There still is a corner of England that keeps its cultural traditions alive, has superb, luxurious facilities and space to breathe. Once you have visited Tresco, you may find yourself returning, writes Maxine Morland.
Tresco, a small island off the south coast of Cornwall, is one of the Scilly Isles. Blessed with crystal-clear waters, wide horizons, craggy islands, friendly locals and an endless supply of fresh air, the Scilly Isles have turned into a holiday destination people who value having freedom for their children to roam, who don’t mind wearing wetsuits sometimes in summer, and who seek to escape from the stresses of modern city life. In summer this sleepy corner of England is gently populated by families who visit every year, many of them from London, and many of whom have been coming here since they were children. But it never gets too busy: probably because it is not on the mainland. To get to Tresco you need to fly to St Mary’s island with Skybus (from Land’s End, Newquay or Exeter), then get on a ferry, with all your bags, for the short hop to paradise. There is a large ferry from the mainland, the Scillonian III, which turns the journey into a true adventure. If you are lucky enough to know a pilot with a light aircraft, you can land at St Mary’s airport and Tresco’s Island Office will ensure someone meets you and takes you and your bags down to the ferry. Once you get to Tresco, a tractor will give you a lift to your cottage or house, and then you can start to unwind and explore this forgotten piece of England.
Tresco is a privately owned island, and as such, development has been strictly controlled. That is not to say that it lacks facilities, the rental accommodation comes with access to spas, indoor and outdoor pools, a superbly stocked shop and bike and boat hire. Even the oldest cottages and houses have wi-fi, and brilliantly thought-through kitchen equipment. If you don’t fancy cooking, you can order meals in from the island’s kitchens. There are no cars on Tresco, just tractors and the odd golf buggy for visitors who are disabled; it is hard to describe how liberating it is to not have to worry about traffic or strangers: Tresco is the only place I have ever allowed my children to simply roam.
The beaches are largely deserted and pristine – some have BBQs left in situ for visitors to use, and in summer, you can fish or try shrimping during the day, (nets can be found on the island, but it is a popular activity, so we take our own) and cook your catch as you watch the sun set over a unique land and sea-scape. You can order lobster and crab from the local fishermen to cook at home too. Visiting the ice-cream shop within the only pub on the island becomes part of the daily routine, and it can start to feel a little like you are living in a Famous Five novel, without the baddies. There is a sailing school near the Ruin Beach Café with enthusiastic and well-trained teachers, three all-weather tennis courts, and the opportunity to go fishing for the day on a private hire boat. But the simple pleasure of riding a bike around the island to explore is what my children remember most fondly about Tresco. The Dorrien-Smith family own and live on the island too, and we have often bumped into them having lunch in the café, or taking the dogs on the beach, or just hanging out. It is a little like staying with them; Tresco makes you feel as if they have taken their best summer ever, and made it available to everyone who wants to join in.
The sub-tropical Tresco Abbey Gardens are also a very unexpected find. Most of the landscape in the Scilly Isles looks windswept and wild, but on Tresco, Augustus Smith, ancestor of the Dorrington-Smiths, decided to establish an exotic garden here in 1834, planting a windbreak of Monterey Pine and Monterey Cyprus trees. Since then the family has brought countless exotic plants to Tresco. The garden has grown steadily into a horticultural gem, often referred to as “Kew without the glass”. All in all, the tropical garden is home to species from 80 countries, ranging from Brazil to New Zealand and Burma to South Africa.
Part of the garden supplies the island with food, and the other parts are purely decorative. Exotic succulents abound in the Scilly Isles, as there is rarely a frost, and alongside the naturalised fleshy Aeoniums there are glorious native Pelargoniums, Agapanthus and Hottentot Figs. The gardens have become a mecca for horticulturalists, and, in spite of their popularity, never seem to get terribly busy. The only way to get to Tresco now is on the ferry or your own boat, and this limits the numbers of day-trippers to the island. If you are lucky enough to be staying, once the last ferry leaves, only residents are left, and there is a real sense of community here.
There are two excellent restaurants and a pub on Tresco. The loveliest spot is the beach-side restaurant the Ruin Beach Cafe, which has a laid-back vibe and locally-sourced expertly cooked food. More formal dining is available at The Flying Boat Club on the other side of the island. One of my happiest memories of Tresco is watching my children join others to build sandcastles at the end of the day, while we sat on the Ruin Café terrace, eating wood-fired pizza, drinking superb rose, and listening to the tinkling sounds of the offshore yacht rigging swaying in the breeze. Several yachts are often moored off the island, and it is a regular stop-off for sailors brave enough to navigate Scilly’s treacherous waters.
If Tresco starts to feel too small, it is also very simple to hop on ferries to the other islands nearby. Tresco Boat Services has daily scheduled trips (during the season) to Bryher where The Crab Shack serves freshly caught crab, and to St Mary’s, which is a major town with all the facilities you would expect. Ferries link to the smaller islands St Agnes and St Martin’s three times a week. You can also arrange private boat trips through the Boat Office (01720 423373). One evening when we were staying on Tresco we decided to go for dinner at the renowned restaurant at the Hell Bay Hotel on Bryher. The Island Office found us a babysitter (lots of the younger staff working on the island offer babysitting services) and the Boat Office despatched a small boat to pick us up from outside our cottage and ferry us to Bryher, and then back home after dinner.
If it rains there are ample luxurious indoor pools, if you need pampering there is a superb spa near The Flying Boat Club, and if you want to get away from it all simply walk around the island after the last ferry has departed find a spot to sit and drink in a piece of the traditional English summer holiday, Tresco style.
A few Tresco dates for your diary
Tresco Gig Rowing season opens on May 6th, but for the Gig Championships, when 100 pilot gigs battle for the world title, you will need to be on Tresco April 29th to May 2nd
The New Inn Ale Festival runs from May 20th to 24th, and celebrates the arrival of summer with 30 special ales and live music.
Shrimping season opens on June 1st, and closes on September 30th.
The Low Tide Experience takes place on September 18th this year. This is an annual gathering for Islanders and visitors alike. The tide between Tresco and Bryher is low enough to allow you to walk between the islands, so naturally, the Scillonians throw a party. Typically there will be some Prosecco and mussels to enjoy, some guitar music, and lots of laughter as children hunt for razor clams and play traditional games on the sand. Just hours later, the island’s tractors remove all traces of the event before the tide rises again, and the party spot becomes seabed for another year.
For more information and booking, visit: http://www.tresco.co.uk, or call the Island Office on 01720 422849.