Back in April, I interviewed Maisie Humphries, one of the Isles of Scilly’s artistic Island Makers, about the impact that coronavirus was having on their businesses. In an attempt to find a way to survive without the seasonal influx of visitors to the island, she had created an e-commerce website to try and make a few sales.
There was no denying then that things were going to be a struggle. Like many that rely on the tourism industry to sustain a living, there was a sense of urgency – the UK needed to open to travel, at least domestically, as soon as possible.
So when the Government announced the easing of restrictions to take place on July 4 and Telegraph Travel began to plan the Great Escape – covering the reopening of the country and what it would look like – it was to the Isles of Scilly that I decided to go. I was eager to see how the Island Makers (theislandmakers.com) and the many on the archipelago that rely on visitors had weathered the storm.
Of course, after months of glorious sunshine, it was inevitable that my attempt to get to St Mary’s on our first day of freedom would be scuppered by the weather.
With my plans delayed by a full day, I decided to chance a stop at Talland Bay Hotel near Polperro on the way, hoping that I wouldn’t be accosted by locals the minute I set foot out of the car.
I’ve felt apprehensive about travel before – on my first time overseas alone and before a trip to Johannesburg – but never in my own country. It was an entirely unpleasant feeling, so I was relieved to be met at the hotel with an almost overwhelming sense of joy. Those reliant on tourism in Cornwall are following safety measures to the letter – temperatures were taken on arrival, forms filled out, social distancing measures strictly outlined and one-way systems in place – in the hope that they can continue to operate while minimising the risk to the local community. It’s a fine and tricky line to tread.
The flight to the Isles of Scilly, with facemasks adorned and hands thoroughly sanitised, followed on Sunday (July 5), offering the same beautiful views as we approached the islands as always. On arrival, the locals – 85 per cent of whom rely on tourism according to Robert Francis, the Chair of the local council – welcomed us with open, but socially distanced, arms.
While the sea and the sand was calling, my first port of call was Phoenix Studio, where the many of the Island Makers work. For some, I was the first mainlander they’d seen in a couple of months and we exchanged tales of our experiences. The islands have not had any reported cases of Covid-19 – in part, they suspect, because of a lack of testing.
“I suspect it’s been different here to the mainland,” Emma Humphries told me. “In a way it’s been good – we now have around 11 takeaways where before we only had one, and while we’ve had social distancing measures, I don’t think it’s been the same.”
There seems to be a mix of nervousness, excitement and concern from the Island Makers. Some, like Elizabeth Askin, creator of beautiful scarves, have decided not to open. “My husband is vulnerable,” she tells me. “So it’s easier for me not to open. But everyone here looks out for each other and they’re going to sell some of my things for me while I’m closed.”
Others, like the multi-talented Vickie Heaney, can’t wait to welcome people back. “We can’t live in a bubble,” she explained as she showed me her array of ceramics, many adorned with puffins and penguins. Perhaps more than any other maker, Vickie relies on tourism, spending the winter season on cruise ships down in Antarctica as an expert guide.
Many, like the down-to-earth Maisie, are taking things as they come. “I was a bit worried,” she confided. “But I think that’s because I wasn’t sure what to expect. Some were thinking that there were going to be swarms of visitors piling off the boat on Saturday, but the reality was very different. I saw my first mainlanders yesterday – a family with backpacks on standing really nervously outside the bike-hire shop (stmarysbikehire.co.uk).
“When they picked up their bikes and set off, the joy on their faces made me realise why we do this – it is totally worth it.”
Across the island of St Mary’s there is a nervous energy that is being channelled into welcoming visitors. “We really want people to come and have a good time,” Juliet of Juliet’s Garden confided in me as I tucked into a crab sandwich for lunch.
It’s a sentiment that was echoed again by Robert and James Francis at Star Castle as we checked in. “We’re all feeling our way through this – visitors and operators alike,” said James. “We’re easing into things here. We’re starting at just 30 per cent capacity and are going to slowly raise the numbers as the weeks go on.”
Having checked into our room in the pretty castle grounds, taking in the glorious sight of the sea from our window, I noted the dispensers of hand sanitiser on the walls that certainly were not there on my last visit.
Wandering to Old Town, I learned from Arthur and Hilary Miller that they have been making litres of the alcohol-based wash at Scilly Spirit Distillery (scillyspirit.com), up-cycling empty plastic dispensers from across the island to save on waste. As they led me on a guided tour of their small yet modern distillery, they too explained that business has been hit hard by the pandemic. “We’ve got an online shop that we sell the gin from,” said Art, “but it’s not going to replace our usual business. Thankfully making the hand sanitiser helped us, although we don’t really make anything on it beyond cost. We’ve found a way that we can offer the gin school to visitors without the same level of interaction and we’re offering a regular subscription service.”
The glory of the isles has been infused in the gin, from the peppercorns that represent the shipwreck of the Royal Oak in 1665 and its cargo, to the shape of the bottle, modelled on the lighthouse of Bishop Rock. But it's not the only spirit being made on the islands. Over on pretty St. Martin's, where Karma attracts those in search of a quiet, peaceful stay, Andrew Walder has set up a brand new rum and vodka distillery. While the tours of the tiny distillery are on hold as the island gets to grips with how to accomodate visitors, you can sample the product – the beautifully crafted SC Dogs rum bottles each telling the story of a local sea dog, including John Nance and Captain Stevens (scdogs.co.uk).
Across the islands there is a strong connection to the sea and it was aboard the rib boat of Richard at the Scilly Sailing Centre (sailingscilly.com) that I realised a rather sad fact: it has been a long time since I felt the pure joy of freedom. Like many, the past few months have been filled with things missed; birthday parties, rescheduled weddings (my own included) and the bittersweet moment that I saw my parents for the first time in months and realised that I couldn’t reach out and hug them.
But riding the waves, the salty smell of the sea filling my nostrils, the cool spray splashing my skin and the wind in my (now very long) hair, I realised that my face hurt from grinning – and it was a somewhat confronting sensation.
The moments of elation are the reason that many of us travel, and here, at least, the relationship between local and visitor is not just a luxury, it’s a necessity – a fact confirmed by Robert Francis, Council Chair, as I sat sipping on the 2014 Chardonnay of HolyVale vineyard (holyvalewines.co.uk), his pride and joy. He explained that, while there have been many challenges thrown their way over the last few months, ultimately, tourism is the lifeblood of the island.
“Nearly everyone in Scilly relies on visitors, whether directly or indirectly,” he said. “And while there are fears, there’s also a need to survive. We’re being as careful as possible – you have to wear facemasks on all boats and car transfers, there is hand sanitiser in many public areas, and social distancing is being enforced in the pubs and shops.”
It seems to be working so far. The nervousness of the visitors and the fear of intrusion is being melted by the warm smiles of locals and there seems to be a feeling of great mutual respect.
"It's so good to be welcoming people back," Bryony Lishman at Mincarlo guesthouse told me as we sat out enjoying the pretty view over Town Beach on St Mary's in the sun. "The B&B has been in my family for decades, so it was really strange not to have other people around. But reopening has been incredible. I've been through the process to get the 'We're Good To Go' industry standard and mark through VisitBritain and it was surprisingly easy, and it's great that it offers vistiors that extra peace of mind."
I've just been talking to the Island makers, who I first spoke to back in April when things were looking rather more grim. Great to meet them in person, visit their studios and see how they're getting on. Such a lovely, warm welcome. Thank you! https://t.co/4NekSEetQx pic.twitter.com/hym92JRaA6— Penny Walker (@pennyswalker) July 5, 2020
The sight, smell and sound of the sea for visitors, many of whom have been cooped up in small city flats, is offering a sense of freedom and joy unfelt in recent months, while the locals tell me that the return of people from the mainland, although scary for some, is a beacon of hope for the future for many, offering a sense of relief that perhaps they will be able to keep food on the table this winter.
If you’re keen to stay on St Mary’s, it's difficult to beat Star Castle (rooms from £296; 01720 422317; telegraph.co.uk/tt-star-castle). The Mincarlo guesthouse is a cosy alternative, offering bed and breakfast (mincarloscilly.com). For those looking to stay on a quieter island, Karma on St Martin’s sits on an idyllic bay and is now open (rooms from £240; telegraph.co.uk/tt-karma-st-martins).
If it’s fresh seafood you’ve been missing, Tanglewood Kitchen is offering takeaway lobster with a bottle of wine that you can enjoy on the beach (tanglewoodkitchen.co.uk).
While the SC Dogs distillery remains closed for visitors on St. Martin's, the vineyard, run by the delightful Holly and James, is open to visitors. Take a self-guided tour of the vines before sampling the wine. The homemade apple juice is also worth a try (stmartinsvineyard.co.uk).
Flights to Scilly with IOST cost from £181 return from Land’s End Airport (01736 334220; islesofscilly-travel.co.uk).
More information; visitislesofscilly.com