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An Archaeological Archipelago: Things to See on the Isles of Scilly

Beautiful beaches, stunning scenery and unusual wildlife have long made the Isles of Scilly a popular place for a short getaway. The islands, a relatively untouched landscape compared to the hustle and bustle of mainland Britain, are also home to many sites of historical and archaeological interest. Ancient villages, burial chambers, museums, and historic gardens are all only a ferry ride or short plane trip away from the coast of Cornwall and Devon. Whether you choose to stay in a bed and breakfast in the town on St Mary’s or a luxury cottage on Tresco, perhaps you would prefer to camp on St Martins, each island has its own unique heritage and character to explore.

St Mary's Island

The first port of call for all visitors to the Scilly Isles, St Mary’s, is home to Hugh Town, the main hub for shopping and eating on the islands. Yet whilst the town houses numerous gift shops, galleries, pubs, and cafés, it also contains a 19th century chapel, an Elizabethan coastal defence system, and the Isles of Scilly Museum. With the town framed by two beaches, Porthcressa and Town Beach, and walks leading out to the Garrison or to the Heritage Coast, whether you choose to stop on this island or simply pass though, there is plenty to explore.

If you are considering staying on St Mary’s, you might wish to book rooms in the Star Castle Hotel, a refurbished building that was once used to imprison prominent Royalist supporters during the English Civil War. Alternatively, you might want to take a walk around the Garrison walls, a route that is open to general visitors as well as hotel guests. Surrounding the original Elizabethan castle and originally built around 1600, the walls were expanded and extended during the 17th and 18th centuries. The Garrison walk is an interesting and feasible choice for a day trip, but with the quay just nearby, boat services to other islands, and a small supermarket, Hugh Town provides an interesting and well-equipped place to stay.

If you are feeling the need for adventure and a longer stay, however, there is much more to see further out. Most paths around the island are relatively easy to walk, and bikes can be hired in advance through the St Mary’s bike hire website . Just a scenic walk or short bike ride away are the Bants Carn Burial Chamber and the Halangy Down Ancient Village, a set of ruined cottages that once served a small community in the Iron Age, recalling a time when the islands were united into one land mass. Subsequent erosion and rising sea levels has meant the valley the settlement overlooked has now been submerged, and today you can look out across the sea to a spectacular view of the other islands whilst exploring the village.

At the top of the hill, the Bronze Age burial chamber can also be accessed. Remains were removed from the grave in 1900, and the type of chamber, an entrance grave, is particularly interesting due to its rarity. Examples are only found in parts of Brittany, the Channel Islands, the very west of Cornwall, and the Scillies. The group goes by the name ‘The Scillonian Group’, however, due to the high concentration of sites on the islands compared to all the other locations.

To take a look at another example, you can leave the site by the gate and walk towards Innisidgen. This part of the island is also home to Bar Beach, a vast strip of shoreline that links up to Pendrathen at low tide, where the remains of a 1940s pillbox can be seen. If you wish to return to Hugh Town, however, you can go over the stile beside the Bants Carn Chamber for an alternative coastal route back to the shops.

Neolithic Tomb Isles Of Scilly
Bronze Age burial chamber at Innisidgen on St Mary's island.

Tresco Island

For a slightly different experience, however, you might want to consider visiting Tresco, the second biggest of the inhabited islands. The island is home to the famous Tresco Abbey Gardens, designed by Emperor Augustus Smith in the 19th century. Remains of the original medieval Benedictine Abbey, the estate’s namesake, can still be seen in the gardens, and the site also houses the Valhalla Museum, a collection of ships figureheads salvaged from several shipwrecks over the centuries.

Beside the entrance to the gardens, a small building also contains a short summary of the history of the estate, as well as a rescued fragment from the HMS Colossus, wrecked on the islands in 1798. The site also incorporates a small shop, a café, and toilets with disabled and baby changing facilities.

For a more alternative exploration of this island, however, I would highly recommend the walk to Cromwell’s and King Charles’ castles. A little rocky in places, Cromwell’s castle can be accessed by a cliff path, or by an easier route along the top of the island. The civil war saw the islands rapidly changing hands between several different factions, and walking this part of the landscape really allows you to get a feel for its turbulent history. This fortress was built in 1651 to replace King Charles’ Castle, the ruins of which can still be visited at the top of the hill (though please be warned this walk up is a little steep!) A day trip to Tresco is almost a must if you are visiting the islands, but served by its own supermarket, Tresco Stores, and with numerous places to stay, it is also becoming an increasingly popular choice of island to stay on.

King Charles Castle Tresco
There are two must-see castles on Tresco Island, King Charles’ Castle (above) and Cromwell’s Castle (at the top of this page).

St Martin's Island

St Martin’s, though often described as the most scenic of the Scillies, is also the home of the Daymark, a tall red and white structure. Built in 1683 (though its date-stone incorrectly declares “1637”) as a navigation aid, it is the thought to be the oldest surviving beacon in the British Isles. The red stripes were added later to make it the striking feature it is today, and the structure is visible from the other islands and the mainland in clear weather. On the beautiful heather-filled walk up to the edifice you will also pass a series of prehistoric funerary cairns, a field system, and the remains of an old medieval chapel, giving the place its name ‘Chapel Down’.

The island is also home to the Karma St Martin’s Hotel, the restaurant of which is open to passing visitors as well as those staying the night. A café, a Post Office, and the Seven Stones Inn also serve the island, and the St Martin’s Methodist Church houses a series of old photographs documenting the history of life on this island. A free Reading Room, with books, puzzles, and games, is also available in the new Island Hall, which also contains a gym (a week’s membership can be bought from the nearby Churchtown Farm) and toilets. The rooms may occasionally be unavailable if the space has been pre-booked, however, so it is best to check the booking diary in the entrance. However, though the island’s gym, comfortable hotel and acclaimed restaurant can certainly cater to a more expensive taste, there are a range of accommodation options and things to see here and on the other islands. There is also a popular campsite on St Martin’s, as well as on St Mary’s, Bryher, and St Agnes.

Bryher Island

Although the three larger islands are often the more popular choices for an extended stay in the Isles of Scilly, both the smaller islands of Bryher and St Agnes have a charm all their own.

Bryher, the most untouched of the two, is home to the Hell Bay Hotel, looking out over a beach that saw many shipwrecks during the 18th and 19th centuries. This island is also the closest to the uninhabited Samson island. Abandoned in 1855, and still containing the ruins of some of the 19th century cottages, visitors can still walk to Samson from Bryher when there is an extremely low spring tide. Alternatively, boats can also be caught to Samson from St Mary’s Quay.

St Agnes Lighthouse
A 17th century lighthouse on St Agnes island.

St Agnes Island

St Agnes, the westernmost of the Scillies, is often described as the most ruggedly beautiful island, though it is also served by a Post Office, a pub, and a popular ice-cream shop. The island is also home to the mysterious Beady Pool, where many agate beads were found during the 1970s. Whilst no one knows exactly how these stones ended up in such a remote spot, it has been suggested that they originally came from 17th Century Dutch trading ships, which were later wrecked on the islands. If you are lucky you might find a bead yourself!

Towards the north of the Island, just down from the quay, you will also find The Bar beach, where at low tide you can walk across to the nearby Gugh Island. The Old Man of Gugh, a 2.7m standing stone, stands on the island, and the surrounding landscape is full of entrance graves, cairns, and hut circles, all dating from the Bronze Age. With such a wealth of history, Gugh is well worth a visit if you are landing on the nearby St. Agnes, but please be sure to check the tide times! Back on the main island, on Periglis beach, you can also see the old lifeboat slip and station, which once served the islands between 1891 and 1920.

For those with a particular interest in shipping history, the old 17th century lighthouse is also still standing on St Agnes, and for a really interesting accommodation option, you might want to look into staying at The Gatehouse, a self-catering let situated in The Lighthouse grounds. The Victorian replacement for the islands, the Bishop Rock lighthouse, can also be seen if you take a boat from St Mary’s Quay, but I would recommend choosing fair weather and calm seas for this journey.

For those with a particular interest in shipping history, the old 17th century lighthouse is also still standing on St Agnes, and for a really interesting accommodation option, you might want to look into staying at The Gatehouse, a self-catering let situated in The Lighthouse grounds. The Victorian replacement for the islands, the Bishop Rock lighthouse, can also be seen if you take a boat from St Mary’s Quay, but I would definitely recommend choosing fair weather and calm seas for this journey!

Stmarys Beach Scilly
Looking across St Mary’s beach, with Buzza Tower on the horizon.

When is the Best Time to Visit the Isles of Scilly?

The best time to visit Scilly depends on your specific interests.

Like many places, summer is the best time for families, when the weather is usually at its warmest and there are fetes and other events across the islands. For the avid walker, ‘Walk Scilly’, a series of guided rambles around the islands, normally takes place over the course of a week in April. The World Pilot Gig Championships are always a popular choice for a weekend trip, and are usually set in the island schedule, along with Art Week Scilly, at some point in May. For sports enthusiasts, the month of choice is probably September, when the islands gear up for the Tresco Triathlon, and the ‘Scilly Swim Challenge’.

Perhaps to get a more ‘authentic’ experience of Scilly though, it is best to visit outside of peak season – however the weather can be a little more rugged and unpredictable! With the ferry running from Mid-March to October, the slightly less extensive travel options will really give you the opportunity to immerse yourself in the realities of island life. Regardless, however, there are a range of choices for accommodation and activities all year round.

Getting to the Isles of Scilly

Getting to the islands at the edge of the Atlantic is as much an adventure as your time on the Isles of Scilly will be.

The Isles of Scilly by boat

The ferry, the Scillonian, to the islands runs from Penzance to St Mary’s from March to November. The journey takes 2 hours and 45 minutes. Dogs are allowed.

The Isles of Scilly by plane

There is a flight service to the islands, that runs throughout the year. Both national and international flights connect with flights to St Mary’s  Cornwall Airport Newquay (NQY) and Exeter Airport (EXT). There is also a service to St Mary’s from Land’s End.

Travelling between the islands

Scillonian Scilly Isles Ferry
Getting to the Isles of Scilly on the Scillonian.

Archaeology Travel WRITER

Beth Howell

I am a history enthusiast and heritage volunteer, with interests ranging from Gothic architecture to 19th century painting. I love learning and writing about the world around me, and recently completed a degree in Art History and English Literature at the University of Exeter. When I haven’t got my nose in a book I’m usually doodling, and I am currently working on a series of drawings of Victorian women.

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