Sentimental journey

Brexit? I’m all for it. I don’t mean Britain exiting Europe, of course. That’s an entirely separate matter, which I won’t get into here. What I’m talking about are the Isles of Scilly, that sea-sprayed, sun-kissed archipelago of 55 tiny islands, where Britain almost literally exits Europe. Though only 28 miles off shore, seemingly cast adrift in the Atlantic, the Scilly Isles are about as far away from Europe — or, for that matter, mainland Britain, at least in the mind — as you can get. If you need a change from Cornwall, or you’ve OD’d on Devon, or you just need to get away — I mean, really get away from it all — the Scillies could well be for you.

Ask any Englishman or woman over the age of 40 what they know about Scilly, as the islands are collectively known, and they’ll immediately call to mind Harold Wilson, the pipe-smoking British prime minister of the 1960s, who famously had a vacation home on St. Mary’s, one of Scilly’s only five inhabited islands. Owned by the Duchy of Cornwall (which is to say Prince Charles) and with its strong political connection, this area of outstanding natural beauty might have easily become a British Hyannis Port or a Kennebunkport, teeming with day-trippers and full of shops selling macramé and candles but, happily, this was destined not to be.

Maybe it was simply the hassle of getting to Scilly — six hours by train from London to Penzance, followed by a punishing three-hour ferry ride out to the islands. Or maybe it was the fact that it was difficult to associate the dour, left-wing premier, Wilson, with anything approaching a good time. But ironically, the things which kept people away, like its remoteness and lack of sophistication, are suddenly the very things which been-there-done-that 21st century vacationers are now coming to Scilly in search of. Plus, it has a timeless, rather wistful beauty.

First things first, and getting here is now easy as pie: You can fly in from London via Exeter or Newquay in under two hours, or hop across from Penzance on a scheduled Twin Otter or Islander. It’s a thrilling experience as you climb over Land’s End and bank low over the Atlantic coast, to touch down only 15 minutes later on St. Mary’s, the Scillonian “capital.” Instantly, a sense of an England unchanged in 50 years steals upon you. There are few people, fewer cars and zero crime. The sky, a bleary, baby blue with scudding clouds, has you rushing for your watercolors. At Hugh Town, the only sizable settlement on the island, there are a couple of banks, a post office and an ATM machine. Never mind “Gentle on My Mind,” the pace here is so slow it’s virtually stopped. Think cream teas with scones, red telephone boxes and Miss Marple — without the murder, of course.

Travel between the islands is by small boat, no hop longer than 10 or 15 minutes. On car-free Tresco, where you get around on foot or by bicycle, little remains of the 12th-century priory founded by Benedictine monks. Still, visitors today come for its fabulous Abbey Gardens. Burmese honeysuckle, Chinese paper plants and Mexican yuccas all flourish in this astonishing microclimate, where spring comes early and summer seems never entirely to fade. Average mean temperatures on Scilly — 48 degrees Fahrenheit in January — are higher than on the French Riviera.

The other islands hold myriad delights, not least for children, which makes Scilly perfect for a family holiday. On St. Martin’s, we found miles of blinding white-sand beaches, with coves and inlets to explore  and spent hours collecting shells in a Scillonian, “Sanibel stoop.” Indeed, Scilly’s sand is so fine, it used to be exported to the mainland as blotting paper.

Walking the Troy Town maze on St. Agnes, or taking a boat trip — Virginia Woolf-style — out to the lighthouse at Bishop Rock, is redolent of a simpler, innocent England, gone but perhaps not forgotten. Are you a birdwatcher? If so, you’ll love Bryher for its sanderlings, redwings and stonechats. The islands have something for everyone, and I love them all, for their washed-out, pastel colors, for their peace and quiet and for their subtle way of soothing the spirit, as effective as any upscale, sprauncy resort. And, it should be noted, at a fraction of the cost.

So by all means bring binoculars, but leave the Dolce & Gabbana and the glad rags at home. If you’re Scilly-bound, the most elaborate items you’ll need in your backpack are swim shorts and a bucket and spade. Oh, and a good book — several of them, in fact. Scilly could make Brexiteers of us all.

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