I live in a place that might, in theory, make a good writing retreat; a cottage by the sea with an ocean view, and the dawn hours in which to conjure up characters while the sun rises over the bay. It’s lovely but because it’s home, the demands of childcare, paid work and laundry tend to hack my daily writing time down to mere minutes (and recently, a year-long building project demolished even those).Enter August, and the need for a break, a real retreat — to a place where housework doesn’t exist and my inbox can’t mock me. We shook the plaster dust out of our hair, stepped onto a little boat, and sailed to the Scillies.
This is my idea of a retreat.
The Scilly Isles form a low-lying, granite archipelago about 30 miles west of mainland Cornwall, and if you’re sailing, it’s advisable to consult the guides because the islands are riddled with strong tides and semi-submerged granite teeth. (Hell Bay is aptly named if you’re a sailor in a southwesterly.)
For this reason, and because of our complex Atlantic weather patterns (drizzle, rain, driving rain, horizontal rain, and more rain), the islands are wild and secluded.
In order to really soak up the soul of these untamable rocks, we opted out of being pampered in a hotel, so there was no pretty, cushioned windowledge overlooking the local landscape, no preprandial G&Ts, and no one (bar us) to provide meals.
Instead we stayed on board, slept on simple bunks, rose at dawn, and spent the shifting low-tide hours shrimping, crabbing, and trekking across the islands in search of the local vegetables and home-made sweets which lie dotted around, often on little unmanned stalls that contain the produce and tin boxes in which to leave payment.
During the higher tides, we swam, snorkelled, and piled into the kayak to explore the more secluded islands, which was when I felt I’d really “retreated” — although not from my real life, perhaps more towards it.
I think I’m right in thinking that writing retreats don’t always (ever) include taking along one’s small children, but I thought it would be boring without them, so we all went together and because these were the Scillies, it still worked. After a morning of hunting and gathering, wrangling kayaks, and climbing up heathery hills, even my rambunctious tribe was inclined to sit and stare, so we ate our shrimps and let the sun dry the salt on our legs while we watched the wind blow black-backed gulls and butterflies in from the sea.
(Where do they come from, the butterflies that blow in from the ocean? Do they go around in circles, or are they born on special butterfly boats?)
The Scillies are a maze of beaches and small channels so even though we have a lovely group of friends among the regular visitors, we tend to bump into them only if we arrange to eat together. During the daytime, it’s not uncommon to see no one else. So for a week we sat or ambled about in sleepy solitude, surrounded by sun-warmed granite which in different spots was shaped into cairns, built into prehistoric graves, or left to jut skywards as nature intended. All are good to sit beside.
The individual islands vary enormously; Tresco is the more manicured, perhaps, with its castles and gardens, St Mary’s more accessible (and commercial), Bryher wild, and Samson haunting, but these and the other islands all share a timeless element. On Bryher, a gibbet still creaks over Hangman Island. On Samson, a village lies abandoned after the last exodus in the mid 1800s, the granite houses now roofless but erect as they overlook the southernmost points of Britain and vast seascape beyond. On Tresco, the ruins of King Charles’ castle and Cromwell’s castle both boast panoramic views of Tresco, Bryher, New Grimsby Sound between, and all the islands further south.
Each place felt very real, almost intimate, for having reached it on foot or by boat, as if the physical exertion, or shared natural elements, made it easier to feel the sweat of the soldiers who once walked the castle walls, or to picture the Stone Age folk who inhabited the land in the time before the ice melted and flooded the valleys between the islands.
At the lowest tides, the seabed still shows and the islands merge for an hour or two, as if in homage to times gone by, allowing visitors to scuttle between the islands (and some to become stranded on a rising tide until the local boat taxis rescue them). With the eel grass clinging to one’s feet or a tide pushing at one’s thighs, the stories of shipwrecks rise effortlessly.
Did wreckers really lure ships in to the rocks, and loot the holds as they broke over the beaches? (Of course. And the wrecks lie scattered, waiting for divers to scrabble in the sand for barnacle-encrusted musket balls and cannons.)
The Scillies are so old, so wild, so pervasive and so rich in shipwrecks and secrets, that stories flow in without thinking, through eyes, ears, and sodden feet. Even a young family can be held spellbound long enough for a mother to dream.
On our return (as we sailed over the lost lands of Lyonesse?), we all sat in near silence, passing around drinks and biscuits, staring at the upcoming mainland, and blinking as if the rest of the world might not be quite as real as we’d once believed.