Scilly Isles: Is This How Childhood Used To Be?
The 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…?
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.