Approaching my table at The Turk’s Head pub on St. Agnes with a glass of Cornish Rattler cider in hand (for who can resist a pint pulled from a tap shaped like the head of a snake–wearing sunglasses), I’m shocked to hear that the conversation has turned to talk of a murder here on the Isles of Scilly, a tranquil beach community off the southwestern coast of England.
“1976,” replies Katharine Sawyer, an archeologist who leads guided walks around the islands.
Considering that the islands’ second most notorious incident in nearly four decades was the case of the Knicker Nicker—a man who was convicted of stealing ladies’ underwear in 2005—it’s hardly surprising to learn that the Scillies claim the lowest crime rate in the country.
When Police Sergeant Colin Taylor posted a Facebook advertisement for a new constable on the Isles of Scilly this past April, candidates from as far away as Thailand, Australia, South Africa and the Philippines threw their cap in the ring for “quite possibly the most enviable policing post in the UK or even the world.”
As Taylor explained, this “unique opportunity” requires the ability to “issue a parking ticket to your spouse so tactfully so as not find dinner in the dog thereafter” and “unflinching confidence to know what to do when you are alerted to an abandoned seal pup making its way up the main street.”
“I haven’t locked my door in 30 years,” one man tells me with a shrug. “Friends will stop in and make themselves a cup of tea in your kitchen, and you’ll do the same.”
The isles are a throwback to a more innocent, less harried existence. There are no high rises, no theme parks, no cinema, and no rental cars. Visitors can rent bicycles or golf carts, but many opt to hoof it on one of the Scilly walks (do the locals ever tire of Monty Python jokes, I wonder?) along trails that meander past 17th century fort walls, windswept bluffs, horseshoe-shaped harbours and fields of daffodils, which bloom here from the autumn through spring. Sailing, boating, and bird watching are popular pastimes, and for nightlife, well, what the Scillies lack in clubs they more than make up for with stargazing.
“It’s like England in the 50s,” says Mike Nelhams, curator of Tresco Abbey Garden, located on the second largest of these 56 little isles. “Some families have been coming for three generations. You just look out the window and see what the weather is doing. You go to the beach or boating, or put on a snorkel and mask and go play with the friendly seals. You see what the day brings you.”
The garden is Tresco’s most famous attraction, with hundreds of varieties of flora from as far away as Australia, New Zealand, and South Africa. Plants that couldn’t survive anywhere else in Great Britain positively thrive here, protected by tall hedges and the relatively mild climate.
“If I was to put a bag over your head, strap on a parachute, push you out of a plane, then take off the bag and ask you where you were, you wouldn’t say Britain,” Nelhams insists.
“So you’ve tried this experiment?” I press him.
“I’ve never found anyone willing to volunteer,” he confesses. Yet gazing around at the tall palms, the spiky aloe plants and a rainbow of exotic flowers, I can well believe it.
With just 2,200 people occupying six islands (the rest being uninhabited), most residents know each other, and many are at least loosely related. Kit Simmonds, a young, ponytailed bartender at The Turk’s Head on St. Agnes (“It’s the only pub on the island; also the best,” he quips), counts off the surnames of this isle’s 80 inhabitants on two hands.
“There’s Legg, and the Peacocks, who run the boat, Simmonds, Pierce, the Andersons, who run the pub, plus Hicks and Hick—no ‘s,’” Simmonds notes. “If you say the wrong name to a Hick, they won’t be best pleased.”
I base myself at the Star Castle Hotel on St. Mary’s, the largest island, which is still only five kilometers across at its widest and 16 kilometers around the coastline. For an orientation, I book an hour-long bus tour with Fred Elms, one of the guides with Island Rover, which operates from mid-March through mid-October.
As we pass through Hugh Town, where a handful of stone buildings huddle along the shore, Elms rattles off its attractions in his practiced, rapid-fire delivery: “Fourteen shops, seven taverns and restaurants, four pubs, two ladies’ hairdressers, two banks, a museum, a post office, and two public toilets, and that’s it–Hugh Town, the capital of the Isles of Scilly.”
At the Island T-Shirt Company, I find plenty of model ships and captain’s hats alongside merchandise branded with pirates and puffins, which breed on the islands in the spring and summer (the puffins, that is, not pirates). Nearby, Seasalt sells everything from waterproof knee-high boots to flip flops, jute beach bags and knitted hats and scarves, an assortment that more or less sums up the unpredictability of a holiday by the British seaside, even on an archipelago that boasts the mildest climate in Great Britain.
Hugh Town is also home to a few newsagents, although holidaymakers might find it difficult to keep abreast of the latest headlines, as the newspapers are flown in from the mainland.
“Years ago, a lady named Gloria ran a shop, and a gentleman visitor came in and asked for a copy of The Times,” recalls Elms, who moved to the Scillies from London nearly 40 years ago. “’Will you have today’s or yesterday’s?’ she asked him. ‘I’ll have today’s,’ he said. ‘In that case, you better come tomorrow,’ she replied.”
WAY TO GO
The Star Castle Hotel encompasses a 16th century fort on St. Mary’s, just up the hill from Hugh Town. Book accommodations within the castle walls or in one of the airy “garden rooms,” many of which offer panoramic views of the sea. With an indoor swimming pool, an atmospheric restaurant that incorporates local produce and fresh shellfish—much of it caught by the owner, Robert Francis, himself–and a cellar bar in a surprisingly cosy bar, it’s a destination unto itself. www.star-castle.co.uk.
What to do: Tresco Abbey Garden: www.tresco.co.uk.
Guided walks with Katharine Sawyer: www.scillywalks.co.uk.
Bus tours: www.islandrover.co.uk.