Isles of Scilly Sea-kayaking - 25 May - 2 June 2013
|“||Great place, great paddling, great food, great people.||”|
When the phone rang mid week prior to our booked sailing on the Scillonian, the though of a 5am start for 7.30am crossing seemed like an abstract idea but seemingly necessary as I was told there were an unusual number of kayaks booked on the boat. A few days and a long van ride later the complete clockwork pandemonium of Penzance quayside in the early morning sun was a very real situation with over 20 kayaks from another club laid out on the flagstones. Any later and we probably would have been fork lifted onto the boat (or into the harbour) along with all the other supplies and belongings being zipped around above our heads. Nevertheless bang on time the small white boat sounded its horn and kayaks, dogs, cargo and all left an otherwise sleepy Penzance to get on with it’s Saturday lie in. The three and a half hour crossing was relatively smooth as the boat followed the coastline past Mousehole and Trethewey, peeling away to the southwest as we approached Lands End. Michal pointed out along the way the lighthouses at Longships and Wolf Rock and the light ship at Sevenstones which apparently along with Bishops Rock on the far south west of the Scillies it is possible to paddle between in one go although with my forward paddling skills still needing some work I found it difficult to imagine how this could be done – one for the future maybe. We approached the islands via the east coast of St Mary’s with St Agnes on our left, swinging round towards the quay at Hugh Town and getting a quick glimpse of the whole assortment of beaches, crags and rocks strewn about the clear seas. Having watched an old British Pathe promotional film on the Scillies in preparation, my expectations for this “palm decked archipelago that has kidded itself it is in a tropic clime” were high and we were not to be disappointed.
After equal chaos at the unloading point we were soon loading our boats on the beach at St Mary’s whilst Colin bought ice creams (safe in the knowledge that his bags would be making their way on the Firethorn boat) now the holiday had officially started. We made the short crossing to Tresco relatively quickly and then trudged through little or no water in parts as the low tide left only small channels to navigate through the sandy flats on our way to Bryher where we would be camping for the week. We set up camp and were back on the water exploring the craggy granite outcrops around the north of the island before the effects of an early start and the long drive from London kicked in. After a few close encounters with some less than friendly looking rocks, some eye popping drops, a bit of elbow bracing and a half roll in an excited wave it was time to return – just about in one piece for a pint and dinner at the Fraggle Rock Bar and with an ominous forecast for midweek, think about the days ahead.
A beautifully calm sea and clear blue skies greeted us as we made our war around the north coast of Bryher meandering around some of the outlying rocks to the west. As we tried to distinguish seals from rocks, a strangely haunting warbling sound echoed in the distance like the mythical siren’s call to shipwreck mariners. Luckily it was nonesuch thing and although this wouldn’t have been the first time a THCC boat had been wrecked on the rocks of the Scillies, it turned out to be a group of seals having a Sunday morning chat whilst basking in the sun. Floating off the tip of Samson we suddenly gained phone reception and not a moment too soon as we had important business to attend to. Colin and Michal called the Turks Head in St Agnes to pre-order pasties for lunch whilst Natalie put a tow on to speed things up – surely an example of five star trip planning! Looking out over the western rocks towards the tiny matchstick of Bishops Rock Lighthouse in the distance it was hard to resist the draw of this most south-westerly tip of our isles but our pasties would be waiting and instead we opted to explore the bizarre rock formations which made up the bird reserve and island of Annet which, if water were replaced with sand could resemble a miniature version of Monument Valley. Nearing our landing point on St Agnes, a flock of sea birds bobbed around on the water and Natalie’s attempt to send me first to scare them off backfired slightly as they promptly dived underwater in an impressive disappearing act. The Turks Head did not disappoint and fed on pasties we lay down on the grass admiring the views of the tropical island paradise complete with turquoise seas and white sand beaches. The trip back took us around the southern coast of St Agnes past Gugh and via St Mary’s Sound back up to Tresco and Bryher with a combined pasta and other things we brought with us dinner thanks to Phillip, topping of a good day’s paddling.
<flickr>9186032173|medium|thumb|right</flickr> Then came the wind and rain. The good (and possibly bad) thing about being on an island is there are not that many places to go and having emerged slowly from our soggy tents, we were drawn in dribs and drabs towards the Vine Café for bacon sandwiches and a demonstration from Natalie and Michal of how to make a cup of coffee last for a whole morning whilst sheltering from the rain (again five star skills in action). We also had a chance to improve our knowledge of sea birds and it turns out they are not all sea pigeons after all. After some deliberation we placed our take-away pizza order for that evening (available Mon, Wed, Fri from Samson Hill Farm) after all who could resist the ominously named Stinky Parr. The community hall on Bryher is an amazing place to spend a rainy day, where the door is always open; part library, part nursery, part concert hall, part charity shop, part games room and sometimes cinema and the perfect place for a frantic round of killer on the table tennis table whilst we waited for the wind to drop. Back on the water in the afternoon we tentatively nosed out of the shelter to the north of the island into what I would describe as a raging sea bordering on tsunami but to a more experienced paddler was probably a walk in the park, with waves crashing over the headland it was too rough to go much further though and we returned to the shelter of Hangman Island for some rolling practice on the beach. The evening brought sunnier skies and what is possibly the most beautiful walk to a pizza takeaway ever. Served by the coastguard and his wife and cooked in a stone pizza oven built in their palm tree scattered garden idyllic doesn’t really describe it, we ambled back to the community hall and toasted the passing of the storm.
It is always surprising how the same stretch of water can be familiar yet completely different at the same time, as we set off again heading north in a slightly calmer sea with the option of heading east round the top of Tresco or continuing our explorations of the Bryher coast, we opted for the latter and followed the coastline around Hell Bay, Stinking Porth and Droppy Nose Point and then with a following sea around Great Rushy Bay Ledge on the south of Bryher surfed back in towards Tresco Flats. The tide was out when we landed by the quay in Tresco and dragged our boats up the beach. Golf buggies bumbled around with posh time-share tourists in their deck shoes and white shorts creating a very different atmosphere to Bryher. We walked over to Old Grimsby on the east of the island via verges and gardens draped in impressive exotic plants and admired the view from the terrace of the Ruin Beach Café. Taking the long way back, from the vantage point at the ruined castle on the northerly tip of the island it was apparent that we had made a good choice earlier in the day as the sea raced between the islands creating a wall of surf that looked fun but would have almost certainly meant an unwanted swim for some of us. Once stocked up on provisions we paddled the short distance back to Bryher and a Thai red curry courtesy of Natalie and Michal – in case you hadn’t noticed, food was becoming a bit of a theme here.
The wind had picked up again as per previous forecasts so we swapped our kayaks for a trip on the Firethorn boat to St Mary’s and became tourists for the day. I had been in the campsite office the day before when the woman was describing to someone on the phone that the Firethorn kind of trolls around the islands which was a pretty fair description of it. Heading south and round the tip of Tresco we went via St Martins before turning back to St Mary’s, it would be a relatively slow journey to do everyday but nonetheless we did see, earphones firmly implanted, possibly the Scilly Isles only commuter on board. On the way rambling across the island were a ropey collection of boats which ranged literally from a bath tub at one end to a questionable sea kayak at the other, making Tower Hamlet’s motley collection look like the Spanish Armada (even if one of them was now sporting a broken seat) and a good reminder of why we had brought our own boats. Another stunning bay greeted us at Old Town and in the now baking sun was a good lunch spot and time for a second coat of the SPF 50. Before heading back we had a pint at the Mermaid Inn where a rabbit warren of corridors and winding staircases makes it possible to do a loop of the pub and forms that basis of a drinking game so I am told. When repairing the said broken seat earlier in the week I had noticed that Michal was carrying a small blow torch, prefect for melting cheese over jalapeños and nachos to accompany an evening meal of Chilli con Carne and Mojitos.
Not that this trip was entirely lead by food based decisions but today was a big day as we had put in an order with a local fisherman the day before for some fresh crab and lobster. It seemed like the right thing to do to source some local wine as an accompaniment. Luckily there is a vineyard on St Martins – so off we went, making our way round the top of Tresco in a strong northerly wind. We passed the Golden Ball and approached the Round Island. Home to another of the Scilly’s lighthouses but now uninhabited, a winding set of steps with its crooked and rusty handrail reaching down to the sea seemed too inviting to miss even if the landing was slightly tricky. The sweet aroma of honeysuckle wafted around the island as we clambered up to the lighthouse and its views back towards the mainland. It is not strictly permitted to land here but it is also not a designated bird reserve like many of the other uninhabited islands. Not wanting to push up the islands’ crime statistics into double figures, after a short visit we relaunched from the steps and continued to St Martins. It turned out it was ‘English Wine Week’ which to some might sound like unnecessary punishment but to us it meant free tasting of some crisp whites and a rose, perfect with seafood ! After a quick detour to the famous day mark on the north east corner of the island (a lighthouse without a light or a large traffic cone according to Colin) I rejoined the others and Michal’s ongoing search for coffee and walnut cake. Like proper foragers we had also sourced some potatoes and salad from one of the many honesty stalls selling local produce which we collected on the way back to the boats. Our trip back took us around the south west of Tresco and into a strong and relentless headwind which battered us all the way back to Bryher. The fisherman turned out to be the same person featured in Joanna Hogg’s bleak 2010 film ‘Archipelago’ filmed on Tresco and was true to character with thick accent and weather beaten looks. Back at the campsite, the majestically red lobster and menacing crabs were subjected to an attack from the paparazzi before some dedicated crab-dressing skills from Colin (crab officer) and the coining of a new and versatile term of phrase that ‘everyone can go and suck their own claw’. A successful day which would put Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstallto shame.
It is always good to leave somewhere with things to do next time you visit, such was the case for Michal with the Men au Vaur. Having missed out on a previous trip with Sea Kayak Cornwall, it was a good chance to return to the craggy fingers of rock and run the gauntlet through them. Following a similar route to the previous day, we followed the coast around the top of Tresco and out towards the slightly inhospitable sounding rocks. As we approached, the sea lashed about whilst Guillemots and the occasional Puffin watched on from their vantage point atop the granite ridges. A few exhilarating runs through and an another tick against ‘things to do in the Scilly Isles in a kayak” later and we moved on, looping around the top of St Helens with Tean on our left and landing for a lunch on another white sand beach. A quick look around the ruins of the ancient plague house confirmed it to be perfect for conversion into a home for the new Scillonians amongst us (who needs a roof anyway?) we made our way around Tresco, and ignoring advice from the 1989 film ‘When the Whales Came’ of “don’t go to Samson”, we went to Samson. By now it was relatively calm again and even an intrepid swimmer was venturing out amongst the forests of seaweed spaghetti to cross between the islands. Our last evening in the Scillies was spent with a short paddle across from Bryher, in the New Inn on Tresco, who’s claim to be the best pub on the island was unchallenged in that it was the only pub on the island, nevertheless as was the case for the rest of the trip, we ate well. The return leg gave Michal a chance to practice his night time leadership skills and for the rest of us to practice our basic counting skills.
We were on the water early, having packed up and left our bags in a pile on the campsite, for later pickup by tractor and boat. Our return sailing on the Scillonian left St Mary’s at 10.30 and we needed to avoid the crowds to get the boats onboard. The early morning sun glittered on the water for our final paddle with some gusting winds and waves whipping up low surf as we neared the harbour. We had time for a quick visit to the shops, literally been there - got the t-shirt style (although I do now accept that the representation of the isles on mine is not geographically correct). Once back onboard the small white boat we watched the crane as it hoisted our kayaks precariously dangling them over the harbour wall and slowly the containers and pallets were loaded on until all that was left on the quay was a small car. Following a period of “they can’t be... are they?, yes they are” the car was hauled up in the air and over onto the front deck and off we went following a course northwards to St Martins, past the Eastern Isles and out to sea reluctantly back towards Penzance.
All in all a great trip, thanks to everyone for making it such fun and especially to Natalie and Michal for leading it; giving us less experienced members of the group the chance to push ourselves, experience different sea conditions and try out new things, whilst gaining confidence in the water and exploring these beautiful ‘tropical’ isles.