Date: 10th March 2023.
Weather conditions: It would have been nice to have had some sunshine, and it was rather chilly, but I can’t complain too much. First because the weather the day before was awful (gales, rain), and second because much of the rest of the country currently shivers under deep snow. Bearing those things in mind, today was quite satisfactory.
County Top bagged: Telegraph, the name of a collection of houses that stands on the highest point in the Isles of Scilly. The summit is at grid reference SV912120, and lies on the island of St Mary’s, the largest of the 100+ islands which make up this group (of which five are inhabited).
On the 1:50,000 OS map, a spot height of 167 feet/51m is shown at this point. The 1:25,000 map shows a spot of only 49m but a 50m contour is visible nearby, and the Times Atlas of Britain concurs with the 51m measurement, while calling the Top ‘Higher Newford’. But the label ‘Telegraph’ is placed on the OS map closer to the summit, and in a conversation with a local (see the commentary) she called it by that name too, so that’s what I’ll use. It’s appropriate, because like many CTs, the highest point is occupied by a radio mast and an old communications tower (pictured), now used as a private house. It is the second-lowest of all those I have done so far, higher than only Stock Hill (York).
While in some ways part of Cornwall, the Isles of Scilly have always had a certain autonomy and this was sealed in 1890 when they were officially made a separate county, a status they retain. Hence, Telegraph is both a historic and modern CT. It is also the westernmost English CT and the second most westerly of all, after only Clisham, Top of the Western Isles in Scotland.
By altitude Telegraph ranks:
- 94th of the historic Tops (there are only three lower than this);
- 168th of the modern Tops;
- 194th of the full list.
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Start and end point of walk: The Isles of Scilly airport terminal. This is one of only two places that you can arrive on the islands, the other being the ferry port in Hugh Town. See the ‘accessibility’ notes below.
At a leisurely pace, the walk took me about 3½ hours.
Pub at end: Bottled beer and wine is available at the café in the airport terminal. There are also, as I count them, four functioning pubs or bars in Hugh Town. I partook of some very nice beer and a great fish and chip lunch at the Mermaid, which is tucked away at the end of the main street, but well worth seeking out.
Distance walked: I did about 8¾ miles/14km on the day. There are many variations possible on the route, and one could knock off around 1½ miles by not including the loop around the Garrison (see route notes).
Total ascent: 850 feet/260m approximately: surprisingly high, bearing in mind the low altitude of the Top. Omitting the aforementioned loop would lop about 150 feet off this.
Difficulty: ★★. The ascent figure indicates there are a number of separate hills on this walk but they are all fairly gently graded. I would wear hiking boots, but this is not a difficult walk at any point.
Ease of access: ★. An obvious one-star award. There are two ways of getting to St Mary’s from the mainland. The Scillonian ferry runs from Penzance, but only in the summer, and it takes a surprisingly long time (nearly 3 hours). Or, get a plane, from either Land’s End, Newquay or Exeter airports. I travelled via Land’s End, which is a frequent service, but that’s all very well bearing in mind that to catch it you have to get all the way down to the tip of Cornwall in the first place, taking me an 11-hour train journey from West Yorkshire.
Ah well. These islands are spatterings of grit off the very toe of Britain — so of course they are going to be hard to reach. But the other point is that it costs a lot to do so. My day trip plane ticket, including transfers to Penzance, cost me £140, on top of the £100 it had set me back to get a train there in the first place, not to mention necessary accommodation (though thanks are due here to friends Michelle and Cecil Brown who were kind enough to host me at their place in Sennen).
Scenic qualities: ★★★★. No one is going to come here expecting mountain country, but it doesn’t matter. As a coastal landscape this is hard to beat. Some parts of this walk, particularly Pelistry Bay, reminded me of beaches seen on my trip to Fiji ten years ago. And it’s a varied walk too, also including moorland and the attractive urban landscape of Hugh Town. If there’d been cliffs and a proper summit viewpoint I’d have given it five stars.
The area: Apparently there is ample evidence that not all that long ago — as late as about 400 AD — most of the Scillies were joined as one big island. There was then inundation by the sea, possibly in one flood, devastating enough to have maybe given rise to the legends of the drowned land of Lyonesse (Tristan and Iseult and all that). What’s left is a low-lying archipelago of five principal, inhabited islands and over a hundred rocky islets and skerries, a remarkable landscape.
But it’s also an isolated one, a long way from anywhere. With just over 2,000 inhabitants, this is easily the smallest UK county by population. The young people of the islands have no schooling available past 16 so lately have tended to depart to the mainland, only occasionally to return. A comparatively high proportion of the population work in the public sector to provide essential services, but the Scillies also have some of the highest property prices in the country, with many houses owned as second homes and/or holiday lets. As a result, the county has a significant housing shortage despite the tiny population, and its viability as a functioning 21st century community is not yet proven.
Map: OS Explorer 101: Isles of Scilly has two distinctions. It’s the first one in the series by number. I think it’s also the only one to include inset large-scale town maps, the OS having felt the need to add something to cover otherwise empty sea. The paper version of the map was OK for planning the walk but to be honest it doesn’t show paths in enough detail to be 100% useful on the ground, so I also referred to Strava quite a bit. On the other hand, it’s not like you’re going to wander off St Mary’s accidentally.
On this summary map, I went round the main circuit anticlockwise from the airport, and then did the bit west of Hugh Town (the ‘Garrison Loop’) as a ‘figure 8’. The summit is marked by the ‘telephone’ symbol to the north.
Route: This is a fine walk in very beautiful surroundings. There is something very satisfying about encompassing almost an entire island, a land complete in itself, as small islands are. I’d certainly do it again.
There are many variations possible, but here’s how I did the walk. From the airport terminal, come down the access road then turn right at the first junction. This looks as if it is going to be restricted, but it isn’t. Bear left off the road before it heads round the end of the runway and go down a path that leads between acres of daffodils (the dominant life-form of the walk, at least in March) and then turn right, going past a farm and coming out at the attractive bay of Porth Hellick, where bear left around the water.
From this point simply stick to the coast as long as you choose. There are various choices of path but none of them seem to diverge very far from the basic route. After just over a mile you come down to the superb beach of Pelistry Bay. This really does look like something from the South Pacific. The isle of St Martin’s is in view over the water, as well as the numerous uninhabited rocks of the Eastern Isles.
You could stick to the coast all the way around the island and probably have no less good a walk, but if you want to bag the County Top you have to head inland at some point. I did so after going through a gate just after Pelistry Bay and then heading up a lane that came out onto tarmac shortly afterwards. This road rises gently, with the radio mast on the summit coming into view. To reach the Top, follow the road round the right-angle bend. The collection of houses into which you emerge is what is known as Telegraph. The peak of the road is shallow but quite noticeable, and it’s obvious that the telephone box and the tower behind it stand on the summit.
Return to the right-angle and then turn left, down the side of the golf course, following this track round as it proceeds along a high-level terrace above the sea. The view is now over to Tresco, and then, as you continue, a first proper sight of Hugh Town (pictured). Its position on a narrow isthmus is apparent thanks to the houses having blue water behind them as well as in front. Carry on, through a boatyard and then into the town. First impressions are underwhelming but the architecture does smarten up as you get into the centre.
The ‘Garrison loop’, round the western headland, is optional but it is an interesting addition, this whole peninsula having been fortified since the 18th century. From Porthcressa beach, the southern of Hugh Town’s two coasts, access to the Garrison is via a ‘sally port’, a tiny gate barely four feet high. Once up on the walls, head south, then at the corner of the walls — Morning Point Battery (pictured) — take the path that slants up the hill. This ascends to Garrison Field, the island’s sports pitch, and home to the Isles of Scilly Football League, the world’s smallest, with only two teams. From here you can head back down to the town via a variety of routes.
To get back to the airport from Hugh Town is a matter of about another 40 minutes’ walking. If you’re up for another climb, take the path that goes from the eastern end of Porthcressa up to Buzza Hill with its prominent tower. This way carries on past the little hospital, then down past the secondary school to the bay of Old Town. Go straight on at the crossroads near the cafe, then slant right through the little housing estate onto a path that must be one of the most rustic ‘airport approach roads’ in the world, for that is where it will lead you, back to where you started this morning.
Distant Lands Commentary: When I first put the list of CTs together there were several which seemed, if not implausible, then certainly the ones that would really test my devotion to duty. Shetland. The Western Isles. The Bailiwick of Guernsey, the Top of which isn’t even on Guernsey, but Sark, which one can only reach on a boat. And the Top of the Isles of Scilly was certainly amongst this group. Thirty miles out into the ocean, and only reachable from Cornwall (or, pushing it, Devon, but only in the summer), itself a very long journey whether done by public transport or the car.
But since I’ve decided to take this project seriously, I’ve been waiting for an opportunity to arise, which thanks to my work on St Helena, it did. South of Land’s End (yes, there are parts of Britain south of Land’s End) there lies Porthcurno, a little village with a great beach, and a significant role to play in the country’s telecommunications history, as said beach is where all Britain’s transatlantic telegraph and telephone cables have come ashore since about 1870. Hence, residing there is the archive of Cable and Wireless plc, consulting which was the reason I found to come here. Of course, picking up one of the very hardest-to-reach, County Tops as well had nothing to do these plans. At least, that’s what I told my employers. Although I stumped up the expenses for this one myself, in case you were wondering.
Speaking to a resident of the island on the bus back from the airport to Penzance, she said that the Scillies never get all that crowded simply because they are so hard and expensive to reach. I can well believe it. It’s not a place that has quite the physical isolation of St Helena but there are some similarities. There is a dependence on private interests for all transport links on and off the island. And even a very small population still needs all the services (e.g. waste disposal, health care, police) that a bigger community does, and so it takes a proportionally larger part of the populace to provide these — meaning a proportionally higher cost relative to the income that can be recouped from tax. Hence, government wonks, who see only numbers, don’t like peripheral communities.
And even St Helena can provide education between the ages of 16-18, which the Scillies can’t. Kids leave — and tend not to come back. Why would they? They can’t afford a house here. Available jobs are mainly seasonal and involve pulling pints or waiting tables for visitors. I can quite see how some people would fall in love with a place like this, feeling like it is an idyll that will solve all their problems, and with a temperate climate to boot (the gorse was in flower a full two months before I saw it bloom in Aberdeen last year). But how do we balance the economic benefits of tourism with the need to create a sustainable economy for the benefit of those who have grown up there? These are questions that the UK as a whole has not addressed — and the trouble is that 2,000 people stuck out on a remote archipelago don’t have a lot of political clout. I wish I knew what the answers were.
I want to see the whole of my country, though — for all its problems. And now I’ve done this Top I feel that completing the project is totally possible. Expensive as it was, I’m glad I made the effort. Possibly I will never return to these islands, but at least I saw them once.
4 thoughts on “64: Telegraph, Isles of Scilly”
Nice post. I’ve been to Cornwall quite a few times but never made it to the Scillies. I think at one point during Covid it was the only place the pubs were allowed to open because it is so isolated during the winter.
Worth the trip from what I saw of it — but it won’t be cheap, unfortunately