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Family travel: Isles of Scilly

The islands of Scilly, off the coast of Cornwall, offer families a taste of the wilderness without heading to the ends of the Earth

Family travel: Isles of Scilly
Golden pheasant, Grimsby Harbour at Tresco
The islands of Scilly, off the coast of Great Britain offer UK-based families a taste of the wilderness without heading to the ends of the Earth

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It’s not often my children fall silent. Usually, this only happens if all three are simultaneously munching on doughnuts. But here we are, not a doughnut in sight, kayaking between Bryher and Samson, the two islands at the heart of Michael Morpurgo’s magical novel, Why the Whales Came. As far as immersive childhood experiences go, this is the equivalent of walking into Hogwarts or flying the Millennium Falcon.

Samson stands a mile or so from Bryher and it takes 30 minutes to paddle between the two. We haul our kayaks onto the beach, our footprints the first of the day, and wander up Samson’s modest hills. We pause to take in a view of deserted houses and a superlative panorama of Scilly’s islands, scattered across the Atlantic Ocean. As recently as 4,000 years ago, before it was flooded by rising sea levels, Scilly was one big island with lots of valleys. From the top of Samson, the landscape looks like a sketch from a geography textbook. Today, just six of the 150 or so islands and rocky skerries are inhabited.

The tide has retreated by the time we kayak back to Bryher and we see the silhouettes of holidaymakers tip-toeing their way over the sandbars between here and our nearest neighbour, Tresco. We walk around the southern edge of Bryher and swim in Rushy Bay. It’s utterly enchanting: a curved beach backing onto bucolic farmland and winding away north to high cliffs. We stop for lunch at the enticingly named Hell Bay Hotel, a collection of stylish rooms and cottages gathered around an excellent restaurant and bar.

Firethorn, a small passenger ferry, takes just a couple of minutes to whisk us across to Tresco, our home for the week. All the islands are between five and 25 minutes’ sailing distance from one another, and throughout our stay we look up from the beach to see Firethorn and other waterbuses doughtily scuttling across the waters. Tresco has something of a reputation as a millionaire’s paradise: there are new high-end, UK mainland-style properties aplenty and the island shop and deli are pretty pricey.

We pay little attention to the moneyed element sometimes visible and instead explore what’s natural and largely free. Cars are forbidden — only tractors and golf buggies, whisking luggage to the quayside, are allowed — so depending on their age, you can let your children roam with some confidence. There’s even an indoor pool, which is handy if the weather turns bad.

We hire bikes and discover it takes half a day to cycle round Tresco, stopping at beaches or rugged headlands and clambering up rocky tors that could have been imported from Dartmoor. It’s such fun we do the same thing again in reverse. The highlight is Tresco Abbey Gardens, built around the ruins of a priory and stocked with Monterey pines and flora from the Mediterranean, New Zealand and South Africa that thrive in Scilly’s temperate climate. The children love the golden pheasants, sitting up in the branches of trees, their extraordinarily long and look-at-me tails wafting the air below.

That evening we munch on pizzas from the Ruin Beach Cafe on the east of the island. It’s a charming spot and — for Tresco — reasonably priced. It’s low tide again and skerries and granite protrusions are exposed, rising out of the water like dragons’ backs or bits of broken castle. Moonlight bouncing over the turquoise shallows that lap this landscape is certainly not what you associate with the UK.

Another light tracks our stay: the Bishop Rock Lighthouse is clearly visible on the horizon from our cottage, Bay House. We discover it can be visited as part of a wildlife trip to the Western Rocks, so we board the Spirit of St Agnes, skippered by John Peacock.

It’s a vivid experience: John explores the outliers of Scilly providing plenty of close-up views of seals and puffins. Then, suddenly, we’re no longer in cosy sheltered waters. There’s a swell — modest enough, for sure — and the slightly heady understanding that there’s now nothing between us and Brazil. “Look at the gannets!” I call out to my son Thomas, a die-hard landlubber. He’s gripping the side of the boat for dear life. Soon, Bishop Rock looms above us, rising 167ft from its base to the helipad on its summit. The origin of its name is uncertain but to our children it comes across as a stern and spooky over-sized chess piece.

“Can we stay on dry land from now on?” Thomas whispers hoarsely as we return to St Agnes. We hike up the hill and buy an ice cream from Troytown Farm before wandering across the wonderfully named Wingletang Down.

Having spent so much time on, or by the water, our final excursion takes us into it. Early one morning, we’re picked up in a RIB from Old Grimsby quay on Tresco by Anna Cawthray to go swimming with seals. We dock at St Martin’s, Scilly’s most northerly inhabited island and, after squeezing ourselves into wetsuits, we scoot off to the Eastern Rocks. Anna slows the RIB to walking pace and we trundle into a sheltered cove where a dozen or so seals are laid out on the rocks.

They’re clearly habituated to humans but Anna still lays down a few guidelines. “These are wild animals; don’t swim towards them,” she tells us. “They’ll swim to us if they want to.” We bob around in the water, letting our hands drift through kelp forests and wafting seagrass. To begin with the seals stay put, but it’s still the most remarkable sensation: you can hear them groaning as though communicating with one another. Fish flit around our flippers, while gulls and cormorants zip overhead, and we have close-up views of nesting birds.

Then a couple of seals slither off the rocks and disappear under water. “Look behind you,” yells Hannah and I turn around to see a seal bobbing up barely 15ft away. It sinks out of view, only to pop up by Thomas a minute later. This delightful, coy behaviour continues for half an hour and is one of the highlights of the trip.

Afterwards, we explore St Martin’s, walking through quiet lanes with high hedgerows, past a silversmith, a shoemaker, an excellent bakery (the delicious loaves cost a fraction of Tresco’s gold-leaf versions so we buy plenty) and a sizeable, well-stocked village store.

A visit to Scilly is often likened to stepping back into the 1950s and, in a positive sense, that’s true: in more touristy parts you can feel people have grown weary of tourists and there’s the flattening experience of the fantastic scenery being taken for granted. On Scilly, hedgerows are bursting with song, there are no cars on most of the islands and limited access keep a lid on visitor numbers. It’s Cornwall before the monster of mass tourism devoured it. For families, it feels like a chapter from a Famous Five tale.

Essentials

Who
Mark and his children Hannah (11), Thomas (10) and Oscar (8)

Best for
Close encounters with wildlife, not too far from the mainland.

Highs
Thomas: “The seal popping up right in front of me while I was in the water.”
Hannah: “Kayaking was amazing; it was like being right out at sea.”
Oscar: “I hadn’t realised the sand could be so warm under your feet here in the UK.”

How to do it
Skybus year-round from Newquay and Land’s End Airports, and between March and October from Exeter Airport. Return fares £140-£300.
The Scillonian lll ferry sails between Penzance and St. Mary’s. From £90 return from spring through to late autumn. A helicopter link between the islands and the mainland will begin operations in 2018.
islesofscilly-travel.co.uk
visitislesofscilly.com

More info
Scilly Seal Snorkelling
Ruin Beach Cafe
Tresco boats: tresco.co.uk/arriving/tresco-boats
St Agnes Boating
Kayaking
Hell Bay Hotel
Bay House

Published in the 2018 issue of National Geographic Traveller – Family