Don’t rush a trip around St Mary’s. There’s lots to see and some fabulous views on a gentle circuit of the largest of the Isles of Scilly.
Is Scilly silly? Well, not quite but it’s pretty unorthdox for the cyclist. No-one locks up their bike, its single ‘A’ road carries practically no traffic, there are no directional signs nor lines in the middle of the road, and you’re as likely to share the road with golf buggies as much as cars. Scilly is in a world of its own and a world away from the rest of the UK. Exploring the outlying islands on boat trips and using the evenings to explore St Mary’s, the main island, by bike is an ideal way to make the most of a short break in this archipelago 28 miles south-west of Land’s End as I found out last July. The ride is also very well suited to a first cycling adventure for a family.
The route network on St Mary’s is fairly straight-forward. The single main road (think of it more as hedged country lane) forms a five-mile loop in the island’s interior. It’s connected to many of the coastal beauty spots and points of interest via minor roads and tracks that are easily negotiated on a mountain bike or hybrid. You can find out which tracks you are permitted to cycle on by referring to the map from the cycle hire shop
Start point for the ride is Hugh Town, which is actually just a village, and the island’s only substantial settlement. This is a merry little place that seems permanently stuck in the olden days – when former prime minister, Harold Wilson, was among the holidaymakers. Particularly popular with young families and retired people, St Mary’s is simply great to mooch around and you can have most places to yourself. The only exception is the harbour in the rush-hour before 10am when hoards of holidaymakers stream down to the harbour for the main boat trip departures. After sampling the delights the off islands (as the smaller islands are known) I was keen to explore St Mary’s.
I began my anti-clockwise circuit with the only serious but short climb of the ride that took me up to Garrison Hill. At the summit views from the former 16th century garrison (now the eight-pointed Star Castle Hotel) extend across to St Agnes, the UK’s most south-westerly settlement, and on a clear day all the way to the Bishop Rock lighthouse which is the most south-westerly point. “If you look closely you can see the Empire State Building 3,000 miles away,” the boatman had told us earlier. The sea is speckled with jagged rocky islets which could almost be mistaken for anchored ships. It comes as no surprise to find out that the Scillies are notorious for shipwrecking. The following day in the Isles of Scilly Museum I saw a collection of items from wrecks – varying from beads recovered from a 17th century Venetian trader to the more prosaic computer mice washed ashore following the grounding of a German container ship in 1997.
The shipwrecking theme continued in the next two sections of the ride. I cycled along the isthmus separating Hugh Town’s two beaches and along a peninsula to Penninis lighthouse, a small metal structure on stilts, that marks the southernmost point of St Mary’s.
I swept down into and then out of Old Town Bay and then nipped out to the coast again at Porth Hellick Bay, one of the finest beaches on the island. An outcrop of rock curling into the bay looked like it belonged on the wilds of Dartmoor while the whirring rotors of helicopters flying in and out of the nearby airport gave the scene an almost sinister atmosphere. Overlooking the shore – deserted when I visited – is a memorial to the splendidly named Admiral Sir Cloudesley Shovell. His body was washed up here when his flagship, the HMS Association, was shipwrecked in 1707. Three other ships went down in the same storm with the loss of at least 1,400 lives.
A little further round the coast is a considerably older grave – a burial chamber dating back to the Bronze Age. Chambers and other antiquities dot the northern coast of the island and provide welcome places to rest, explore and admire the coastal views. From the burial chamber and adjacent Iron Age village at Halangay Down I could make out the long beach of St Martin’s, the wooded island of Tresco, a lighthouse like a candle on the pudding-shaped Round Island and the ragged outline of four peaks sticking out of the sea adding to the hazards in another mariner’s nightmare.
The coastguard’s tower and transmitter mast behind me indicated that I was at the highest point (49m) of a not very high island and a lovely, gentle freewheel was just around the corner. I wended my way through a boatyard in Porthloo and past an artist’s studio, one of many studios and galleries on the route.
The smell of seafood and garlic wafting from the Boat Shed restaurant on Porthmellon Beach was hard to resist but I had other evenings plans. I cruised into Hugh Town past a terrace of cottages that I imagine were once home to fishermen. After fish and chips on the beach, I nipped back to the harbour once again to join the crowds squinting into the sunset to watch the pilot gig racing. Gigs are traditional, 32ft-long Scillonian rowing boats and tonight’s race – which started from a rock off the deserted island of Samson – involved eight boats crewed by eight women.
They travelled faster and finished far much more tired than I did – but that didn’t matter to me. My meandering and pootling had matched the mood of the island. It was a day when – and Scilly is the sort of place where – you leave it to other people to do the hard work.
Cycling on Tresco
St Mary’s is the only island with proper roads but you can also cycle on Tresco. The southern half of the island has many tracks, some concreted, that are ideal for family cycling. They provide a quick route, for instance, from the renowned Abbey Garden (the most popular attraction on Scilly) to the pristine white beaches on the coast. You can’t take bikes on ferries from St Mary’s but you can hire them from Tresco Bike hire next to Tresco Stores in the village. Open Mon-Fri 8.30am-5.30pm (closed for lunch), Saturday 10am-noon and closed Sunday. Flat rate of £10 per bike per day.
Distance: 12 miles.
Time: Half a day.
Directions: From the tourist information centre head towards and pass the Co-op. Just after The Atlantic Hotel turn right up Garrison Hill (blocked to vehicles by a phone box). Pass around Star Castle Hotel then bear right through a gate. Descend a stony track and pass through another gate which brings you out to the old garrison wall.
Return to the archway with bell above. Pass through it and immediately fork right then, at the police station, turn right as the road bears left. Turn left down Little Porth which brings you out at a small square at the back of Porthcressa beach. Pass the Porthcressa public shelter and toilets and through a width restriction onto Porthcressa Rd. At a crossroads turn left then, at a t-junction in front of the museum, turn right onto Church St. Bear right in front of St Mary’s Church and continue to follow the road towards Old Town. At a telegraph pole and opposite a house called Carntop turn right (easy to miss) towards the health centre at which turn left and proceed all the way down a track to the lighthouse. Return to the road, turn right and descend to and through Old Town. At a t-junction turn right onto Carn Friars Lane.
Take the first track on the right between two stone posts towards Salakee Farm. At the end of the track dismount and, as it bears left, walk briefly to Porth Hellick Bay. Return to the road and turn right to continue the circuit. As the road bears left turn right signed to visit Porth Hellick Down and burial chamber. Return to the road and continue. After Normandy Farm turn right and then left down a narrow hedged path signed to Carn Vean tea rooms. At the end of the path turn right down a very bumpy track to visit Pelistry Bay and Tolls Island. Return up the track, don’t turn back to the tea room but continue ahead. Bear right at a red and blue boat. At the newly renovated Green Farm bear right then, where the track bears right, turn left down a path and dismount for a short distance. Pass through a gate, re-mount and turn left up a hedged track which joins a broader track coming in from the right.
At the road turn right. Just before a round stone coastguard’s tower turn right down a stoney track with houses either side signed Bant’s Cairn burial chamber and ancient village. After visiting these sites (walking the final stretch) return to the tower and continue the circuit. Take the first right at a picnic area. After the road bears left into Porthloo turn right in front of the sign for Porthloo Boat Park following a path towards Porthloo Studios. Lift your bike up a few steps then continue ahead down a gravel track which becomes a minor road. Turn right at the next two t-junctions to return to Hugh Town.
Selected pubs and grub:
Carn Vean Café and Tea Garden, Pelistry Bay. Open 11am-5pm. 07707 118118.
Juliet’s Garden Restaurant, above Porthloo. Open 10am-5pm for teas then for dinner from 6pm every night except Tues. 01720 422228.
The Boat Shed, Porthmellon Beach, nr Hugh Town. Open daily 5-11pm. Classy seafood restaurant with decked terrace overlooking the beach. Booking in advance strongly advised. 01720 423881.
Fish and chip van on Porthcressa beach, Hugh Town. Visits 5-7.30pm every day except Sunday.
Good choice of pubs, hotels and restaurants in Hugh Town.
St Mary’s Bike Hire, Hugh Town. 07796 638506. Open 9am-5pm Mon to Sat. £5 for half a day, £8 for the full day and £10 for 24 hours. Tag-a-longs, child carriers and tandems available.
Book a Bike on Scilly. Delivers to anywhere on St Mary’s. http://www.bookabikeonscilly.com. 07887 841033.
Isle of Scilly Country Guest House, St Mary’s. http://www.scillyguesthouse.co.uk, 01720 422440. Peaceful, airy and comfortable accommodation with sitting room and kitchen in the centre of the island. Doubles up as a Bavarian kaffeehaus by day. (The owner is from Munich!)
Getting there: Direct flights from Bristol, Southampton, Exeter, Land’s End, Newquay and Penzance with connections from other airports nationwide. Helicopter and ferry from Penzance.