Monday, August 1, 2011

England 2011: An Uninhabited Island

Samson, Scilly's largest uninhabited island

Thursday, July 21 – At last, a fully, brilliantly sunny day, the first and most beautiful of all.  In bright sunshine the sea magically transformed into the piercing, heart melting Scillonian turquoise color that I’d kept promising Jan, so, over the enormous English breakfast, we decided among our many choices to take the 10 AM boat to the uninhabited island, Samson.  After a short ride on a small boat with a dozen or so other people, we were landed on a white pure beach of very fine sand shot through with silver flecks that glittered in the sun. Everyone gasped and laughed to find themselves in such a beautiful place.

Starting to climb

 Samson is only half a mile long by a quarter mile wide, but possesses two hills that are famously said to look like “paps” from the sea. We quickly climbed the north hill, past a ruined stone house or two, up to the high point for a truly spectacular view of the islands all around. Then we walked along a brackeny tract on the spine of the island, and dropped down to an equally silvery beach on the other side.

Brackeny tract

From there we climbed again, up the south hill, past some picturesque ruined houses – the last few people were removed from the islands in the 1850s and the frames of their stone cottages are left, through which you glimpse the turquoise water. On the high far end was a long stone wall almost across the width of the island, joined up with stone structures and extensive burial cairns.

Old stone houses

Glimpses of sea

Looking back over the whole island

From the burial cairns

Views from the top

The views were beautiful, and after reveling in them we completed the circle and returned back along the other side, down to the series of white beaches where we’d landed, to wait for the boat. We had a pleasant hour there, sitting on a grassy dune and taking shoes off for a walk in the fine sand and bright cold clear water: it was all very Narnian. The boat was a little late, having to maneuver a long way around sand bars.

Jan's daughter's comment on seeing this picture: "You got my mother to wear a baseball cap. Wow."

Pure clear water - and sand so fine it used to be shipped to the mainland to use before blotting-paper was invented

Officially Scilly

The return boat approaches the beach

Gaily flying the Union Jack

And now for the lesson, some interesting things I learned about the islands.  Samson’s history is outlandish, like that of much of Scilly. It is named after St. Samson of Dol, one of the seven founder saints of Brittany, who lived in the fifth century. 

Earlier, the Greek historian Strabo described the island inhabitants as wearing “an undergarment that reached down to their ankles, and over that another, both of the same color, which was black, girt round a little below the breast with a girdle, and walked with staves in their hands. The riches of the islands were tin and lead, which with skins of their cattle, they exchanged with foreign merchants, the Phoenicians from Cadiz.”  Hard to picture, with modern trippers scrambling over the islands in light summer clothes! 

Figurehead recently retrieved from the Colossus, wrecked off the north reef shore of Samson in 1798. There's a museum of figureheads on Tresco called Valhalla.

Traditional Cornish working women's dress. Spalling seems to mean exfoliating rocks.

In ancient times, the islands were apparently connected, and people could walk from one island to another at ebb tide. “We have not the least notice of anything that regards [the islands] from the fifth to the tenth century,” says the Encyclopedia Britannica of 1823, "though it is conjectured that during this time they were in great measure destroyed by an earthquake, attended with a sinking of the earth.” There is a tradition in Cornwall that an extensive tract of country called the Lioness [the Lyonesse of the Arthurian legends], lying between that country and Scilly, was lost."  And the account concludes with a quaint spelling of Tresco, and a depiction of lonely Samson:  “West from Trescaw, is Samson, in which there is not above one family, which subsist chiefly by the making of kelp.”

Here are some pictures that help to imagine these scenes in days past.

Cornish women's costume in the fishing village of Newlyn.  Painting by Walter Langley of the Newlyn School of plein air painters.

 Another Newlyn painting of fishing people by Walter Langley

Women picking daffodils, on the mainland (as you can see from St. Michael's Mount in the distance).  Daffodil picking was and is a staple industry on the Scilly Isles.  Notice that the men don't seem to be doing much...

The Slip by Walter Langley.  The dock in Penzance still resembles this.

View of Penzance from Newlyn by Stanhope Forbes, 1885.

To continue my own narrative, back at Bryher – such a short distance by water – I lingered on the way back to the hotel, and stopped at the island teashop, the Vine, to rest my sore knee, and treat myself to a truly superb cream tea. The Cornish cream was from St. Agnes, from whence the very finest cream comes, and the strawberry jam was from strawberries grown at Hillside Farm on Bryher. Just fabulous, and I was thirsty and drank cups and cups of tea. Rested at the hotel until the usual magnificent dinner, finished off with apple and rhubarb crumble with cream. Long hot bath, good sleep.

The Vine tea shop, Bryher

Just look at the texture of that cr-r-r-eam!

After breakfast, we walked from 10 to 1 around Rushy Bay, in the other direction from Gweal. Very beautiful, the white beaches fringed with the island's signature purple agapanthus and bits of pink campion, sea-holly and pink thrift.

Sea-holly at Rushy Bay

Agapanthus.  Common to both the Scilly Isles and Santa Monica, California.  Painting by Lesley Newman.

Pink campion (picture from the Healy Dell Nature Reserve website)

Last walk up Gweal Hill

Last look at Gweal Island

Horses below Samson Hill, above Rushy Bay

Last morning at Hell Bay Hotel

Paintings in the lounge

Leaving Bryher, turquoise water in the channel between Bryher and Tresco

Passing the "paps" of Samson Island

Then we returned to the hotel, and were driven down to the quay with our bags to take our departure on the boat to St. Mary’s. Reaching St. Mary's around 2, with time to spare while waiting for the sailing of the Scillonian at 4:30, we had time for a lovely lunch at the café we liked so much. I had a plump crab sandwich with salad, followed by a freshly baked Victoria sponge and pot of tea. Then we boarded the dear old Scillonian, where I sit now, just having passed Land’s End.

Approaching the mainland, past Land's End at approximately the spot where the Minack Theatre is carved into the cliff.

Smooth sailing, sunny, cool, a bit windy, but very little rolling. On arrival at 7 PM came the hard part, hauling our luggage to the rail station. Left Luggage was annoyingly closed, so we had to drag the bags again to a restaurant. Found a fish and chips shop called Catch which was just a fast food place but the fish was cod caught fresh at Newlyn and the potatoes were local grown and unusually flavorful. Then we boarded the famous Cornish Riviera Express sleeper train, and were charmed with our little cabins, well fitted out with everything, toiletries, complimentary tea, coffee, biscuits and newspapers in the buffet, etc. We chatted awhile in the buffet car, and are now tucked up in our berths, rolling through the cozy night back to London.

In my cabin on the Cornish Riviera Express sleeper train.


Barbara said...

A truly "light, bright and sparkling" post on Bryher! Barbara

Barbara said...

Sorry - Samson! Of course, I just hit send as I noticed my error. Barbara

TONY said...

Thanks for your posts about your recent trip over here. I have spent many holidays in Devon and Cornwall but never been to the Scilly's. They look lovely. I am interested in Barabara Hepworth. I think she loved going over to the Scilly's to visit quite often.I've seen an old photograph of Barbara Hepworth with her old friend David Leach the potter getting on a ferry together on their way to the Scillys. You say you stayed in the Hells Bay Hotel. I think some of the art work on the walls is Hepworth. I'm not sure whether there are any of her sculptures, probably just sketches. You can put me right on that.
I have enjoyed your posts.
All the best,

TONY said...

I meant Bernard Leach.
All the best,

Diana Birchall said...

Thanks for writing, Tony. And yes, there is a beautiful Barbara Hepworth painting at Hell Bay! Not a sketch, a finished painting. I am now kicking myself that I didn't take its picture, but I felt a little funny about taking too many. Drat those inhibitions. There may have been more, but that one was in a prominent place. I'd love to know more about Hepworth going to the Scilly Isles.

Mary Simonsen said...

Lovely post. Scilly reminds me of the islands off the Dingle Peninsula in Ireland. I think Oxford is gorgeous, but I only know it from TV and films as my husband and I buzzed past it on our way to Scotland. Missed opportunity. Thanks for sharing.