ISLES OF SCILLY WALKS
Stage 1: St Mary's
Sunday, September 16, 2018
On my first morning on the Isles of Scilly, I awoke to a foggy dawn view over St Mary's Harbour, a pattern that would repeat on most days of my visit. The fog had disappeared by the time I finished breakfast, pulled on a brand-new pair of hiking boots — a very nice gift from my workmates — and wandered down to The Square at the north-west end of Hugh Town's High Street to begin my circuit of St Mary's.
From The Square, I climbed the short-but-steep Garrison Hill to pass through the Garrison Gate (picture 1), which provides the main portal through the thick stone Garrison Wall. Fortification of the hill overlooking Hugh Town began in 1593 and continued in several phases up until the Second World War. The Garrison Gate bears the date 1782.
At the first junction beyond the gate, I turned left past a stone building with two heavy wooden doors marked Powder Magazine and the more ominous Detention Cell. A level lane follows the wall of the Garrison, passing bastions housing the cannon of the Higher Battery and Garden Battery (picture 2), which defended the bays on either side of Hugh Town. A stone stairwell on the right of the lane leads down to the Sally Port, a low and narrow fortified passage that allowed defenders to quietly slip in and out of the Garrison.
A third bastion, Upper Benham Battery, has a World War II pillbox built into the protruding corner with good views over Porthcressa Beach and the rooftops of the town. The tall chimney in the distance belongs to the islands' power station (only used as a backup since an undersea cable from the mainland was installed in 1985) and the round building to its right is the Telegraph Tower, built in 1814, which stands on the islands' highest ground.
The lane soon ends and a footpath continues past a couple of large white houses and follows the Garrison Wall along Upper Broome Platform and Lower Broome Platform. Eventually the path reaches the south-eastern corner of the Garrison, where the Morning Point Battery defended the approach to Porthcressa Bay and the waters that separate St Mary's from The Gugh and St Agnes (picture 4).
A rutted path follows the Garrison Wall westwards, passing three small triangular bastions, or redans, labelled 'E', 'D' and 'C' before reaching a stone archway giving access to the larger Woolpack Battery, where another pillbox was added during World War II (picture 5).
The wall now follows the coast north-westward, passing Redan B and the Bartholomew Battery before heading downhill (picture 6) past Colonel George Boscawen's Battery, which is almost fully occupied by a sunken building that once housed diesel generators powering searchlights installed on the Garrison around 1900. As I climbed to Redan A (picture 7), I noticed that the weather was beginning to improve.
Just beyond Redan A, the Garrison Wall abruptly ends on Steval Point at the western tip of St Mary's. Construction was abandoned here in 1748 at the conclusion of one of England's wars with France. The wars resumed a few years later, but building of the wall didn't. "The End of the Line", as an information board calls it, offers one last view to The Gugh and St Agnes (picture 9) before the path rounds Steval Point and heads along the bracken-covered north-west edge of the Garrison.
The next stretch of the path has good views across to the two low hills that form the small island of Samson, with the neighbouring islands of Bryher and Tresco to its right (picture 9). The Garrison Wall resumes at King Charles' Battery (picture 10) and a short distance later the path reaches the northern tip of the Garrison at Newman's Battery, which has now become the backyard of an adjacent house.
A driveway leads uphill to the powder magazine by the Garrison Gate, but before heading back through the gate, I turned sharp right and followed a track up to the top of the hill, where the eight-pointed Star Castle (picture 11), now a hotel, was built in 1593. The castle has a commanding view over The Quay and the anchorage in St Mary's Harbour (picture 12).
The hilltop of the Garrison is home to one more curiosity — the Garrison Field is home to the world's smallest football league, in which the Garrison Gunners and Woolpack Wanderers play a season of 16 matches and a grand final.
After heading back down Garrison Hill to The Square (picture 13), I walked down the narrow lane to the left of the Mermaid Inn and out to the end of The Quay (picture 14), originally built at the same time as Star Castle but extended a couple of times to accommodate large vessels, such as the Scillonian III ferry.
From the landward end of The Quay, one could jump down onto the sand and walk along Town Beach when the tide is low (picture 15), but instead I decided to look after my new boots and walked back around to The Square and along the High Street. At the far end I forked left past the small, grassy oval of The Park and along Lower Strand to Hoegates Green, where picnic tables overlook the beach (picture 16).
A little further along the road is a compass rose plaque (picture 17), placed in the year 2000, and the Jubilee Shelter (picture 18), built in 2012 to celebrate the diamond jubilee of Queen Elizabeth II. At the end of the beach, a path leaves the road to head along the edge of the rocky little headland of Carn Thomas (picture 19) to reach the St Mary's RNLI Lifeboat Station (picture 20), built in 1899.
Steps climb to the right of the building, leading to a path through trees and back to the road behind the beach at Porth Mellon (picture 21). On my map I noticed that by this point Lower Strand had become Telegraph Road, which left me with the Dire Straits song of the same name stuck in my mind for the next few kilometres.
Barely one hundred metres along the road, a track bears left along the back of the beach and a narrower footpath forks left again at the far end of the beach to cross the next low headland. Before long, some steps on the right are signposted uphill to Harry's Walls, a worthwhile short diversion off the coastal path to the remains of a fortress built before the Garrison. Harry's Walls (picture 22) was named after King Henry VIII, who commissioned a chain of fortifications along England's east and south coasts to counter the threat of French or Spanish attacks, though he died four years before construction of this fortification started. Begun in 1551 but never completed, the fort's bastions did house several cannon before the fortress was abandoned in favour of the better-positioned Star Castle.
Back at the foot of the steps, the coastal path continues around the small Thomas' Porth (picture 23) until a path between buildings cuts across the next headland and through a boatyard to join a lane behind the rocky cove of Porth Loo and the tidal Taylor's Island (picture 24).
The lane climbs away from the beach to a sharp bend where a driveway on the left leads between the tiny Seaways Farm Shop and Juliet's Garden Restaurant before becoming a narrow footpath across a grassy hillside to a large granite outcrop on the tip of Carn Morval Point. This is St Mary's closest point to the island of Samson, about 2,500 metres away, and the falling tide had revealed a white sandy beach surrounding Samson's twin hills (picture 25). After climbing over the point, the island of Tresco comes into view with Samson Hill at the southern tip of Bryher visible to its left (picture 26).
From Carn Morval, the path skirts around the rocky shore of Toll's Porth (picture 27) before turning slightly inland to the foot of Halangy Down. The hillside above the path is covered with the remains of an Iron-Age settlement, the Halangy Down Ancient Village, where the foundations of several circular huts are clearly discernible (picture 28). These homes were probably occupied from the 3rd century BC to the 7th century AD.
Higher on the steep hillside, with one of the best views on the Isles of Scilly and almost twice as old as the village, is Bant's Carn (picture 29), the remains of a Bronze-Age burial mound constructed at least 4,000 years ago. Around eighty burial mounds have been discovered on the Isles of Scilly and Bant's Carn is considered to be one of the best examples.
Leaving the ancient village, the coastal path climbs gently across Halangy Down above a group of small, hedge-lined fields to meet a track beside a quarry. Turning left, I followed the track back down to the coast at Pendrathen Quay, where a handful of small boats were moored just offshore (picture 30).
A handy bench beside Norman's Shed provided a good place to stop and eat my sandwiches before following a narrow footpath just above the shore to join a wider path that circles around Bar Point amidst waist-high bracken. Beyond the point, the path runs along the lower slopes of Helvear Down, passing the small Innisidgen Lower Burial Chamber (picture 31) shortly before arriving at the larger Innisidgen Upper Burial Chamber (picture 32).
From Innisidgen, the coastal path skirts around Block House Point, where it looked like a new footpath had recently been created around the edge of a large, roped-off area of the hillside. The path then heads inland to cross a combe behind Watermill Cove (picture 33).
There is a good view of St Martin's and the Eastern Isles (picture 34) before the path rounds the next point into Pelistry Bay. The sandy beach connects the small Toll's Island to St Mary's for a few hours at the bottom of the tidal cycle (picture 35). It was close to low-tide, so it was safe to cross the beach and scramble over a few boulders to join a path along the spine of the island to a modest granite tor at the far end (picture 36), less than 300 metres away.
After standing atop the tor, I walked back and climbed down onto the white sand, heading for a gap in the trees where the next stretch of coastal path skirts around Pelistry Bay towards the low hill of Mount Todden (picture 37). The path runs around the edge of Mount Todden and the rocky cove of Darrity's Hole (picture 38) to Gap Point, where a patch of crumbling concrete in the shape of a large arrow (picture 39) was used in the Second World War to help trainee bomber pilots find practice targets in the direction of the Eastern Isles.
Beyond Deep Point and the small inlet of Porth Wreck the coastal path passes a large boulder named Great Britain Rock (picture 40).
As the path runs around the edge of Porth Hellick Down, there are several more massive boulders on Jacky's Point (picture 41), though an alternative path higher up the slope passes by another large burial chamber.
At Porth Hellick Point, the path starts to circle around the large but very shallow bay of Porth Hellick (picture 42). A tall granite outcrop halfway along the near side of the bay is named The Loaded Camel, but the reason for this doesn't become obvious until one has walked past it.
By the beach at the back of the bay, a plaque and a small standing stone (picture 43) remember Admiral Sir Cloudesley Shovell. On the night of 22 October 1707, Shovell was in command of a fleet of twenty-one Royal Navy ships sailing from Gibraltar to Portsmouth. Due to poor navigation, four of the ships sailed into the cliffs of St Mary's and were wrecked, with at least 1,450 lives lost. Shovell's flagship, HMS Association, was one of those lost and the memorial marks the spot where his body was washed ashore. The Ship & Shovell pub in London's Charing Cross, where I have enjoyed many pints of real ale, is also named in memory of this disaster, one of the worst in British naval history.
On the far side of Porth Hellick, the path runs around the edge of Salakee Down and Church Porth (picture 44) to climb over Church Point. One of the runways of the St Mary's Airport comes up to within a few metres of the cliff and traffic lights indicate when it's safe for walkers to pass.
Descending from Church Point, the path passes below the imposing tor of Inner Blue Carn (picture 45). then runs around Porth Minick (picture 46) before cutting across Tolman's Point to join a track past houses lining the eastern side of Old Town Bay (picture 47). As the name suggests, Old Town was once the primary settlement on St Mary's before the building of Hugh Town's quay gave it the ascendancy.
Just beyond a slipway, I turned left in front of the Old Town Cafe to briefly follow Old Town Road along the back of the bay until a dusty track continues close to the beach (picture 48). Just before I left the road, I observed two police officers, possibly the island's entire constabulary, dismount from a golf buggy and begin patrolling on foot.
When the track reaches a gate, a gap in the stone wall on the right gives access to St Mary's Old Church (picture 49). A former British Prime Minister, Harold Wilson, is buried in the churchyard. The coastal path continues ahead, however, running behind and then through trees before briefly returning to the shore at Carn Leh Cove, where the long promontory of Peninnis Head stretches out ahead (picture 50).
A fenced path runs behind a line of trees once again before the path climbs amongst large boulders and onto the shoulder of the headland. Ahead is the prominent outcrop of Pulpit Rock, which becomes even more impressive when you come up beside it and see how the granite slabs, weighing several tonnes each are balanced on top of one another (picture 51).
Nearby, the path passes below the diminutive Peninnis Lighthouse (picture 52) at the southern tip of St Mary's. The lighthouse was built in 1911 to replace the one on St Agnes. In 2010, the rotating lantern was retired and replaced with a small LED lamp mounted on the railings outside the gallery, with a range of fifteen kilometres. As an admirer of lighthouses, I find this particular technological advancement a little bit sad. The same fate will presumably befall all of Britain's lighthouses before long.
Below the lighthouse, on Outer Head, more massive granite outcrops frame the view across to The Gugh and St Agnes (picture 53). Hugh Town soon comes into view as the path crosses a pavement of large stone slabs on Inner Head (picture 54) before an obvious path leads along the edge of Porth Cressa opposite the Garrison (picture 55).
Nearing Porthcressa Beach, the path is forced to climb around the back of a large block of allotments before descending to the end of the promenade (picture 56). At the far end of the promenade, a path runs past backyards before turning away from the beach to reach a quiet street. Turning left and heading up to a junction, I climbed steps that lead through the middle of a residential building and up to the Sally Port, by which I re-entered the Garrison. From there it was just a short walk along the lane to the Garrison Gate and back down to my starting point in The Square to complete my 19.8 kilometre circuit of St Mary's.