History, nature and wilderness transport visitors into another world, says the British crime writer.
“I started visiting Scilly when I was seven years old. I grew up in the south London suburbs, so the huge skies, wild sea and absence of crowds made the landscape seem magical. Annual trips ever since have become a habit I can’t kick.
“Little has changed there over the past fifty years, which is part of the islands’ charm. They lie 45 kilometres from Cornwall’s southern coast, and you can fly there, or catch a ferry from Penzance, to discover an archipelago replete with history – plus perfect opportunities to bird watch, walk, or just gaze out of the window at the Atlantic’s ever-changing moods.
“One of the reasons why I set my latest crime series in the Scillies is their accessibility. You can explore all five inhabited islands on foot, or hire a bike and discover sandy beaches, moorland covered in wildflowers and world-renowned gardens.
“St Mary’s is a great place to stay if it’s your first visit to Scilly; at just under five miles long, it’s the largest island, with most amenities. The ferry from the mainland deposits you in picturesque Hugh Town harbour, bustling with fishing smacks and inter-island ferries bound for Tresco or Bryher. The fishing town’s narrow streets prove that creativity thrives in Scilly, with shops selling locally crafted jewellery, pottery, and knitwear.
“St Mary’s coastal landscape is marked by granite outcrops, and tiny coves used by smugglers in the old days to escape the customs men. History buffs will admire the Elizabethan Star Castle on Garrison Hill, still gazing down at Hugh Town. The building hunkers behind star-shaped walls, designed to defend it from foreign marauders.
“The coastal path leads you round the headland to Old Town’s pretty horseshoe beach, and the walk back to Hugh Town will let you build up an appetite for a glass of wine and excellent local seafood at one of my favourite cafes, Dibble and Grub on Porthcressa Beach.
“One of Scilly’s greatest pleasures is the way life slows to a snail’s pace. Ferries leave every morning, carrying you across St Mary’s Sound, to Tresco, Bryher, St Martin’s or St Agnes. Tresco is one of my favourite destinations. The world-famous Abbey Gardens hold a unique collection of flowers and trees, but it’s the Valhalla Museum that really captures my imagination. It contains a haunting collection of figureheads from local shipwrecks, lost for centuries under Scilly’s dangerous waters.
“Each island has its own unique personality. St Martin’s has some of the best sandy beaches, where kids can fly kites, and paddle in the shallows of Par Beach all summer long. The mild climate of Scilly enables islanders to grow daffodils and pinks all year round, shipping their harvest to mainland UK, as fragrant Christmas gifts.
“Bryher is one of the most unspoilt islands, and a great place for birders, with hundreds of varieties, from puffins to Sabine’s gulls. Tiny St Agnes is worth a trip too, with just eighty permanent inhabitants. You can walk the entire coastline in one hour, circling the disused lighthouse that lies at its centre.
“The only island that allows cars is St Mary’s, so walking becomes an essential part of your holiday, allowing you to breathe the island’s clean air. My family loves St Mary’s only bus, which circles the island regularly, but I prefer to use my feet. I often trek north to Halangy Down, to see its well-preserved Neolithic village, which shows that humans have survived in Scilly for millennia by fishing and farming the land.
“I’m convinced that visits to Scilly help cure our addiction to technology. It’s rare to see anyone using their laptop in local cafes, because emails can be checked when you get home. Why do anything except admire the view?
“The sea is ever-present in Scilly, unrolling for thousands of miles to America’s eastern coast, but it can’t be trusted. The ferry service only runs for half the year, until the waters become too dangerous to navigate. But I love Scilly in winter. Islanders congregate in the evenings in one or two pubs that remain open after the tourist season ends, watching the fire and exchanging stories, like the rest of the world doesn’t exist.”