla-white berries and turquoise scribbles swirling in the deeper blues of the sea.

Going back down, you can stroll inside an 18th century cottage whose occupants remain unknown.

Thin paths wind along the remains of a 5th century hut, old field boundaries and a medieval 8th century chapel, still with its holy water font. Tiny dwarf pansies hide in the dune meadow; these native rarities are not found anywhere else in the UK.

With the sustainability of fishing – and the damage that large fishing trawlers do to fish stocks and the ocean floor – currently a hot topic, it’s heartwarming to know that these islands are surrounded by seas protected by strict laws.

Amanda Pender is co-owner of Island Fish, a family business in Bryher, one of the smallest of the inhabited islands.

They have been fishing off this coast for generations, supplying freshly caught shellfish from the Scillies, and have a small wooden slat restaurant.

“My dad has been keeping daily records since 1972,” Pender says. “And the fish stocks are as good as they are today.”

Sunken treasure

Isles of Scilly: the exotic island paradise off the coast of England

The abbey gardens are a colorful showcase of Mediterranean vegetation.

Kate eshelby

Another island is Tresco, which is home to the abbey gardens. Here are over 3,500 different plant species that grow in the five Mediterranean climatic regions of the world: South American puyas and South African proteas to name a few. Golden pheasants – a flash of rainbows with headdresses that resemble Tutankhamun’s Egyptian masks – scurry through the gardens.
Tresco is car-free – you can rent bikes at Tresco Bike Shed. Make your way to Pentle Bay and you’ll see black and white oyster fishermen with long orange beaks. Many of the birds on these islands are fearless, as there are none of the mainland’s predators like foxes, weasels, or snakes.

Song thrushes alone are much more abundant than elsewhere in Britain. Here in this unique ecosystem, birdsong is so vibrant it’s like listening through headphones.

The islands are home to Richard Larn, an outstanding 90-year-old wreck specialist recognized by Queen Elizabeth of Great Britain for his services to nautical archeology and marine heritage.

Larn tells CNN Travel that the most interesting shipwreck is the HMS Association, destroyed off the Isles of Scilly in 1707 at Bishop Rock, where one of the most isolated lighthouses is now exposed to the wrath of the sea (St. Agnes Boating Wildlife Safaris offers trips here.)

Hundreds of years later, Larn took part in an expedition to find the wreckage, a task almost impossible as the waters are deep. Eventually they found gold – literally – when thousands of gold coins were also discovered.

Surprising treasures still wash up on the beaches today: these islands are a mysterious place where we still do not know what is hidden under the waves, or disturbed under our feet.


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