Falmouth to Scillies


Overheard in Falmouth's main drag: "This place reminds me of Spain". A touch of admiration in the speaker's tone as if the ideals of life were to be found further south - but that meanwhile Falmouth would do. My view? A charming enough place, with splendid sea views, clean air and enough restaurants and pubs to satiate the county. And yet (perhaps there is always a "yet"), nothing about Falmouth would induce me to visit it for pleasure, and were I obliged, by some odd capriciousness of fate, to live there, I would probably at some early stage find myself entertaining suicidal thoughts. Doubtless this is a grossly unfair conclusion to reach about an unobjectionable town doing its best to be agreeable to itself and to the world. And yet..

In the main shopping drag, Cornish pasties in bewildering variety assault the senses. Shaped like a bulbous ship's hold and sealed on one side with a heavy curl of pastry- they are the local speciality. They smell good, but look and probably are what Americans call heart-attack food - fatty and fattening. We eschewed them in favour of the fallafels sold from a little booth on the mid-town quay by a young couple - he English, she Israeli: a surprisingly authentic touch of the Middle East - flavours and sauces that briefly took me back to a little café near the gates of the old city of Jerusalem and to a long, unfinished personal odyssey.

The harbour buzzes with activity - commercial vessels, yachts, fishing boats in ceaseless movement. And from time to time, for reasons obscure to us but doubtless familiar to the dread authorities of Westminster, a naval warship puts in, sending those of us anchored off Customs House Quay scurrying to find an alternative spot - for we have been instructed to "make way".

Helford River lies a mere five miles further south and offers picturesque beauty of a typically English kind: riverbanks lined with trees of green velvet, and the occasional luminous meadow serenely opening the perspective of a stately mansion on a hill.

But the Helford is too accessible for such impressions to last. River cruise boats steam up and down at speed, shattering any illusion one may have woven of having eluded "civilization" - and no creek - however peaceful - escapes the attentions of the harbour commissioners of the city of Truro who levy a fee of five pounds on vessels anchored anywhere within their jurisidiction - including secluded areas wholly devoid of harbour facilities. On the east coast there are a thousand creeks and coves where yachts may anchor unmolested by harbour officials on the make. Not so in the south where, it seems, no inch of coastal or riparian water remains that is not considered a source of revenue.

This time, in return for our money, the Harbour Master hands us a bulky packet of pamphlets on the area and its wildlife. Five pounds worth of pulped rainforest perhaps....

Scilly Isles

Scillian life is conducted on a miniature scale. Of the inhabited islands, only St Mary's has enough houses and shops to qualify as a town - though on the mainland it would probably merit no higher status than that of a prosperous village. On the other inhabited islands, a food store, a pub and maybe a hotel and some B&Bs account for most of the visible commercial life. Clearly no one comes here for the shopping. And while the Scillies depend much on tourism for their economic well-being, effort is required to reach them, and visitors are not so numerous as to erode the sense the islands convey of being isolated and as far from the madding cares of the world as it is possible to get in the crowded land that Britons call home.

I wondered at first if the Scillies are accessible only to the well-to-do. But it is not so, for there are discreetly-located campsites dotted among the hills where those who cannot afford the steep price of a cottage or a hotel room, can still enjoy the wild, craggy beauty of the land and sea.

It takes maybe an hour to stroll round the entire island of St Agnes. En route, we came to the tiny church, very simple and dignified, with a wooden plaque on the wall opposite the altar listing the ships rescued and people saved by the now defunct St Agnes lifeboat crew. The church stands in the middle of a graveyard shielded by box and juniper from the Atlantic winds. We read a few of the headstones - and then a few more. Three family names - two preponderantly - account for almost all the deaths - and thus the lives - of the inhabitants. I tried to imagine myself living in a community where perhaps a third of the population - or even more - were blood relatives - but quickly chased away the thought as altogether too unpleasant.

We stood on the shore of Bryher at low tide and gazed across the thin strip of water towards Tresco. To our right, a clutch of bilge-keel yachts stood upright high and dry on the sands. Before us, at the water's edge, more boats squatted at odd angles, and still others further out sat quietly on their moorings. A few figures in the middle distance were wading through the water, though their movements were barely perceptible. All was still, with the stillness of a Dutch landscape, as if time had stopped in its tracks, and the busy world left to drift in the ebbtide of memory. Yet the very peacefulness of the scene reminded me that the obverse of tranquillity is savagery, and I was conscious - how could it be otherwise? - of how exposed these low-lying islands must be to Atlantic storms.

A short walk or climb in almost any direction in the Scillies is rewarded by dramatic views of rocky peaks and islets. Beautiful, even awe-inspiring, scenery exists in many parts of the world, however. Much harder to find would be a garden such as the famous one in Tresco - a riot of temperate and tropical vegetation with plants and trees from many parts of Europe, North and South America, South Africa and the antipodes. I was struck by the variety of luxuriant life, the profusion of species from different parts of the world that here rub shoulders without, it seems, ever coming into conflict, and by the thought that the rich diversity on view forms only a tiny sample - barely a sample - of all the flora that exist in the world. One can become lost in the Tresco gardens - not as in a labyrinth - but in contemplation of the lushness of our planet and at its mystifying fecundity.

Within the garden is a small museum that has nothing to do with plants. It houses a collection of ship's figure heads - mermaids, elegantly-robed women, officers with swords at the ready, Turks with cloth head-dresses and so on - most of them rescued from ships driven by storms or steered by navigational error onto one of the Scillies' innumerable rocks. A reminder of the countless wrecks that surround these shores - and the dangers that lie in wait for inattentive sailors.