Situated in the Atlantic, West of England's Land's End, the Isles of Scilly, belonging to the Duchy of Cornwall, are everything the Great British Seaside should be. Oh, and the food is pretty good too.
You know you're going somewhere special when the girl at the airport counter asks you which hotel you're staying in and affixes a tag to your bag. I'm at Exeter airport, after a comfortable two and a half hour train journey from London's Paddington, and I'm catching a tiny twin otter to St. Mary's. It's the middle of October and I'm worried that I've scheduled my trip so late in the year. In fact, I'm soon drenched in glorious sunlight as we negotiate the Atlantic breezes and put down on the small airstrip. What I haven't realised is that the Gulf Stream keeps the islands warm all year round and temperatures rarely get to freezing, even in the middle of winter.
I'm staying on the neighbouring island of Tresco and a rather courteous young man rounds up the few passengers travelling onwards and takes us down to St. Mary's harbour. There we're whisked on a jet boat to Tresco where a tractor, pulling a covered trailer, transports me to the New Inn, my home for the next few days. A fellow passenger has been coming to Tresco for 12 years and tells me that it's like stepping back in time, a sort of Disneyland for Adults. Apparently there used to be a direct helicopter service but lack of spare parts caused it to be discontinued. All I can say is that my journey has been a minimum of hassle and has made the island seem rather exclusive.
Unlike the other islands, this has been leased from the Duchy of Cornwall by the same family since Augustus Smith arrived in the 19th century. He collected rare and exotic plants and his Tresco Abbey Garden, with specimens from species from 80 countries, ranging from Brazil to New Zealand and Burma to South Africa, is a major attraction here. I'm shown around by David Hamilton, who's responsible for the vegetable garden, and he supplies the hotel and island shop with fresh produce. Meat comes from a herd of Limousin Cattle from the only farm on the island, and the sea provides fish - mackerel, pollack, lobster and scallops are all abundant in the waters round here. I get a chance to try scallops and skate at the Ruin Beach Café at dinner.
Just across the bay is the smaller island of Bryher, so close, in fact, that when the tide's low you can walk across. Today I take a 10 minute boat ride and I'm met by Issy Tibbs who holds the glorious title of Isles of Scilly Food and Drink Champion. She tells me that her job is to promote the work of food producers, particularly the farmers, and in the last couple of years she's overseen an increase in local ingredients in cafes and restaurants. Every September she organises the Tresco and Bryher Food and Drink Festival which sounds like it's well worth a visit.
I walk the half mile across the island to the Hell Bay Hotel, delightfully situated, facing the full force of the Atlantic. The buildings are slightly severe but inside is all bright and sparkling designer chic. I lunch with Philip Callan who's been the manager here for the last 8 years. As I tuck into my belly pork, unfortunately not local, he lets slip that he keeps pigs as a hobby, although he's not going to be able supply the hotel. He does say, however, that they are expanding the kitchen so they're better prepared to take in the day's catch. The hotel also offers wild food foraging breaks.
I retrace my steps back to Tresco and have an excellent dinner of local crab and Dover Sole at The Flying Boat Club. Next morning I'm on the boat for St. Agnes which at around 30 minutes is a little further away. This is very much a working island and here I'm met by farmer Sam Hicks who takes me to Troytown . He has 10 dairy cows, Jerseys and Ayrshires, and as well as supplying milk, makes excellent ice cream. I realise I've already sampled his Orange Sorbet at the Flying Boat Club so am already a convert. He gives me a taste of his rose geranium variety and it's also rather good.
The High Tide Restaurant has already closed for the season but I have an interesting chat with its chef Mark Eberlein about Scilly food. He tells me that he would love to put local fish on his menu but must buy it from licensed fishermen of which there are few. Indeed he suspects that the fish he buys in Cornwall is from the Scillies, although he does manage to get fresh crabs and lobsters. He's OK with local vegetables, which come from the organic Tamarisk Farm and he buys Scilly meat, although it has to be slaughtered on the mainland as there's no abattoir on the islands. Before I leave I have a pint at the Turk's Head with Nicki Anderson, the landlady. She's also a champion of local food and, as I catch my boat, she rushes off to prepare the evening's casserole.
I snatch probably the best crab salad I've ever tasted at Juliet's Garden Restaurant on St. Mary's and, remarkably, it's still warm enough to eat outside and admire the view. They grow their own fruit and vegetables here and Chef Andrew O'Connor shows me some pictures of some of his signature dishes which look deliciously inventive. We talk about the food scene and I'm interested why restaurants don't do more to promote local products - they label food as Cornish but why not Scillonian? One problem is that sometimes it's difficult to find fish in sufficient quantities but I would argue it could feature on menus as specials.
I think the islands could become a premier foodie destination. In my few days I taste outstanding local products but too often don't find them on restaurant menus. In Tresco there are plenty of razor clams and cockles in the sand on the seashore but no restaurant is collecting and cooking them. There's also wine from St. Martin's, the one island I didn't visit, but I find it impossible to order a glass anywhere. There's no doubting the stunning natural beauty of the place but I want to be knocked out by the food - next time perhaps?
Isles of Scilly Travel has information about how to get here or call 0845 710 5555.
First Great Western runs between Paddington and Exeter.
Skybus flies between Exeter and St. Mary's.
Bryher Boats connect the islands.
Simply Scilly has tourist information or call 01720 424031.
All pictures copyright Rupert Parker
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