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Many years ago, standing on Cape Cornwall looking out to sea on a clear day,
I realised that I was not actually at the south-west end of the British Isles,
for out there on the horizon the Isles of Scilly* could just be made out.
Having at long last got to the Scillies, I stood on The Garrison looking out over St Agnes and Annet
to the Bishop Rock Lighthouse and realised that I still hadnʼt got there.
What is more, time and tide (or at least rough seas) meant that I wasnʼt going to make it out round the Bishop this time. Still, itʼs always nice to have an excuse to come back.
In many ways the Isles of Scilly feel like a different country in a way that Cornwall aspires to, but never quite manages. Part of the United Kingdom certainly,
but not part of England or even Cornwall.
At the end of the last Ice Age, when sea levels were much lower, the Isles of Scilly were all joined together into one or two much larger islands.
They were extensively settled during the Bronze Age by people who farmed the low land in what is now the centre of the archipelago
and, up on the poorer ground of the surrounding hills, buried their dead in Entrance Graves,
a type of barrow almost unique to the Scillies.
Gradually, sea levels rose and the land was inundated, giving rise to the legend of the lost Land of Lyonesse.
There were still people living here up to the end of the Iron Age,
but then the Scillies appear to have been more or less abandoned. There is little evidence of much activity until the middle ages.
Then the Normans built a castle at what is now Old Town,
and an abbey on Tresco, and life slowly returned to the islands.
Having tried their hand at privatering, piloting and bulb growing, the islanders turned to tourism, which is now the mainstay of the islandsʼ economy.
However, despite the resident population of around 2000 swelling to around ten times that figure in the height of the summer,
the place does not feel overwhelmed by visitors, except on Tresco.
Most of the visitors are "empty nesters", hardly surprising as, with the exception of the Isles of Scilly Museum,
there are no rainy day attractions, and the museum is of limited interest to young children.
* Note: Itʼs the Isles of Scilly not the Scilly Isles. Any other sort of Scilly pun seems to be permissible, but not that one.
When the tide is very low the ferry from St Maryʼs to Bryher has swing out around the west side of the island,
through the Northern Rocks and round Shipman Head, to approach Annekaʼs Quay from the north.
This provides as good a view of the Northern Rocks as you get from a dedicated boat trip, but not for so long or in so much detail.
Venturing out beyond Scilly Rock, the outermost of this group, the swell picks up noticeably, and you realise how much these rocks, and the rock shelf under the sea,
break the force of the waves and help shelter the islands.
Home to a colony of Grey Seals and all the resident Sea Birds,
it is also possible to spot Gannets that have flown hundreds of miles to fish in these waters.
How they managed this is a mystery, given that Round Island is a 40m (130ft) high mass of granite,
battered by waves that in winter storms often break over the top, and that the only access, other than by helicopter, is up some steep narrow steps cut into the sheer rock face.
The original equipment, including the enormous hyper-radial optic,
was replaced in 1966 and was further updated in 1987 when the light was automated.
The island is now an important breeding colony for European Storm Petrel (Hydrobates pelagicus) and access is strictly controlled.
External Links and References
History and information from the Trinity House site. https://www.trinityhouse.co.uk/lighthouses-and-lightvessels/round-island-lighthouse