England Isles of Scilly Nature & Wildlife Postcards from Talking Point

Is This How Childhood Used To Be?

Climbing on Tresco near the Ruin Bay Beach Cafe
Written by Kirstie Pelling

Scilly Isles: Is This How Childhood Used To Be?

Kirstie Profile SmallThe Isles of Scilly are the childhood we dream of. The freedom that we’d like to give our kids. The life that we once had but threw away in our quest for speed and franchise and change. In this Talking Point, I analyse how these islands off the coast of Cornwall have managed to preserve the sound of a happy family summer and ask have the rest of us lost hope…?  

Shell collecting on the Scilly Isles

Shell collecting on the Scilly Isles

A quiet life

I feel it as soon as I step off the plane. Someone has turned down the volume. This doesn’t make the landscape any less vital; the sunlight paints the streets and beaches with a pastel palette and the scents coming from the neatly planted daffodil fields are more amplified than the wild garlic in the hedgerow of the mainland.

It’s simply quieter here. There are no roars from fast cars; in fact there are hardly any cars at all thanks to local laws and the size of the islands. Golf buggies rule and their soft whirr adds to the dreamscape. The teashops gently hum with milk frothers. In the evening the hotels entertain guests with tall tales of families, fishing nets and shipwrecks. Down in the cellars, cirrus clouds brew in the cider as silently and briefly as storm clouds cross the sky.

St Mary's Harbour under a Stormy Sky, Isles of Scilly

St Mary’s Harbour under a stormy sky, Isles of Scilly

A different kind of holiday

Holiday on these islands of the coast of Cornwall are not adrenaline filled and raucous. Zip wires, power plummets, tree top adventures and bungee jumps are entertaining thrill seekers elsewhere in the UK. You won’t find Bear Grylls survival experts trapping squirrels in the forest and you won’t hear stag and hen parties shrieking their way round a karting course.  Holidays here are the simple pleasures of collecting shells and taking a boat out to an unknown island. They are pottering about in the rock pools looking for crabs, climbing cliff tops, cartwheeling down grassy banks and running like the wind. Daily life here is free. In both senses of the word.

But the people on the Scilly Isles don’t shout about all this. It’s not their way. They post it up on a blackboard at the quay. They whisper it in the streets; the opportunities for swimming with seals and fishing for marlin or mackerel, the adventures involving sailboats and kites and bikes. They don’t holler and scream that a holiday here delivers the childhood we all want for our kids, and some of us had way back when.

But it pretty much does. I send my kids to the beach to draw pictures in the sand and paddle in the sea. I push them towards the village shop to buy a picnic. I do not worry about them crossing the road. I do not feel the need to supervise them. I let them sleep alone. There is no stranger danger. If they get lost someone will find them. If they get lost then perhaps they will find themselves.

Cycling on Scilly. On the rocks at Old Town Bay, St Mary's

Exploring the rocks at Old Town Bay, St Mary’s

How has this happened?

How has Scilly preserved this idyllic English experience? Ten years ago I found New Zealand to offer similar opportunities for finding yourself. But the New Zealand we biked around was often stuck in the 1950’s. The hotels needed a face lift, the holiday cottages had lino floors. The café’s were often faded and the food unexciting. Here the cafes are smart, the food is modern, the locals have found a way to source what they need either on the off islands or the mainland. On the Isles of Scilly they have updated what needs to be updated and are constantly working on the rest. Everywhere we go, someone is painting something. Somehow they have managed to preserve what was good about the past but bring it into a modern setting. I try to analyse this little island success story.

Morning cyclist in Hugh Town, Isles of Scilly

Morning cyclist in Hugh Town, Isles of Scilly. It may look dated but it’s no time warp.

Little traffic and open roads

The lack of cars is the most obvious difference. It is such a delight crossing the street without having to look five ways and look again.  A result of this the island feels cleaner from pollution; the stars seem brighter and the air lighter.

The size of the population is a factor too of course. With around 2000 people spread across five inhabited islands, there are more birds on the roof than bums on seats in the local pub. You can always get a seat in a café. You aren’t face to face with your neighbours. While I have no doubt that village politics will be rife for those who live here, there is space to spread out and diffuse tension. Although it will certainly be a little lonely at times. And definitely more than a little cut off.

Boats in the harbour at St Mary's, Scilly Isles

Boats in the harbour at St Mary’s, Scilly Isles

What sets an island apart

This is a land that knows about poverty, subsistence farming is part of history. And it isn’t cheap to live here. But there are jobs, especially in the tourist industry, although pay may be low. Aside from the flower industry the tourist economy keeps the islands afloat and is a safety valve to radical change. If local money comes predominantly from visitors, locals are invested in keeping the visitors coming and delivering what they want. But as the Eden Project and the world class food compete to keep tourists and their pound in Cornwall, the Island Partnership here has to work hard to lure them across the water. Hotels and attractions have to offer something different, something unique. They have to offer better service to compensate for the price of the boat or plane, the extra effort required to get here and higher food costs. The towns needs to keep crime low, and they do – the replacing of the St Mary’ bobby recently made national news! They work hard to promote the quiet life with a walking festival, an art festival, a folk festival and nature sports. And they punch above their weight with hosting international competitions, like the annual Gig Rowing Championships.

All about the nature

After spending a week here I believe it is the connection to nature that contributes most to keeping the place unspoilt, to preserving the old fashioned British seaside holiday. You cannot walk a foot without being part of a natural world with a reminder of your own place and responsibility within that. You also cannot get away from the elements. There is no escape; except to another island, where there are even less people and the sky has an even firmer hold.

The Lake District should be like this. When I moved to a south Lakeland village I’m sure I imagined life would be similar. But the Lake District is snarled and jammed with people and cars. There is too much choice and not enough time. We warn our kids to look both ways and to be careful out there. In the villages and towns there is little chance of silence.

Meet the horses at St Mary's Riding Centre, Isles of Scilly

Meet the horses at St Mary’s Riding Centre, Isles of Scilly

Back on the mainland

Parts of mainland Cornwall are suffering from the same affliction. As is the rest of the UK. We drive away from the airport and straight into a jam on the M5. A service station is no refuge, packed with people queuing for Macdonalds; the prize of a Monopoly promotion holding up the line. The logo’s of chain stores turn a rest stop into a small American style mall. Costa Coffee is hot and bothered. Children are niggling. Parents are stressed. Modern life is screaming. All I can hear is noise.

I think of the islands that I just left. I know that out there in the ocean the wind is humming a late night lullaby. And everyone is drifting off to a peaceful sleep. Dreaming of castles in the sand. Making childhood memories that future generations will long for.

Sunrise over Hugh Town, Isles of Scilly

Sunrise over Hugh Town, Isles of Scilly

Talking Point

Have we lost the plot while places like this have managed to cling on to offering happy childhoods? Or was I just on holiday and seeing the world through rose (or sun) tinted spectacles? What do you think?  Leave a comment below.

About the author

Kirstie Pelling

Kirstie is the Editor of The Family Adventure Project. A professional writer and poet, she's the creative and journalistic force behind many of the stories and features published here. She's a co-founder and co-director of The Family Adventure Project and also works as the #poetinmotion producing and performing poetry for print, video and live performance.


  • No, you haven’t list the plot, you are completely right! We are on Scilky at the moment – our 13th year. We first came when our daughter was 5: she is now 18 and still coming with us as she loves these Islands and the childhood memories they have created for her. She had freedom to explore, make new friends, be free from the constant supervision of adults & learnt how to have fun for free! Now as 3 adults we enjoy walking,chatting, reading and a pint in the pub! Perfect!

  • I am currently on Tresco in Isles of Scilly and have been coming here for most of the last 25-30yrs. It is truly a wonderful and special place for everyone – not just the children.

  • Speaking as a former islander i can only say how wonderful my childhood on the islands was, I led a very sheltered yet interesting life growing up on these beautiful islands and though i have long since moved away to be with my husband my heart yearns to be back on the islands. There is an innocence surrounding them that can never be found anywhere else and i would have liked nothing better then to have been able to raise my own children over there. No matter where i go in the world the islands are forever my home and in my heart.

  • Really enjoyed this read. I don’t think we’ve lost the plot, but things have changed, as they always do and that’s a combination of good and bad. We can’t wait to visit the Scilly Isles as my best friend has been going there for almost a decade now and loves it so much (and I’m sure we would too). I am so keen to visit and see what it’s like, but I could never imagine living somewhere like this. I guess that’s because I have been a Londoner my whole life and it’s a world away. My childhood was never like this anyway….

  • I remember being in Saint Maareten and having the desk clerk at the hotel look like we grew two heads when we told them we both worked 40+ hours a week and needed our vacation. She told me that if they work 20 hours a week that is a lot of them. During our trip I remember looking around and thinking, they may not have as much stuff as us here in the U.S. but they have something more special, peace. Just my 2-cents worth. Thanks for a great post

  • God! We would love to go to the Scilly Isles! Mainland Cornwall was great – our first family holiday with our (now three-year-old) son, pushing his buggy over some rocky beaches. Haven’t quite dared to take him on a plane yet though.

  • What a wonderful read. You have created such a beautiful story I actually feel as if I am there. We are visiting St Martins in August and your post has made me even more excitied. A safe place for our kids to enjoy? No cars? Slower pace of life? I just wish there were more places were like this- but then this clearly makes Isles of Scilly all the more special x

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We're Kirstie & Stuart. We share an adventurous spirit, a passion for indie travel and 3 kids. The Family Adventure Project is our long term experiment in doing active, adventurous things together. Find out more...


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