We had just sailed into Hugh Town, the largest settlement on the Isles of Scilly, and with only a few hours to discover as much as we could, we set out to explore…
Status: Isles of Scilly Unitary Authority, Cornwall, Town, England
Travel: Ferry (Scillonian III, Penzance – Hugh Town)
Eating & Sleeping: N/A
Attractions: Isles of Scilly Archipelago, Post Office, Town Hall, Town Hall Square, Scillonian III, Buzza Tower, Hugh Town Beach & Promenade, Victorian Architecture, Harbour, Lifeboat Station, Star Castle etc
Hugh Town is one of England’s undiscovered Gems, a town out on a small group of Islands flung out into the Atlantic Ocean. Not many people have even heard of the Isles of Scilly, but they are one corner of England that is unlike no other.
The Harbour is lined with hundreds of small fishing/pleasure boats, nestled in the Micro-Climate that has enveloped the islands, away from the harsh ocean. Overlooking the town is the “Buzza Tower”, visible over to the right which shares the spotlight with the large Chimney of the Power Station (to the Buzza Tower’s immediate left).
All around Hugh Town, which is on St Mary’s Island, lie the other main islands of the Archipelago, with “Tresco” to the right, and “St Martin’s” to the left.
The water here is so calm, you really wouldn’t think we were this far out from Britain itself.
Disembarking the Scillonian III which had brought us all the way from Penzance, we gazed out across the golden beach of Hugh Town, the towns skyline stretched out in front of us. Even though this scene looks absolutely perfect, there were still some incredible views available to us as we explored, as Hugh Town sits on the narrowest part of the island, giving it plenty of shoreline at both ends.
As we explored the rest of Hugh Town, we were struck by how Victorian everything looked, the street layouts, the buildings etc, all with a fine 19th century feel.
To show what I mean, we need look no further than the Post Office on the High Street, a stunning granite building from 1897 built by Thomas Algernon Dorrien-Smith (1846 – 1918, Lord Proprietor of the Isles of Scilly who lived on the Isle of Tresco).
Another good example of the towns architecture are the “Kavorna Bakery” and the “Lloyds Bank Building” which accompanies it. The Bakery was an 18th century construct, originally as two separate houses which were later converted into one large shop in Victorian Times, when the Lloyds Bank was built.
Continuing along “High Street”, we eventually came across a small square, which is bounded by “Lower Strand” and “Church Street”. The stand out occupant of the square is the stunning Victorian Town Hall of 1889, crafted by J. Goodfellow. A carving between the 2nd floor windows give the buildings build date, accompanied by the suffix “VR” which stands for Victoria Regina. It was also featured on Post Boxes of the day, whilst more modern versions have “ER”, for Elizabeth Regina.
Historically the Isles of Scilly have been, and remain, part of the English County of Cornwall. In 1890, due to their remoteness in relation to the mainland, the Islands were given their own Council. The Council was later given County Council status in 1930 and continues to provide all services to the islands separate from Cornwall Council. The islands are so small that around 10% of employed people work for the Council.
The square itself has a large garden space at it’s centre, whilst “Church Street” at the square’s Southern end is made up of typical Victorian Granite buildings.
Looking at “Lower Strand” to the North however, we have some slightly older 18th Century houses, all of which have been painted in a rather mediterranean-esque motif, complete with Palm Trees! No scene is of course complete without a Red British Phone Box, quietly nested in the corner between the Palm Trees, a sight which, had we not visited Gibraltar a few years ago, would have been very strange indeed!
From the Town Hall, we cut through an alleyway to the Beach, the golden sands giving way to a sea of pure blue.
At the back of the picture you can see the Scillonian III which we arrived on, which also delivers post and vital supplies to the island on a daily basis. The large crane next to it is helping to build an extension to the towns Harbour, originally built in 1593, and extended in 1836 and 1889.
On the second picture, we could make out the local lifeboat station, which opened in 1837. There have been seven different lifeboats here, with the current boat, a Severn Class called “The Whiteheads” entering service in 1997.
Our next stop was the Buzza Tower, and en-route, as we found a way up to the top of the hill through the maze of streets below, we came across the Church of St Mary’s, the tower of which we spotted as we sailed in earlier.
Another product of Victorian engineering, the Church is relatively new, and was built by Augustus Smith (1804 – 1872, Lord Proprietor of the Isles of Scilly, predecessor to Thomas Dorrien-Smith) between 1836 and 1838. A monument to Smith stands in the Churchyard, and recognises him as one of the most influential men on the islands, as he is widely credited with creating the economy which sustains the islands today.
The Buzza Tower is one of the towns most imposing landmarks, sat up on Buzza Hill and having researched its history, I have found two different stories as to its origins:
- A Disused Windmill: This is the most common historical record of the building, and states that it was built in 1821, and used for the grinding of Corn. By the time of a visited by King Edward VII (1841 – 1910) in 1902 it was disused, but was restored in time for his arrival.
- Defensive Gun Tower: An alternate record for the building states that it was one of three defensive gun towers built by Major Daniel Lyman in 1803, with a large cannon on top. The other two were elsewhere on the island.
So there we have it, is it an old windmill, or a gun tower? It would seem to be a point of historical debate, either one is an interesting idea.
If the tower WAS a Gun Tower, then it’s position here would make perfect sense. As I mentioned at the start of this post, Hugh Town is at the narrowest point of the island, so from here you can see the sea on either side of the town, with the Harbour to the right on the second picture.
The views from here are incredible, and give a great vantage point from which to look at the other islands. Tresco is visible behind the Harbour walls, whilst on the first picture you can make out St Agnes Isle to the South of Hugh Town.
Staying up Buzza Hill, off in the distance, we spotted the Lighthouse on “Round Island”, one of the Northernmost islands in the group.
To put this into perspective, apart from St Agnes, St Mary’s is one of the most Southerly, so it shows how small the Isles of Scilly really are.
The Lighthouse was built in 1887 by William Tregarthen Douglass (1857 – 1913, Chief Engineer for the Irish Lighthouse Authority) for Trinity House, the Lighthouse Authority for England, Wales and Gibraltar. The Isles of Scilly are a major hazard for trade coming into Britain from the Atlantic, so a number of lights surround it, with others on Bishop Rock and St Agnes.
The Isles of Scilly have always been heavily fortified due to their exposed position, and Hugh Town is no exception.
Since 1593 the town has been protected by the “Star Castle”, so named for it’s distinctive shape of an 8-point star. The main Castle building lies at it’s heart and is shown above, with the walls around it making the star. Built by Robert Adams in the late 16th Century, it followed on from the invasion of the Spanish Armada in 1588, which was eventually fought off by the Navy of Queen Elizabeth I (1533 – 1603).
Today the Castle is used as a Hotel, however it is no less imposing that it would have been three hundred years ago.
Leaving the Buzza Tower and the stunning views it afforded, we wandered back into town, to enjoy the quiet surroundings of the town centre, with lovely Granite buildings lining either side of the main streets.
We passed the Town Hall and the square, and for once we were in a place almost devoid of modern development, and I could totally believe that Hugh Town would have looked the same as it does now, one hundred years ago.
Reaching the edge of the Harbour, we could see out to the Islands of Samson and Tresco, and the gentle lapping waves of the Atlantic.
I mentioned earlier that the Harbour was being extended for the third time in it’s history, and this is well underway. As we waited for the boat later on that afternoon, we watched as the crane hauled tonnes of ballast to fill the concrete shells which will make up the pontoons base. When it is completed the Harbour will be able to welcome in larger ships carrying supplies.
Hugh Town is an incredible place to visit, and unlike anywhere we have been before in the UK. There are plenty of landmarks to visit, and local boats are available to take you out to the other islands in the group, which all have their own unique villages and sights. With St Mary’s being an island, you either have to take the Scillonian III from Penzance, or a small plane from Land’s End to the Airport on the other side of the Island.
We weren’t done yet on St Mary’s however, as we had one more quick stop to round off our trip, the small village of Old Town, the original settlement on the island…