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.
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.