Isles of Scilly

An island beach

In July I visited the Isles of Scilly, staying on Bryher. I spent a lot of time on Great Par beach, sketching and beach-combing, finding tiny pieces of sea-smoothed china with cryptic squiggles of pattern, purple and yellow flat periwinkle shells, flat top-shells with their zig-zaggy stripes and pointed limpet shells with holes drilled in them by the sea.

It was just after the full moon and the tides were very extreme – the locals call them ‘bad tides’ as they make boating difficult. On Great Par it was very low tide and I found the beach dotted with stranded jellyfish. The most noticeable were Blue-fire jellyfish – a deep purple/blue the colour of Scilly seas in summer. These varied in size from tiny blobs to side-plate-sized.

Compass jellyfish were also scattered around the tideline. They were large peach-coloured discs with distinctive dark brown markings radiating from a central small circle, just like the calibrations on a compass. The edges were outlined in dark brown spots which coincided with the spokes of the ‘compass’.

There were one or two Moon jellyfish, completely clear discs like the bottom of a pint glass, through which you could see the pebbles, soft-focus and distorted.

In the shallows where the tide was turning I saw something small moving towards the sea. Bending down I could see what looked like a miniature lobster, about two centimetres long. It stopped and seemed to be aware of me, lifting its tiny claws in a show of defiance. This was a Squat lobster. They find shelter and protections from predators in small cracks in the rocks and are quite common on Scilly.

I walked off behind the beach around Samson Hill where clouds of butterflies flew up where my feet brushed through the bracken. There were small copper butterflies, meadow browns and six-spot burnet moths. It reminded me of how things were when I was a child, before the advent of pesticides and industrial farming. Here on this small island in the Atlantic was a butterfly paradise.


Water blog

We sailed under Weymouth town bridge with nine inches to spare, not waiting for it to be raised as we wanted to catch the tide. A cardboard cup blew off the table as we headed for the Shambles, east of Portland Bill. There were three of us aboard, bound for the Isles of Scilly in a motor yacht, Moonlight Dancer. We were going to see my daughter who was working there for the summer. It was my first real sea voyage.

For a while I had been in emotionally uncharted waters and it felt good to be planning a trip meticulously and to know my destination. However, I was apprehensive about how I would cope with rough seas and had a supply of ginger sweets just in case. We gave the notorious Portland Race a wide berth, but the seas were very rocky and it took a while to round the Bill.

As we entered Lyme Bay off the Jurassic Coast, a watery sun tarnished the lumpy waves. A gannet swooped past in a flash of yellow, black and white then a fulmar skimmed the bow, dipping one wing in the water as it passed. Soon we were surrounded by a flock of fulmars, guillemots and black-backed gulls. I stood on deck with a sense of being cocooned in their weaving flight as they moved effortlessly between air and water, equally at home in either.

By late afternoon we sighted Start Point. We had the sun in our eyes and were negotiating three-metre waves. We decided to head for Salcombe to shelter overnight, but would be entering the harbour at low tide over the sand bar across the entrance. The sun went down and it became grey and murky. My feet were numb as we finally tied up in Salcombe. We could see the pub on the harbour side among the huddled houses, but had to be content with imagining its comforting warmth and good food.

When you see waves coming onto a beach, they seem orderly – all lining up and taking their turn to roll in. Out on the sea it’s a different matter – they seem to come from all directions and flow together in a chaotic mix of peaks and troughs. It makes for a relaxing night’s sleep however, being rocked about continuously.

The next morning was colder and windier. A weak sun glittered across the harbour as we had a cooked breakfast. We set off into a swelling sea, punching tide and doing 12 knots. About mid-morning a pod of dolphins appeared and swam along with us, playing around the boat for about ten minutes. I wondered if they could sense our pleasure and excitement at seeing them. I tried to take photos without success – all I got was a splash or two as if the camera was a net, from which they were trying to escape.

What must it be like to live in a limitless environment like the sea instead of being tethered to rooms, houses and towns . . . The cohesion between this family of dolphins formed an entity stronger than any manmade city. The collective fluidity of the creatures was like the sea itself – a harmony of living that seemed so much more sophisticated than our own muddled existence.

The dark curves of the plunging dolphins shed water like memories leaving bubbles of laughter on the surface of the sea. The way they moved seemed carefree, exultant yet purposeful and organised. I wondered if they were aware of the stick-like creature standing on the deck cheering them on.

Just off Fowey five warships loomed menacingly out of the fog, then two more dolphins swam reassuringly beside us in tandem, mirroring each other’s movements. By 2pm we had covered fifty-two miles and had forty-eight to go before we arrived on Scilly. We passed the Lizard then Lands End and saw the splendid isolation of Wolf Rock Lighthouse as the seas became very rough, and there was no leisure to do anything but try to keep the boat on course.

Scilly emerged from the distant horizon – a collection of fragmented rocks no bigger than seals. On a clear Summer’s day the Atlantic waters would be turquoise, each island surrounded by a frill of white sand, but this evening the archipelago seemed more sea than land, grey and indistinct. We set a course for St Mary’s and went slowly on a low tide down Crow Sound to the Quay where my youngest daughter waited – a sleek silhouette against the setting sun – as we came alongside.

Salt Cedar

Conditions are harsh where pebbles meet soil. Today at Abbotsbury there is snow in the air. A south-westerly has sculpted clouds into mountains which cast their shadows over the sea like a map of the world. A rainbow tints the sallow winter downs and I can taste salt in the sleet.

A thicket of tamarisk, or salt cedar, thrives here at the back of the Chesil bank – stout glossy stems like a fistful of coloured pencils – white, ochre, sepia, raw sienna, ultramarine blue and umber. No flowers, just a scribble of matted beards where the blooms have shrivelled. Deep in this tangle of stems are blotches of bright yellow-green lichen. On the sheltered edges of the clump, a fringe of spiky new leaves defies the winter gales. These tamarisk trees are tethered to the ground by long tap-roots which seek out deep water.

Last summer on the Isles of Scilly I saw a lean elderly fisherman by a tamarisk tree. He was brown and sinewy as the twisting twigs above him, limbs shiny with sun and salt. Fishermen used to weave the stems of tamarisk into lobster pots. The branches are pliable, strong enough to withstand the force of winter, salt-resistant and strong as rope – it grew in the right place and seemed made for the purpose.

This group of tamarisk trees is dense and tangled – an efficient windbreak. In Egyptian mythology it is said that the body of Osiris was hidden in a tamarisk tree in Byblos until it was retrieved by Isis. I imagine that a small creature sheltering in this thicket of tamarisk, to weather the winter storms, may have difficulty finding its way out – just like a lobster from a pot.

Following the Strandline

Aged six on Brighton beach my father told me that pebbles with holes in were lucky so I spent the day collecting as many as I could find. I threaded them on a piece of orange wire to make a necklace which I could hardly lift. That was the beginning of my fascination with beach combing.

Since then I have followed strandlines in many different places. In my early twenties I stayed on an island in the Oslo fjord where the coast was littered with strange chunks of glacial rock – pink, black, yellow, some looking like chocolate chip cookies and others like rock buns full of currants. I was so absorbed studying these unusual pebbles that I slipped and fell in the icy fjord. Climbing out I scratched my palms on the barnacles that covered the rocks.

When my children were small we spent our holidays in south Cornwall where we spent hours looking in rock pools for whiskery prawns and darting fish. On the black granite rocks stacked along the coast, we often saw pink sea anemones like half-sucked sweets. My youngest daughter grabbed one and put it in her mouth only to spit it out in a hurry. If you gently touched the tentacles of an anemone under water it would quickly close on your finger tip. Under the rocks were small transparent crabs which scuttled out if disturbed. Sometimes we would find bigger ones and draw them.

My favourite beaches are on the Isles of Scilly where the glittering white sand makes a perfect backdrop for delicate pink tellin shells, bright yellow and purple dog whelks, lucky cowrie shells and silvery top shells. Sometimes I would come across a violet jellyfish washed up on the strandline, translucent and gleaming in the sun, a dust of fine sand frosting its filmy surface or a pale orange compass jellyfish with distinctive markings. The paper-thin cases of sea potatoes (known locally as sea mice) blow around here like choux buns. Sometimes I used to come across sand dollars – like tiny bleached coins, but much more desirable.

On Town Beach, St Mary’s I find fragments of china, often with faded patterns in Victorian green and pink. I wonder about the people who used these items – whether plates and cups had been thrown and broken in anger or washed up from a shipwreck. I collect small pieces of glass worn smooth by the sea – pale green, blue, mauve and surf-white.

Now I visit the beaches along the Jurassic Coast in Dorset, picking up driftwood and other flotsam and jetsam to make sculptures. I photograph cuttlefish, scallop shells, different types of seaweed and draw the plants I find. I can spend hours looking for fossils. After a storm I’ve found shoals of pastel-coloured scallop shells and small rubbery starfish. Last winter’s storms washed up hundreds of seabirds and quantities of marine litter, shocking to see.

Walking along the strandline, looking at the trail left by the tide, I find myself in a meditative frame of mind, picking up memories, unravelling problems, planning a painting, thinking about family – in fact following an interior tide-line. Sometimes I pick up a shell or pebble and hold it for a while like a talisman.

Pebbles have been found in burial mounds indicating that people have been treasuring beach finds for thousands of years. Looking hard at things while you walk is a sort of displacement activity that can calm the mind. I remember once taking a walk along the strandline at Burton Bradstock, trying to unwind during a stressful house move. Suddenly I saw a hermit crab moving tentatively along the shore and made the connection with my own situation – waiting to move into someone else’s house . . .

Seabird Recovery Project on the Isles of Scilly

A grey Atlantic sky and a scouring westerly, whipping up the waves. I’m waiting on St Mary’s Quay, Isles of Scilly, for the Spirit of St Agnes to take me out to the Western Isles by the Bishop Rock Lighthouse – last outpost of the British Isles. The Seabird Recovery Project have kindly invited me to take this trip, courtesy of Captain John Peacock, to see the special birds which inhabit these wild rocky waters west of Scilly, and to hear how their numbers are being increased through the rat-eradication programme.

Silver-grey cloud covered the normally blue Scilly sky as we travelled west across an indigo swell. About ten people were on board including Darren, the guide, and helpers, Lydia and Ed plus two dogs. A watery sun broke through the cloud as we left St Agnes. On the starboard side a long raft of shags was strung out over the waves like a slick of ink. They were staying together while feeding, arching forward to dive for fish from the surface.

Then a shout – puffins, skimming over the water like humming birds. Sometimes known as the sea parrot or little brother of the north (due to their monastic-style black caps), they breed in burrows on the uninhabited islands of the Scilly archipelago, making long foraging trips out to sea then returning to land with beaks full of sand eels and other small fish. It is hoped that puffins may start to nest in the abandoned rat tunnels on St Agnes and Gugh.

A porpoise broke the surface of the waves and was gone. We stared for ages at the spot it disappeared, but it didn’t show again. Great black-backed gulls rode the wind like fierce figureheads. They are scavengers and arch-predators, eating seabirds (including the lesser black-backed gull chicks), voles, fish and crustaceans.

The Bishop Rock Lighthouse, bleak and forbidding, stood sentinel nearby. It was built in 1858 after several failed attempts to create a structure capable of resisting these violent stormy waters four miles west of Scilly. We drew near to the uninhabited island of Rosevear – a desolate place bearing the ruins of the dwellings used by the men who built the Bishop Rock Lighthouse. Its granite sides, like a dragon turned to stone, warned of the indomitable rocks which lie beneath the surface in this area – the graveyard of many ships.

Then a sighting of two manx shearwater, stiff-winged, scything through the air at the stern of the boat over churning water, now a mix of turquoise and grey. This is one of the species whose numbers are increasing due to the Sea Bird Recovery Project. There are 150 pairs on the islands. They spend all day at sea feeding, leaving the chicks vulnerable to predators, and not returning to their nesting burrows till dark.

A gannet swooped in a sloping dive, washday-white feathers leaving suds on the surface. On a black rock, guillemots and razor bills were silhouetted like a row of sharp black teeth. An Atlantic grey seal ‘bottled’ out of the water cocooned in seaweed for extra buoyancy. It was a pale sea-biscuit colour indicating its youth.

Then a collective gasp as we saw a swift heading south – a quill-drawn hiroglyph on a parchment sky. This bird knows the language of air – the invisible lines of navigation, the shape of the wind, the pattern of the weather. Far below, a fulmar flew low over the waves. Albatross-like, it excretes excess salt through its large raised nasal tubes.

We didn’t see any storm petrels – they were far out at sea, only returning to land at night to avoid predation by gulls and skuas. They are tiny delicate birds, fast-flying and swallow-like – a species also benefiting from the efforts of the Sea Bird Recovery Project.

The trip was a fantastic experience and I feel privileged to have had such an insight into the airborne wildlife of the Atlantic west of Scilly. Thank you so much to the Sea Bird Recovery Project, Jaclyn Pearson, Capt John Peacock, Darren, Ed and Lydia for making me so welcome.

Jaclyn Pearson, of the Seabird Recovery Project, told me how it all started in October 2012 with the backing of Wildlife Management International and world experts. The plan was to eradicate rats from the habitats of the Manx Shearwater and Storm Petrel colonies whose populations had declined by 25% over twenty years due to rats preying on fledgings. This is particularly important as there are only two populations of Manx Shearwaters in England – on Lundy and Scilly. The only colony of Storm Petrels is on the Isles of Scilly – therefore an internationally important site.

Ten years ago a similar rat eradication programme had taken place on Lundy and Manx Shearwaters increased by 250%. This gave the impetus to the Scilly project and by the end of November 2013 3,300 rats had been eradicated from St Agnes and Gugh – the most southerly and western islands of the UK. This was only possible with the help of the local community on the islands – the school children designed the logo and everyone pulled together to support the project. People were made aware of the significance of efficient waste-disposal. The tripper boats display a sticker asking people to ‘rat on a rat’ and report any sightings to the number shown, so involving holidaymakers as well. Boats are baited to prevent rats hitching a lift between islands.

The rat population was carefully targeted in order not to affect birds, rabbits and the unique Scilly shrew – the latter are insect-eaters and not tempted by the bait used for the rats. The bait was placed in agricultural pipes at 50 metre intervals. The rats had been preying on the Scilly shrew as well as birds so the project has resulted in an increase in its population too. There is ongoing surveillance of Agnes and Gugh and monitoring stations around the coast to confirm the absence of rats and, after two years of being rat-free, the project will have officially proved itself successful. There is a five-year plan to target the other inhabited islands of Scilly.
















Postcard from Scilly

Clouds of butterflies flutter around my head taking me back to childhood. I’m on St Mary’s, Isles of Scilly, in June, in a heat wave and in love with the place – an archipelago of granite islands which seem to float in a turquoise sea surrounded by white sand. Thirty miles off the rugged spit of Lands End and with nothing between them and America, the Scillies are unlike anywhere else.

The roads contain sand from the beach glittering with quartz, fragments of sea-glass and pieces of shell. Wildflowers edge the way, attracting insects in the sort of numbers I remember from the sixties, a contrast to the barren fields and verges of the mainland. Small and large tortoiseshell butterflies, red admirals, bees and beetles forage everywhere. Caterpillars gorge on the profusion of plants. We wait while a thrush smashes a snail in the road. The birds have little fear of people and hop around under your feet, and sometimes will even take food from your outstretched palm.

I saw a humming bird hawk moth gathering nectar from a tree echium – a plant which will grow to twenty feet high, smothered in small blue flowers attracting the bees and butterflies. On the margins between land and sand, sea holly and other salt-resistant plants flourish. The beaches are strewn with tiny shells not seen on the mainland – lucky cowrie shells like small clenched hands, swirling pink and silver top shells, yellow hi-vis winkles, fragile fan-shaped tellins, whelks hollowed by the sea to ivory twists … all set in dazzling white sand peppered with quartz crystals. Beachcombing on a sand bar with the turquoise water lapping at your feet is paradise.

Beyond the main islands are uninhabited smaller islands and large rocks which are a perfect environment for seals and seabirds such as the Puffin, Guillemot, Shag, Cormorant, Gannet and various types of gull. Unusual birds are often storm-bound on Scilly and create a great deal of interest. At St Martin’s a blackboard lists recent sightings – whitethroat, bar-tailed godwit, sanderling, golden plover …

I went on a boat trip to the Western Isles by invitation of the Sea Bird Recovery Project and learnt more about the birds of the Isles of Scilly – the subject of my next blog, coming soon.