Spring arrives early on Scilly and the charm of tiny, sleepy St Martin’s is that there is little-else to do but enjoy its flower-filled moors and coves
Golden Mary, Scilly White, Sunrise, Golden Spur, Emperor, Empress, Cheerfulness, Magnificence, Soleil d’Or. There is poetry in the names of daffodil and narcissi varieties sprouting from all corners of St Martin’s.
This tiny island, barely two miles long and mostly less than half a mile wide, is filled with flowers in spring. The strong scent of narcissi wafts over the lanes, and the hedgerows and fields burst with dainty pink lilies, enormous tree lupins, purple agapanthus and creamy three-cornered leek. Even the rubbish tip is festooned with bluebells and daffodils.
The flowers are rather like smoke rising from a long-abandoned factory. In a previous century, bulbs were Scilly’s heavy industry. The temperate climate of England’s largest archipelago, off the south-west tip of Cornwall, enabled islanders to grow them in time for Christmas, and whisk them to markets in Covent Garden and Birmingham. Globalisation has blown away this industry; only a couple of people still grow flowers on St Martin’s. But the crop has escaped its fields and grows all over, flowering on moors and overlooking the white sandy coves of Great and Little Bay.
I’ve always loved spring – who doesn’t? – and it happens earlier and in a more supercharged fashion on Scilly than anywhere else in Britain.
St Mary’s is the big island, Tresco is the touristy one, and Bryher is the one that discerning Observer readers usually rave about. But I took my family (wife Lisa, twins Milly and Esme, and Ted, then aged four and two) to St Martin’s because the most eastern of the inhabited islands is less acclaimed.
Romantic mainlanders have long been tantalised by the distant sight of Scilly from Land’s End, “an eternal stone armada of over a hundred ships, aloofly anchored off England”, as John Fowles put it. “Mute, enticing, forever just out of reach.” In reality, Scilly is a small archipelago struggling to make its way in the modern world, permanently obscured by forecasters’ bottoms on the weather map.
Nevertheless, there is a unique magic about arriving on a small island. After a rather rough ferry crossing from Penzance, we were decanted into a little boat at St Mary’s scenic stone harbour. Crossing the calm, turquoise waters between the islands, we arrived at the stone jetty of St Martin’s and were greeted by Viv Jackson, our host, in an old red Massey Ferguson tractor. Viv drove us at a brisk island pace (10mph) on the main road (a narrow, rutted lane) to our chalet, a simple but modern two-bedroom cabin with glorious views west over the archipelago.
We passed a wooden shed that is the post office/shop and another shed that is the coastguard/fire station. The fire engine is a tractor. The green hedges are called “fences”. They have been planted against the old stone walls, which are called “hedges”. In one field, an old man in yellow oilskins is bent over a row of daffodils, an image which could be from any time in the last two centuries.
St Martin’s is absurdly dinky but not twee. There were scruffy barns and piles of old lobster pots, and roadside crates of eggs and flowers with honesty boxes beside them. It took me a while to realise the island’s simplicity – no marinas, golf courses or lavish bungalows – is because it is owned by the Duchy of Cornwall. Prince Charles has saved St Martin’s from over-commercialism, but some islanders grumble they can’t do what they like with their homes.
Holidaymakers may be unsettled to find that there is very little to do on St Martin’s. I found this profoundly liberating. Each day, I held up my forefinger to discover the wind direction. Then we chose the most sheltered of St Martin’s many beaches and coves.
Here we let our small children run far freer than at home. They loved speeding over the hill, out of sight, and pottering to the shop for an ice-cream each day. We drank in the island’s pub, ate at its excellent, popular chippy, sat in the sheltered gardens of its cafe, and gossiped with other visitors and locals. There’s fishing, too.
One day, we took the little ferry over to Tresco. This island is devoted to the business of tourism and bustles with well-heeled families exclaiming loudly as they whizz around on hired bikes. It is worth a visit for the famous abbey, a tall, castellated stone house with the most bizarre New Zealand Christmas trees casting cool shade over lurid pink camellias, spiky-leaved exotics and shrubs collected from all corners of the globe during the heyday of Empire. It was hard to believe we were still in the British Isles.
It was a relief to return to “our” homely island that evening. St Martin’s is not wholly devoted to the business of tourism and this, and its flowers, are the heart of its charm.