These days, the month of October always reminds me of one place. The Isles of Scilly was the destination for a three week volunteer work placement I took part in a few years ago, and I have been longing to return ever since. Before I made that trip in the autumn of 2014, everyone I spoke to told me I would get hooked on the place and want to return time and again. At the end of the placement, I was ready to board the boat home, but over the years since, the Scillonian magic has worked on me and makes me dream of seeing those islands again.
I am sadly not the best of friends with boats and ocean swell, I wasn’t handed any sea legs when distributions of genes were made, so there are some delights of the Isles of Scilly that will always remain off limits to me. On land however, there are no such limits. Scilly is a strange manifestation of heaven that caught me off guard when I first encountered it.
I have always considered myself (and still do) a Sussex girl through and through. Chalk filtered water runs in my veins and my feet remember the lost paths of the downs. Then came Scilly. I knew my family had a link to the islands; my GG-Grandmother was born there, but I was shaken by the strength of the connection I felt with the place. Perhaps I have to admit that lodged within the Downland chalk are a few granules of Cornish granite that glinted and shone under those Scillonian skies.
I explored the islands entirely on foot. I felt it was only once I had walked the length and breadth of the land could I understand it; I learnt its contours and textures, the scent of its vegetation underfoot and the way the air is changed by elevation or by the shelter of a stone faced wall. I visited only two islands of the archaepeligo during my stay, spending the majority of the three weeks on St Mary’s, with a couple of trips over to St Agnes & Gugh. One excuse to return of course; to visit the other islands including St Martins where my GG-Grandmother’s maternal family came from. I would walk nearly the length of St Mary’s each day, from my accommodation on The Garrison to the offices of the Isles of Scilly Wildlife Trust at Trenoweth. Through the campsite at the Garrison, skirt the football pitch (home to the smallest football league in the world) and down the headland path past the Star Castle hotel. Under the stone arch and around the steep bend beside the police station, downhill past the bank and the best cafe for breakfast and the longstanding newsagents, into Hugh Town. Past the Scillonian Club and the war memorial, and the pub where I had Sunday lunch, along the harbours edge. Uphill past the ice cream shop and the bike hire shop, the community centre and the turning for the recycling tip. At a gap in the wall to allow access to the beach, strong winds would blow sand from the tide line in a blinding swirl onto the road, that would catch inside the back of my collar. Then it was just a case of following the high hedged lanes to the telegraph tower, turn right, past the horses field and the lane where the stick insects could be found in the brambles, then left at the bench under the stunted and crooked oaks and elms that overhung the road. When you saw the flower farm shop you were almost there.
The three weeks were all about birds. It was peak autumn migration season and Scilly is famously a hotspot for lost, off course and long distance migratory birds. Every movement or call in the bushes held the potential for a very exciting sighting. Unfortunately, perhaps due to weather systems or other unknown forces, it turned out to be the quietest migration season regards rarities, in 40 years. Just my luck. Even when I tired of birds I was never at a loss for things to do. I explored the islands landscapes; scrambling through the gorse near the golf course, standing on windy headlands entranced by the light on the sea, enchanted by the elm woodland with its knotted roots and cloak of silver lichen. I found stick insects living on the brambles at the base of the war memorial in Old Town churchyard whilst searching for family names on the headstones. I walked barefoot on one of the pale beaches and found I disliked the feeling of sand between my toes so turned to collecting brightly coloured pieces of sea-glass from the strand-line instead. Outside of the shared accommodation and when not engrossed in the volunteer work, I spent a lot of time alone. Alone, but not lonely; I discovered that I could be content in my own company. I ate in cafes alone, choosing my own timings – walking when I wanted to or simply sitting and watching when it felt right.
I distinctly remember one moment, crystal clear. I had a free afternoon and had taken a long walk up onto one of the headlands from Old Town. I reached a point where I was out of sight of the town or the airport or any other ‘human habitation’, and there I settled down on a rock some distance from the path. It was a granite boulder, with a dip that matched the contours of a body, and I laid back with the sun in my eyes. Gulls traversed the shifting seas below the headland. For a short while, under that bright cornish light, I drifted off into a half-aware dozy sleep.
Now, as I write this, it is the warm-bright living room ceiling light that glares in my eyes rather than Scillonian sun, and I can’t hear the gulls crying. But I’d only have to catch a whiff of sea salt and pine and elm on the October winds and I’d be back on those islands in an instant.