My trip to the Isles of Scilly for The General Synopsis At Midnight project kicks off in rural Devon…
The taxi driver collects me in the village of Tipton St John. On our way to Exeter airport he careers down the narrow country lanes, calling out a giddy ‘whoopsie’ every time we round a bend and encounter another car. Where am I going, he wants to know. ‘That’ll do,’ he says, when I tell him about the Isles of Scilly. ‘That’ll do nicely.’ Yes, I nod enthusiastically. Yes, it will. Once collectively called Area Severn, these three Sea Areas of Sole, Lundy and Fastnet meet in a point just northeast of the Isles of Scilly. Sole doesn’t touch land, the other two have land boundaries. The flight from Exeter to Hugh Town on a 17-seater Twin Otter plane takes less than an hour and I spend a lot of that time looking out the window and mulling over John Gore Grimes’ comment about the invisible boundaries between one sea area and another.
The girl sitting next to me on the plane looks to be about 12 and worried to be travelling alone. Her magazine – which I sneak glances at – is full of teen dilemmas and ads for make-up and boy bands I’ve never heard of. Our pilot and first officer sit cosy-close in the small cockpit at the front of the plane. They leave the door to the cockpit open and the smell from the bag of bananas the first officer has hanging from his seat keeps me company for the journey. I’ve never been this close to the controls of a plane and the similarity between them and those of a car surprise me. Sure, this plane has a lot more knobs and dials and countery-whirly things, but it also has pedals and a tiny rear view mirror. (What could be behind us worth looking at? It must be for checking on the passengers rather than the rush-hour air traffic). At one point mid-flight the first officer twists in his seat and looks behind. He appears to be counting the passengers and I’m glad the girl is reading, her attention distracted by an article entitled How to Stage a Comeback.
The safety demo was a dvd shown at the boarding gate in Exeter. In it, a large man in glasses and a high-vis jacket demonstrated how to pop open a small window in case of emergency. Unwittingly, I realise I have chosen the seat next to emergency exit. ‘Did you watch the demo?’ the first officer asks me. I nod. ‘So you’re happy you know how to operate the window exit?’ I nod again, too nervous to mention that I was so busy wondering how the large man could possibly have fitted out the tiny window and whether he would have to take his specs off first, that I didn’t actually notice how he removed the glass. The girl looks over and I smile reassuringly. No bother, I hope my smile tells her; breaking windows is my specialty. I surreptitiously cross my fingers and look at the window instead, my attempts to silently figure out the push-pull of the frame forgotten when we leave Cornwall behind and fly over the sea. I watch the flickering, clock-hands reflection our propeller makes as it turns. The water below is the gemstone green of Murano glass. Ponderous container ships appear to be barely moving. There are occasional dense shadows that I decide are long-lost wrecks shifting deep in the water. A lonely lighthouse is the single structure on an impossibly tiny outcrop of rock.
The first glimpse of St Mary’s, the largest of the inhabited Isles of Scilly, is beautiful. It is all sweeps and arcs, with intricate cut outs that make it look as though it has been delicately laser cut. On either side of its squeezed waist are the yellow curves of beaches. The Isles of Scilly are 28 miles southwest of Land’s End. Five of 140 in this archipelago are inhabited – some barely so – and even the big ones are little. At three miles wide and about 10 miles all around, St Mary’s is strollable in a day. More than once, in fact: I clock up four town-wide strolls in the first afternoon. Old Town, Old Town House, Old Town Road: by the end of stroll one, I’m beginning to see a pattern in the nomenclature system. The charity shop on the main street of Hugh Town is called Charity Shop. Hugh Town is where the action is on St. Mary’s. It’s a pretty, blink-and-you’ll-miss-it sort of a place with an independent atmosphere that reminds me of Sidmouth, a town on the East Devon coast. Everyone I meet is talking about the weather. But isn’t it always like this in summer, I want to know. Hugh Town seems set up for heat. Designed for ice creams and salt-sticky faces. ‘Double your sun cream factor’, the bus driver had warned me. ‘You’ll fry otherwise.’ The island’s roads are being resurfaced and an Irish lad working there laughs when I ask him why everyone is going on about what a sunny day it is. ‘I’ve been here since February,’ he says, ‘and I’ve seen four seasons pass in four hours.’
Most people I chat to tell me that Harold Wilson is buried here on St Mary’s. In fact, so he gets so much airtime that I decide I’d better go and check out his grave on the far side of Hugh Town, in the 12th century Old Church. I bump into the Chaplain, who guides me through the graveyard. There is no crime here, he tells me. None. He never locks his house or his car. Children have to leave the islands to attend secondary school and before they go, they are taught what security means. (I pass a house later on – called, yes you’ve guessed it, Chaplain’s House – and notice the front door is wide open and I realise he wasn’t exaggerating). Harold Wilson’s grave is simpler than I had expected. A small bunch of fresh flowers rests against the headstone. A tiny red-hatted gnome stands on the granite edge. The Wilsons’ holiday home is nearby, I pass it as I walk back to the harbour. The curtains are closed. A small, plain stone bungalow, it puts me in mind of a breezeblock bunker outside a rural GAA hall. Perhaps the gnome strolled up from its garden.
It’s a hot, sunny afternoon and I am the only visitor in the Isles of Scilly Museum. The volunteer behind the cash desk thanks me profusely for coming in when I thank him for selling me an entry ticket. It is shipwreck heaven in here. In fact, the museum was founded in 1963 because they needed to house the Romano-British finds thrown up by that winter’s storms. One of my reasons for choosing the Isles of Scilly was the shipwrecks. You can’t swing a flip-flop in St Mary’s without hitting a shipwreck story. The Museum is home to many artifacts from the 1798 wreck the Colossos, which had on board the gems of noted collector Sir William Hamilton’s collection of Greek and Roman antiquities. It was found in 1975, and a second wreck near the site of the first yielded up its own long-hidden haul in 1999. Just as I’m about the leave the Museum I spot a display devoted to the Cita, which was en route to Ireland when she sank in 1997. She was on automatic pilot while all the crew slept when she ran aground. The Cita’s cargo spilled for miles around. The display features bits of tyres, St Bernard branded shoes, keyrings with ‘the luck of the Irish’ emblazoned on them.
A shipwreck I have never heard of before is the Thomas W Lawson. The world’s only seven-masted ship and largest pure sailing vessel without an auxiliary engine ever built, this schooner was destroyed nearby in a storm in December 1907. Its cargo of 58,000 barrels of paraffin caused what is believed to be the world’s first recorded oil spill. But the biggest shipwreck story is that of the wonderfully-named Sir Cloudesley Shovell. An Admiral of the Fleet, in 1707 he was sailing home in the HMS Association from a skirmish with the French when thick fog closed around his fleet. The story – given as true by Dava Sobel in Longitude, but disputed by some maritime historians – goes that one of the crew was a Scillonian and recognized the waters they were heading into. He disputed Sir Cloudesley’s reckoning that they were heading for Plymouth, and was so bold as to tell him so. Before the sailor had a chance to say ‘no, guv honest, I think that’s the Bristol Channel ahoy,’ Sir Cloudesley had him hanged for inciting mutiny. Not much consolation for the poor chap that he was proved right: within hours the Association, along with the Romney, the Firebrand and the Eagle, went smash-bang-wallop into the rocks. Only one man among the crew of close to 2,000 is said to have survived. Sir Cloudesley, his two stepsons and his dog apparently escaped on a small boat as far as the waters of nearby Porthellick Cove but most likely drowned trying to get onto the shore. A story persisted for many years that Sir Cloudesley did make it to land alive, but was murdered by a local woman for his priceless emerald ring and, in some versions, his shirt. It was decided that this disaster occured because the sailors could not correctly estimate their longitude, and as a result the Board of Longitude was set up at Greenwich in London.
I take a boat to St Agnes, the most southerly island. St Agnes makes St Mary’s look like New York. The winter population here is tiny. The summer tourist population swells the island, but most are day-trippers and so it falls quiet again in the evenings. From the harbour Porth Conger I walk past the decommissioned lighthouse to the inlets at Periglis Cove and St Warna’s Cove, named for the patron saint of shipwrecks. The further into the island, the quieter it becomes. I paddle around in the water, oddly aware of how far I am now from Cornwall and the mainland. Far out to sea is the lonely tower of Bishop Rock lighthouse and white-edged rocks break the water like old toothpaste smears on a sink.
I stop to read the community notice board. ‘If you have clothes for the fete please leave them in the snooker room’ it says, and it’s hard not to imagine the inhabitants as a casual sort of bunch, straight out of central casting for The Good Life, all happily buying each others’ cast-offs and stopping for a game of pool while they’re at it. St Agnes is connected at low tide by a sandbar to a tiny island called Gugh (pronounced Goo or Gue, depending on who’s talking). There are only two buildings on Gugh, each with a gently-curved aerofoil roof. I get chatting to a chap who turns out to be their owner. Gugh was uninhabited from the Neolithic period up until the 1920s, when an eccentric Irish surveyor decided to build himself a barn and a house. He is buried on the prow of the island, standing up. The current owner reckons he was quite a short chap, so that probably wasn’t as tricky a digging job as it sounds.
There is a home-made weather vane by the beach on St Agnes. A rough wooden cross, with a rope hanging down the middle and ‘Troy Town Weather Station’ written by hand across the top. (That’s it in the photo above). The dryness or otherwise of the rope determines the weather:
Rope : Forecast
Dry = Sunny
Wet = Rain
Still = Calm
Moves = Windy
White = Snow
Invisible = Fog
Gone = Force 10
The rope is dry and hangs perfectly still. I think of Craig Snell in the Met Office and the way the shipping forecast has its perfect codes, designed to convey so much with a single word. I stand on the beach on St. Agnes staring out to sea. Somewhere out there Sole, Lundy and Fastnet greet each other invisibly in the water. The only noise I can hear is the unsettling sound of gulls, their screeches the cries of unseen children.
The General Synopsis At Midnight is my exploration of the sea areas of the BBC R4 Shipping Forecast, thanks to the Maeve Binchy Travel Award. The earlier post ‘Counting Down To Midnight’ explains it all. Honest, it does…