- There is a group of small subtropical islands off the southern tip of Britain that have their own unique weather and climate.
- The Isles of Scilly are sunny most of the year round. They feel like the Caribbean. The flowers and trees are spectacular, and the beaches have white-powder sand.
- They also have a crazy history of pirates and shipwrecks.
THE ISLES OF SCILLY, Great Britain – Britain is famous for its rain and grey skies. But off the far southern tip of the mainland, a short flight into the Atlantic Ocean from Land’s End, are the Isles of Scilly, a subtropical archipelago of 140 tiny white-sand islands. Only five are inhabited.
The islands have year-round sunny weather, and that gives them a weird, otherworldly vibe: You’re in Britain. But it feels like the Caribbean.
The islands also have a dark history of profiting from shipwrecks and suffering attacks by pirates. In the year 1209, the locals captured 112 pirates and beheaded them all a single day.
We visited in October to see what the fuss was about.
The Isles of Scilly lie right in the middle of the Gulf Stream, the river of warm water that flows from the Gulf of Mexico into Northern Europe, keeping the temperatures here higher than they would otherwise be. Because the islands are low-lying, they don’t block the air mass above them, and thus get little rain.
This gives the islands a weird micro-climate all of their own. They get abundant sunshine and elevated year-round temperatures, compared to mainland Britain.
It’s not as warm as the Caribbean, but it’s sunny enough to grow tropical plants all year. You need to wear sunblock on most days. It never freezes.
Even in winter or autumn it can feel like spring or summer. And the islands are surrounded by the kind of white-powder sand you see in the Bahamas.
To get there, you have to take this tiny plane. It seats about 12 people. The flight lasts 15 minutes.
This was my view from the passenger seats.
The runway in Penzance drops off a cliff right into the sea. Note the weather! The sea is grey and the skies are gloomy in Britain …
But 15 minutes later, and suddenly the sun is out and the waves are as blue as the Mediterranean.
We visited in October, which is usually jacket-and-jeans weather in the UK. On the Isles of Scilly, however, we were comfortable in shorts and a T-shirt. (It gets cold at night, though.)
The main inhabited islands are St. Mary’s, Tresco, Bryher, and St.Agnes. This is the “taxi” you have to take to get between them.
The islands have a torrid history. They were raided frequently by Barbary Coast pirates.
By the early 1100s, one of the larger islands, Tresco, had been colonised by monks who built an abbey to live in.
King Henry I granted Tavistock Abbey ownership of all the churches and land on the islands of Scilly off the Devon coast, and gave the abbot the right to keep the peace.
But the islands were too far from the mainland for the crown to defend them properly, and they were easy prey for fast-moving pirates. The islands had enough inlets to dock 1,000 ships. Land was easily stolen by anyone who could muster enough brute force to take it.
The locals thus came to dislike pirates. In 1209, Tavistock Abbey records say that a band of 112 pirates, who called themselves the “Sea Kings,” were captured on Tresco and beheaded in a single day.
Because incoming ships were often likely to be hostile, the locals came to regard shipwrecks as fair game. There is even a shipwreck museum on Tresco. It is filled with old figureheads from the bows of long-sunk ships.
This is the figurehead of the Jane Owen, which sank in 1889 while carrying 130 tons of slate. “Her crew of four made it onto Tresco with just the clothes they stood in,” the museum says.
Old shipping records are plentiful, and you can buy maps showing the names, dates, and locations of hundreds of wrecks on the seafloor.
The figurehead on the right is from the Friar Tuck, which sank in 1863. It was a 662-ton tea clipper returning from China to Liverpool. It attempted to shelter from a storm among the islands but ran aground. No lives were lost (but the islanders took all the tea!)
In 1707, four British Navy ships ran aground off Scilly at once, and the flagship “Association” sank in just 4 minutes, taking 600 men with it. Sir Cloudsley Shovell had been in joint command of the fleet. According to the history website Pirate Walks, Shovell “was the only survivor and struggled ashore at Porthellick Cove to be greeted by a local woman who promptly slit his throat and cut his fingers off to take the gold rings.”
The gardeners at Tresco say they sometimes come across old bones when digging the flower beds. The abbey’s ruins and its gardens remain consecrated ground, and are filled with abandoned graves.
The pirates eventually got their revenge for the 1209 massacre, though. By 1351 they had largely destroyed the abbey on Tresco. It lies in ruins today.
Today, the ruined abbey is the centre of the Tresco Abbey Garden. The Dorrien-Smith family owns this large stately home in its centre, and the gardens are open to the public. The entire island is the Smith family estate, although you can rent cottages on it, and there is a small hotel.
To give you an idea of how strange the island’s environment is, this picture shows an area on the Western side, where the sea wind comes in. It’s bleak, like Scotland. Yet just a few yards over the hill …
… It’s a sheltered tropical jungle, with ferns, palm trees, and succulents.
If you’re into strange tropical plants and unusual animals, Tresco is paradise.
This is a golden pheasant. The live in the Tresco abbey garden and they’re quite tame.
It almost never snows here. So wall cabbages like these grow all over the place, just like the Mediterranean.
The island is also a sanctuary for rare red squirrels. The reds have become extinct in almost all mainland Britain. On Tresco, there are no greys to drive them out.
On the week we visited, an armada of Portuguese Man-O-War jellyfish had been driven onto one of the beaches. Don’t touch them — they’re very poisonous.
These mushrooms were huge!
This moss grows all over the place. It reminded me of the Spanish moss that hangs from trees in the American South.
It’s pretty good for Instagram, too.
The New Inn on Tresco, the only hotel on the island, has an epic collection of rum.
Back to reality :( This is the view of Land’s End just before the plane touches down again on the Devon coast of mainland Britain.
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