About this time of the year, when the British summer is at its peak, Mrs. Sánchez and I pack our buckets and spades and, filled with the optimism that comes with failing memory, head south west for the cooling heady breezes of the Isles of Scilly, a group of largely unspoilt islands, rocks, reefs and ledges 28 miles off the coast of Cornwall.
People who live on the five inhabited islands are called 'Scillonians' or 'Islanders'. You can imagine how amused Scillonians are by the possibly infinite number original and entertaining ways the pun: Scilly/silly can be used. (Scilly ass, Scilly bee, Scilly sausages etc.) That is probably the reason they don't like you saying 'The Scilly Isles' and prefer 'The Isles of Scilly', 'The Fortunate Islands' or 'Lyonesse'. It hasn't stopped some shameless incomers employing the worn out pun to sell stuff, though.
One of the reasons Scilly is so 'unspoilt' is that it's not easy to get there to dump your rubbish, string vests and tattoos are banned and it's very expensive.. It's a long drive to Land's End from everywhere in Britain except, perhaps ,Cornwall and then you have to leave your car in the hands of a licensed bandit while your stomach makes the 2 hours 40 min. sea crossing on Scillonian 111 (another reason for not going). There used to be a helicopter but Sainsbury's built a big store on the heliport so the only alternative to sea sickness these days is Skybus which flies from Lands End Airport (LEQ), near St. Just-in-Penwith, to St. Mary's, Isles of Scilly.
The Skybus 8 seater 'Islander BN-2B'.
Until a few years ago it was called St Just Aerodrome and the planes took off in a field which was a bit bumpy (rabbit holes) and the field got waterlogged after a heavy shower. In 2014 they laid a concrete runway and changed the name. It is now thoroughly modern, with flashing runway lights, a new cafe serving 4 kinds of coffee and a televised safety film.
Land's End Airport
What a rude pilot!
After a gruelling six hour drive Mrs.S. and I arrived, parked the car and went to check in. We weighed our bags on a machine (15kg maximum per person) and we were well under. Then I saw a notice saying we had to have 'Photo ID'. Mrs. S. didn't have any. I didn't want to leave her behind (I had my driving licence) so I tried to blag our way past the 'security' lady. If you can do a Cornish accent, read the next bit aloud using it.
'You have to have proper ID. This is a proper airport.
(they use the adjective proper as often as possible in Cornwall)
'I've got mine but my wife hasn't got any'
´Has she got a bus pass?' (cheeky mare!)
'That credit card will do. Pop your bags on the belt'.
A chap who looked just like the policeman in Doc Martin started calling out the weight of each item.
'8, 5, 8'
'Hang on a minute, we've just weighed all those. That bag never weighs 8 kilos!'
'We're talking pounds. Proper job. What about those other bags?'
'Too big. pop 'em on the belt'
'But that will take them over the weight limit'
'Don't worry about that. Now who's going to be weighed first?'
We stepped forward in turn and placed our feet on the two foot-shapes on the floor.
'That's all fine. Proper job. Go and have a cup of coffee and a pasty and we'll give you a shout when your flight's ready.'
The flight to St. Mary's (the big island) took 15 minutes as there was a head wind. Paulger's Taxis whisked us down to the quay where we waited for the 12.45 'Spirit of St. Agnes' to ferry us over to the most south-westerly of the inhabited islands, St. Agnes, ancient home of the Hickses and Leggs.
All the other islands used to be one big island (Lyonesse) but global warming around 500AD caused an inundation and the islands of Bryher, Tresco, St. Mary's and St. Martin's were created (previously the hilltops) and that's all that's left of Lyonesse.
"So all day long the noise of battle roll'd
Among the mountains by the winter sea;
Until King Arthur's Table man by man,
Had fall'n in Lyonesse about their Lord,
We've been going to Scilly since 1977 (it's an addiction) and we are still classed as 'visitors' which is fair enough, but when we go to one of the other islands we become 'trippers' which irritates me a bit. To be an 'islander' you have to able to prove your family was living there when Adam was a lad.
Our kids still keep going back for holidays too. It's a very peaceful place. Crime is is virtually non-existent (although there was a murder in 1976 (incomers on St. Mary's) and a minor crime wave in 1975,( also on St. Mary's) .
In the 70's Mrs. Sánchez and I were happy to let the kids run wild around 'Agnes' until teatime, confident that they would come to no harm. Paedophiles hadn't been invented then and children still ' made their own amusements'. It's much the same today. There are no snakes and you are more likely to smell a pasty than smell a rat; the latter were all bumped off a few years ago.
The real truth is that St Agnes is a very dangerous place. I had no idea. A friendly cricket match last week against a pub team from Cheltenham was abandoned when a St Agnes player nearly had his left eye removed by a cricket ball and then one of the opposition dived for a catch and broke his collar bone. A couple of days later the coastguard helicopter was called out to evacuate a sailor who had damaged a hand in an outboard motor propeller. (Agh!)
And then there's The Lobster Man. Half man, half lobster, he haunts the lanes of St. Agnes on misty nights. You may laugh but all the 88 permanent residents of St. Agnes treat him with respect and always wear some seaweed about their person if they find it necessary to pass by the Island Hall in darkness.
There is a saying here;
'A pasty a day keeps the Lobster Man at bay'
I may have had this very saying in mind as I collected our lunchtime pasties from the bar in The Turks Head, the island's pub. These pasties must be in short supply because there is a sign outside the pub telling one to ' pre- order pasties before 11.00am' and I was looking forward to sinking my gnashers into one of these piping hot savoury pastries. As I reached for my wallet a voice from behind me that I did not recognise said,
'Are you Juanito?'
I turned to face a tall and considerably broad male figure silhouetted against the sunlit window.
'Do I know you?' I asked, as I squinted to make out his back- lit features.
'No. I'm , *****, the owner of the pub. I believe you had a problem here last night.'
The pub had changed hands since we last stayed on St. Agnes. I knew nothing about the new owners. I tried to remember a 'problem'
'Last night. Down to the pub at 9.15. Ordered drinks for Mrs. S and myself. Barman says, I'm shutting the pub at 10.00. I was disappointed. First night. First drink at pub. As I put the drinks on the table, feeling a little disgruntled, my phone dinged.
A knife and fork symbol in the top left hand corner.'
'Your are in the Turks Head, St. Agnes. Can we have your opinion?'
'Not wishing to disappoint and more than willing to share my dismay with someone I wrote:
'Pub shuts at 10.00pm. No food after 9.00 pm. Only game in town.'
We drank our 'Sea Fury' ale and left'.
'No I didn't have a problem.'
'You gave us a bad review on Google. You only gave us one star'.
'Oh, sorry, I just said you were shutting at 10 o'clock.' They asked me.
'Well, I'd like you to reconsider your review'
I was suddenly aware that my pasties were cooling on the bar, the sunny pub garden and Mrs. Sánchez beckoned and I still hadn't paid. I handed over the money and picked up the two plates. He was still there. I could make out his features now. We had never met. I had never seen him before. I had another 6 days to stay on the island with only one pub and only one other (expensive) place to eat in the evenings. Curiosity overcame my need to eat and drink for the rest of the week.
'By the way, how did you know I am me? How do you know my name?
'I spent 20 years in IT so I know how to find out about people.'
He showed me his 'phone. There was a gallery of photos of me. Some not very flattering.
He'd been waiting for me to come in with these pictures to identify me.
I started to feel very uncomfortable. Creepy, right?
Phones, computers, the internet; nowhere to run, nowhere to hide from cyber stalking.
Not such a peaceful island then.
The Turks Head (no apostrophe) is a lovely pub with an amazing view over the islands.
We've had many great evenings there over the last 40 years with family and friends. The beers always good and lots to choose from on the menu board.
A couple of days later ( still managing to get food and drinks at the pub) Mrs. Sánchez and I wandered into the little church at Periglis in Cornish (church cove) to have a look at the stained glass windows.
The 'new' stained glass windows in the church
There are 580 registered shipwrecks around The Isles of Scilly.
A gig usually had a crew of 7 including the 'cox'. Their long and slim design and the six oars made them fast boats; fast enough to outrun the Customs boat too.
Two gigs racing. The St. Agnes gig Slippen is on the right
The gigs often went out at night in high seas, usually competing with gigs from other islands to be the first to put a pilot on board. It's how they made a living. Many islanders lost their lives attempting to save the crews of ships in distress.
There's a plaque on the wall of the Church which sketches the story of the schooner 'Thomas W. Lawson' which was wrecked in 1907 off the small uninhabited island of Annet, just across from St. Agnes.
The story of the Thomas T. Lawson is a gripping tale of greed, heroism, tragedy and hubris. (I've never been too sure about hubris) and I think it's worth telling in more detail. So here goes.
The Thomas T. Lawson
At the time the Thomas T Lawson was built (1902) the majority of freighters were using steam power or a combination of steam and sails. She was originally built to carry coal along the East coast of the United States. Freight operators had found that steamers were uneconomical because a third of their cargo space was taken up by coal for the boilers, then there was the cost of the fuel itself. So John G. Crowley paid $250,000 dollars to have the biggest pure sailing vessel ever built. No other sailing ship had so many masts but it was 'a turkey' from the start. Its massive deep steel hull and inadequate sail area made it handle 'like a beached whale'; it couldn't get into many of the coal harbours and it did not have an auxiliary engine for manoeuvrability in light winds. Its only engine was a small 'donkey' which was used to winch the heavy sails and to operate the pumps and the steering. Powered winches meant a smaller crew and more profit.
By 1903 transporting coal wasn't very profitable so Mr. Crowley had it refitted to take a cargo of oil and on November 17th. 1907 off she set for London with 58,000 barrels of oil - but not before replacing 6 of the crew, who refused to work for such low wages, with mostly non-English speaking unqualified seamen, two days before the off. The full complement on board was 18 including the captain, George Washington Dow, two stewards an engineer and two helmsmen. (no mention of a cook!).
Two days out she ran into a series of terrible storms and was not sighted for 20 days. By the time she reached the Celtic Sea, west of The Isles of Scilly, she had lost most of her sails, all but one lifeboat and the pumps had clogged up. On Friday 13th. December, with hardly any sails and no engine the Thomas T Lawson couldn't be steered effectively and, to make matters worse, the crew failed to spot the Bishop Rock Lighthouse. The ship staggered up Broad Sound on the wrong side of Bishop Rock towards the treacherous rocks of Annet.
Annet (Minmanueth is a the top left hand tip.)
Near Gunners Rock (just out of the picture, top left) Captain Dow dropped two bow anchors to ride out an impending gale and await assistance. Lifeboats from St. Mary's and St. Agnes came out and requested the captain to abandon ship, which he refused to do several times, trusting his anchors, but he agreed to take on board Billy 'Cook' Hicks, a Trinity House pilot from St. Agnes. As the storm gathered force one of the anchors started to drag.
The St. Mary's lifeboat had to return home with an injured crew member, The St. Agnes boat had lost a mast and so followed suit after staying alongside the ship for 4 hours in the most terrible high seas and gale force winds. Falmouth was cabled to send a tug which never appeared.
The Western Rocks, Isles of Scilly
During the night the port anchor chain broke, then the other one. The ship was doomed.
Soon after 2.30 am. watchers on St. Agnes saw the ship's lights go out. She had crashed into Shag Rock and broken in two.The cargo of oil gushed out into the boiling sea.. All the masts broke off and fell into the rocky maelstrom killing all the crewmen, who had been ordered to climb up them for safety. Billy Hicks was among them. Only three men out 19 remained alive; the captain, the engineer, Edward Rowe and crew member, George Allen.
Every man was wearing a lifebelt but all 16 were killed by falling masts, getting trapped in the rigging , smashed against the jagged rocks or drowned in a mixture of sea water and oil. Bodies recovered after shipwrecks are rarely intact.
The St. Agnes gig 'Slippen'
By morning the overwhelming stench of oil across St. Agnes told all. The ship was lost.
But what of survivors?.The St. Agnes lifeboat couldn't get out of Per Conger bay. Meanwhile Edward Hicks, the son of the pilot Billy 'Cook' Hicks,tried desperately to raise a crew to take out the pilot gig Slippen to look for his father and other possible survivors.
Eight men, including Edward launched Slippen and struck out into the huge waves for Annet.
Above the howling of the wind and the crashing of waves they heard a voice calling for help and found a sailor, George Allen, who was badly injured, and took him back to St. Agnes, where he died later. He had been the only survivor, it was presumed.
Young Edward Hicks would not give up hope and that afternoon the crew of the Slippen set out again and this time came across the engineer, Rowe, who had been washed up on the Hellweathers Carn rock. He had swallowed sea water and oil, but was without serious injury. They threw him a rope and pulled him into the boat.
He told them he'd seen the captain alive on some rocks not far away. Edward grabbed a rope and plunged into the sea, clambering 50 yards through sea and rocks for 50 yards to rescue Captain Dow who had a broken wrist. For his bravery the U.S. government gave him a gold watch. All the Slippen crew were also given gold medals.
Lucky, indeed. Not so lucky the crew members and St. Agnes pilot who may have survived if he had accepted help early on.
The next day, Sunday, the St. Mary's lifeboat and gigs from the other islands went out to look for the bodies of the rest of the crew. A grisly task .Their remains were buried in a grave on St. Agnes.
Today the Thomas T Lawson lies on the sea bed to the west of Shag Rock. It is a popular site for divers.
Edward Hicks's grandaughter, Mandy Pearce still lives on St. Agnes with her husband, Adrian. They used to be flower farmers and owned The Bulb Shop on St. Agnes (now 'Potbuoys'). We know Mandy quite well and a had a chat with her last week. I'd no idea until days later that she had this connection to the Thomas T Lawson.
There is a little school on St. Agnes for the nine children on the island of primary school age. The nearest Secondary School is on St. Mary's.
The schools here break up two weeks later than on the mainland so we were able to go and watch the concert that they put on outside the school. It was very good indeed. Although there aren't many children, there is a wide age range.
As 'Young Mr. Grace' of Grace Brothers used to say ' You've all done very well'.
Young Mr. Grace
As we sat watching the show, the St. Agnes Post Office Van went by. Yes, 88 residents and they have their own Post Office van. Proper job too!
And their own BT van!
No pie news this time because everybody eats pasties here but if you are ever on St. Mary's, get yourself up to Kaffehaus on High Lanes and have some of their delicious Apfelstrudel.
Juanito Sánchez August 4th. 2017.