Sublimely Scilly

The little-known private island of Tresco has all the unspoilt allure of a bygone age – along with eight grandes marques of champagne in the local store and modern British fare at the pub. Julian Allason reports.

Tresco Channel from Castle Down, with Cromwell’s Castle on far right
Tresco Channel from Castle Down, with Cromwell’s Castle on far right | Image: Vaughan Ives

What, I wondered, would one pay to rediscover the golden summers of childhood – of white sands, blue skies and warm, shallow waters in which to paddle and mess about in boats? In an age mediated by currency crises and the trials of holiday aviation, quite a lot. If only one could find such a place, ideally near home.

My own first and last resort was Bembridge on the Isle of Wight, the charm of its harbour undiminished by new building inland. The broad beaches of Wells-next-the-Sea, in northernmost Norfolk, bring smiles to my children’s faces, though, as a very traditional resort, it has less to offer adults. Now, however, we have discovered a place so close to our ideal as to have united three generations in delight.

The palms and tropical plants of Abbey Gardens
The palms and tropical plants of Abbey Gardens | Image: Getty Images

Tresco is Britain’s most exotic, if little-known, private island. It is one of the Isles of Scilly and as much a haven for superyachties as for families, with a climate in which subtropical plants thrive and where the clock seems to have stopped in 1965. Just 24 nautical miles off Land’s End and 35 from Penzance, the Scillies are an increasingly popular waypoint on charted routes to French and Irish ports. Best of all, they offer visitors a combination of Mediterranean sophistication and olde worlde (or, at any rate, prewar) English tradition. When Roman Abramovich’s 104m Le Grand Bleu moored up in the sheltered anchorage between Tresco and neighbouring St Mary’s, the chef was sent ashore for supplies. After encountering quaint fishermen’s cottages of whitewashed granite and noting a puzzling absence of cars, he found the Tresco Stores – complete with truffle oil, Taittinger and seven other grandes marques.

Tresco is a private island with a difference. Since 1834, when Augustus Smith became lord proprietor of the Isles, it has remained the fiefdom of the family. Today, Robert Dorrien-Smith is the amiable seigneur of its rocky coves and sandy beaches, all 2.5 miles of them. Having grown up here, he and the 150 inhabitants have seen little need for change. So the island continues much as it was a generation or two back.

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The news this year, however, is the demolition of the venerable 1960-vintage Tresco Hotel and its replacement with 16 Sea Garden Cottages of crisp, modern (but thoroughly unpretentious) design and serene outlook over the enigmatic Eastern Isles.

These are just one of several accommodation options on the island. Nine of the Sea Garden Cottages have single bedrooms and a bathroom on the first floor, with a living room and kitchenette on the ground level giving out on to a sunny terrace and garden, all available at a nightly rate. Seven larger cottages, sleeping from six to 10 people, are rented by the week. Their simple decorative scheme – best described as contemporary nautical – looks more New England than Newquay but none the worse for that, displaying keen insight into the needs of old men of the sea and young children off the beach. Hearty breakfasts and suppers are offered by the water’s edge at the unpromisingly named Ruin Beach Café, which opened last month.

The Sea Garden Cottages, with the Ruin Beach Café in foreground
The Sea Garden Cottages, with the Ruin Beach Café in foreground | Image: Adam White/Tresco Estate

For more traditional accommodation with real Scilly ambience there is the New Inn, the island’s only pub, offering old-fashioned hospitality and décor that stops just the windward side of historic re-enactment. This reflects the tastes of three generations of nautically minded families who have been taking granite cottages and larger seafront houses for years in the knowledge that concealed in an inglenook will be a Nespresso machine, and a larder-sized fridge in which to store the catch – and the Montrachet. For this is the convivially English boating holiday that otherwise survives only in places such as Brancaster, Norfolk, and the aforementioned Bembridge. The difference here is that everyone, from rock star to cabinet minister, rubs along united in a love of the sea.

Landlubber activities include adventure playgrounds, tennis and bike riding, with golf and horse-riding available on St Mary’s. Fishing can be arranged through Bryher Boat Services. Of course, you don’t have to muck about in boats, but few children will forego the opportunity to train to Royal Yachting Association standards at the Sailing Centre in order to qualify for day-cruising through the sun-dappled archipelago with the chance of sighting dolphins and seals. Becoming part of island life is what you buy into, I mused, as I struggled to haul a clinker-built sailing boat over the sands and into the calm waters of New Grimsby Bay for the benefit of my boys. And curiosity about all manner of craft is central to that, from dinghies to megayachts.

Tresco Abbey
Tresco Abbey | Image: LA (PHOT) Dan Hooper/Tresco Estate

Indeed, when Tara Getty anchored up in Blue Bird the year before last, the Trescan population looked on appreciatively (just as it did last year, when a bomb disposal team detonated some washed-up flares, only to set fire to the marram grass on the sand dunes). Blue Bird was originally commissioned by Sir Donald Campbell in 1938 to sail to the Cocos Islands in search of Aztek treasure. After an inglorious period, the 32m ocean-going motor yacht was rebuilt at Getty’s command.

Making landfall in a classic yacht is not obligatory, however, although it may well improve the chances of an invitation to Tresco Abbey, the seigneurial seat. Some might prefer the regular chopper service from Penzance, operated by British International Helicopters, which makes the scenic flight in around 20 minutes. It is about the only noise that drowns out the clamour of cormorants, firecrests and storm petrels, above the singing of halyards in the breeze. Winds are rarely strong enough to cause flight postponements, “though you just might get here in half the time”, admits island veteran Alasdair Moore. Only occasional thick fog diverts passengers on to the Scillonian ferry.

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A memorable entrance was made by Pete Townsend aboard his 38m Jongert sailing yacht Gloria; viewed from Gun Hill it was a wondrous sight, with the crew of 12 moving in unison as she tacked to starboard for the approach to New Grimsby. Indeed, celebrities can relax here confident in the sophistication of guests and the island’s ability to moderate behaviour quietly but effectively. For the rare disturbers of the peace, a word from harbourmaster Henry Birch is usually enough; on the even rarer occasion of a complaint being made, offenders’ families have tended to experience difficulty rebooking for the following year.

There is history on the island, too, reflecting many millennia of habitation. Bronze Age tombs decorate Castle Down, alongside forts from the English civil war. There are slipways and rails – a reminder of the Royal Naval Air Service’s base here, with its flotilla of Short seaplanes and Curtiss flying boats, during the first world war. It was from Tresco that the first flight to sink a U-boat took off, and the squadron continued to protect the western approaches of the English Channel until the war’s end. This episode is commemorated in the Flying Boat Club, rebuilt on the site of the officers’ mess, looking out to neighbouring Bryher. Visiting sailors are lured here with the promise of a lively bar, a modern British menu and a bed that does not rock. The rental cottages enjoy the same outlook over the sheltered anchorage as those naval aces enjoyed, and en-suite facilities they would have envied. There are spa treatments, too, including a Tibetan massage, with, improbably, oil blessed by a lama.

One of Tresco’s most popular attractions is Abbey Gardens, home to plants from over 80 countries. The abbey in question is the ruins of a medieval priory – Dorrien-Smith and his young family reside in an early-19th-century reconstruction said to have inspired Daphne du Maurier. The gardens flourish thanks to the climate, which is among the mildest in the British Isles – even at the December solstice, more than 300 plants will be in flower. In what passes for winter, pheasant and partridge shooting is available: one would just have to imagine the gloom as another bright day dawns from memory’s golden past.

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