The little girl wipes away a tear from her eye, as she watches the members of her village wend their way slowly to the top of the hill near where she is sitting. They are carrying grandfather on a pyre of wood that her father and uncles have been making over the last few days, ever since he had kept on sleeping and not moving. The procession reaches the burial chamber at the top of the village, the pyre is laid carefully in front of it, and the chanting begins. Her grandfather had told her that the chamber had been built by the Ancient Ones and that it was the entrance into the Otherworld of spirits where all people would go in time. Now it is his turn, she thinks. She shudders, the chamber frightens her; she remembers her cousin telling her that he had crept in one night and found piles of blackened bones in there. She watches the Druid advancing and lighting the brushwood underneath the pyre. The flames gradually take hold and crackle and roar into the sky. All of a sudden she feels very lonely.
We are sitting on a small hillock overlooking the Halangy Down Ancient Village on St Mary’s Island in the Isles of Scilly. Beyond are the blue waters of Saint Mary’s Roads shimmering in the sunlight and the wide sweeping sand flats of the other Scilly islands, St Martins, Tresco and Bryher. A yacht picks its way through the shallow waters of Crow Bar, parts of which dry at low tide. It is idyllic, more like some tropical paradise than a far flung outpost of the United Kingdom.
I am trying to imagine what sort of people might have lived here and what their lives might have been like. The village was occupied from about 300 B.C. through to about 700 A.D., but there is evidence of an older village further down the slope closer to the sea which was abandoned, perhaps due to advancing sand dunes. The burial chamber is much older than this even, dating from the Bronze Age around 4000 years ago, but seems to have been preserved by later people, perhaps because they respected it.
We had left Falmouth the day before after saying goodbye to Adrian and Helen. Once past the Lizard, the wind had picked up from the north and we scooted along on a beam reach. The sea had become choppier, plunging Ruby Tuesday up and down like a yoyo.
The mainland coast had receded into the distance, and for a short time we were out of sight of land alone on the sea before the dim shape of the Isles of Scilly appeared in the haze. We had anchored in Porth Cressa on the south side of St Mary’s, where it was relatively sheltered from the northerlies, and had taken the dinghy ashore to explore Hugh Town and the rest of the island.
Hugh Town is situated on a narrow isthmus of land and surrounded by beautiful white sandy beaches to the north and south. Boats of all shapes and sizes fill up the bays, and tourists throng the streets. Despite the houses being built of solid stone reminiscent of houses in Scotland, it had an air of a tropical paradise, at least on the days that we were there, with hot brilliant sunshine the whole time. We were not so naïve, though, to believe that the frequent sea mists and storms rolling in off the Atlantic would not give it a different character. We had had lunch in a small café on the Porth Cressa beach and then set off on a walk around the island, eventually reaching the Halangy Down Ancient Village where we are sitting.
We continue on our way, spurred on by the thought of coffee and German apfel-strudel cake at a small café in the centre of the island recommended to us by several people. On each side of the road are fields of freshly made hay, reminding us that there is more to the economy than just tourism. From time to time, people on bicycles pass us, and we wish that we had brought our little folding bicycles from the boat. We pass the giant telecommunications tower, and in the distance see a small twin-engined aeroplane taking off from the tiny airport on the south of the island, both providing links between the islands and the outside world. It is hot and we are glad when we find the café and some shade. The cake is delicious and we are reluctant to leave, but as it is nearly closing time we pack up and trudge on in the heat.
In the morning, we decide to move on to the neighbouring island of St Agnes. We anchor in The Cove, and once ashore explore the island. There isn’t an awful lot to it despite there being a Higher Town, Middle Town and Lower Town, and one single-lane concrete road running lengthways across the island connecting the three. Nevertheless, it has a charm of its own, and we shortly leave the road to explore the many small paths around the coast. We discover several small bays and coves that look enticing to anchor in, and indeed, a few already have a yacht or two in them enjoying their own piece of paradise.
We pass some odd rock formations, one of which I think resembles a sheep, and are surprised to overhear another woman remarking to her companion how much it resembles an angel. Each to their own interpretation, I suppose, but it makes me wonder how many times we project our own backgrounds, experiences, hopes and fears on to inanimate objects, trying to create some meaning out of the patterns. I struggle to see the angel despite walking around the rock a couple of times, and decide that it is better as a sheep, for me at least.
We eventually reach the only pub on the island, the Turk’s Head, and decide to have dinner there. As we eat, we chat with the couple sitting at the next table, and discover that he is a writer for the BBC and she is a university lecturer in climate change. He is in the process of buying a gîte in France and she is moving to Sweden for two years. They are currently camping on the island and have been coming here for several years. Their dream is to buy a boat and sail around the UK, and are excited when we tell them that is what we are doing, albeit half of it this year. We end the evening discussing the collapse of civilisation as we know it and whether we can sail away to escape Trumpism, Brexitism and all the other –isms that we seem to be afflicted with. That Cornish Ale is good!
In the morning, we decide to move on to two of the other islands, Tresco and Bryher. We cruise slowly through Smith Sound, then up into the Tresco Flats, a vast area of drying sand at low tide, thinking that we might be able to make it across into New Grimsby Sound between the two islands. Alas, it is too long after high tide and therefore too shallow, so we have to turn around and head north around Bryher the long way round, and into New Grimsby Sound that way. There are a number of boats already anchored there, but we find a spot with enough swinging room.
We take the dinghy across to the New Grimsby beach on Tresco and explore the island. The island’s claim to fame are the Abbey Gardens created by Augustus Smith, who owned the island in the nineteenth century, and amassed a collection of plants from his various travels. Later this was expanded by the Lord Proprietor of the Isles of Scilly, one Arthur Algernon Dorrien-Smith, to include plants from all over the world.
We return to New Grimsby and have a drink at the New Inn. Preparations are underway for the England-Croatia semi-final in the World Cup. We decide not to stay, but to have dinner on the boat and watch the match there. We decide it is probably the best decision given the result!