Tuesday, April 26, 2011

A Scilly Holiday, Seriously: Part I

An Idyllic Island Off the Radar Screen for Most Americans (August 2003)

Heather and Ruins on Tresco
Shipwrecks, ancient ruins, fresh air, and an easy day’s journey from London–it sounded like the perfect vacation spot. Better yet, it seemed that no one we knew had heard of the Isles of Scilly. “Isn’t that somewhere in the Indian Ocean?” they asked. “You’re thinking of the Seychelles.” Or, “Isn’t that off the coast of Scotland?” “Nope, those are the Shetlands.” One friend was sure we were going to Sicily and had simply misspelled the name. We assured her that the Scilly Isles are not in Italy, but off the southwest coast of England. Scilly, which is pronounced “silly” as in “how silly of me,” has its origins in Roman times and comes from “sulli” meaning the “sun isles.” To get there today one can either fly or take the daily ferry from Penzance, in Cornwall.

Land, Sea and Mist
St. Mary's
So, on a foggy morning in August, my husband and I boarded the Scillonian III ferry at the pier in Penzance and headed west into the Atlantic. Our fellow passengers included island residents returning home from the mainland, day trippers, and vacationers like us. About two hours later, we spied a cluster of small islands and islets emerging above the waves. As we approached the harbor, the mist cleared and the islands indeed became sun bathed, rising as scattered rocky outposts in a sparkling sea.

The twenty-eight mile trip had been unusually smooth, a fact I appreciated even more when I later learned that the ocean bottom around the islands is littered with hundreds of shipwrecks, victims of stormier days and the treacherous rocks that lurk beneath the surface. We docked at the quay in St. Mary’s, the largest and most populated of the Scilly Isles and the center of island life. We collected our luggage, which was piled next to beer kegs, building materials, groceries, and all the other supplies that have to be brought over daily from the mainland, and found a taxi. It took us to Eastbank, our bed and breakfast accommodation, just a short distance away on one of the island’s many small bays, with a view of the sea in one direction and a nature preserve and flower fields in the other. After meeting our gracious hosts, Linda and Melville Roberts, and settling ourselves in our large, tastefully decorated room, we set off to explore Hugh Town, the commercial center of St. Mary’s, where we purchased picnic food for lunch and visited the tourist office for maps and information on local activities. With a perimeter of only nine miles and a maximum width of three miles, everything on St. Mary’s is in easy walking distance. You can also rent bikes or use a local bus service.

A Mild Climate
Cromwell's Castle, Tresco

About 2000 people live year round in the Scilly Isles, most of them on St. Mary’s. Five of the islands are inhabited–St. Mary’s, St. Agnes, St. Martins, Bryher and Tresco–and several others have ruins of previous habitation. Frequent boat service connects them. One day we took a trip to Samson, one of the uninhabited, or as the boatman joked, one of the uninhibited, islands, to see birds, seals and some of the many prehistoric ruins that litter the isles. Another day we took a boat to Tresco to see the famous Abbey Gardens, built by Augustus Smith, the 19th century Lord Protector of the isles, in the ruins of a medieval Abbey and now operated by the National Trust. Helicopter service from the mainland brings people daily to see the rare succulents, palms, eucalyptus, and other plants grown nowhere else in the British Isles. Warm ocean currents of the Gulf Stream bathe the Scilly Isles and moderate the climate. Despite a latitude equivalent to Vancouver or Frankfurt, the temperature rarely goes below freezing. The ancient stone walls and thick hedges act as windbreaks and create the microclimates that allow the plants to thrive. Other garden attractions include a stone altar, a remnant from the first century Roman occupation of the Scillies, a museum of figureheads rescued from sunken ships, and a lavish mural made of multicolored seashells.
Detail of decorative panel in Abbey Gardens at Tresco

A Long History
From the original Bronze Age settlers, who farmed and fished on the islands, to the royalists who fled there during the English Civil War of the mid 1600's, and whose descendants are among the present inhabitants, the Scilly Isles have had continuous human occupation for more than four thousand years. One of the best ways to get an overview of the geologic, human, and natural history of the Scilly Isles is at the museum in Hugh Town where you can see maps, stone axe heads and other prehistoric artifacts, legal documents written in flowery script, historic photographs, seafaring and shipwreck souvenirs, mounted specimens of birds and flowers, pictures of the Queen’s millennium visit, and more.

The scattered granite outcrops that form the Scilly Isles today are actually the tops of larger hills that were once part of a single land mass, but as the oceans rose at the end of the last Ice Age, the low spots gradually became inundated until the hills became islands. The present shoreline was reached about seven hundred years ago. At an extremely low spring tide in the 1970's, someone walked a circle between all the islands just to prove that they were still almost joined. The channels between the islands are so shallow that many become sandbars at low tide; in some places, just under the surface of the water, you can see the tops of stone fences that are the boundaries of now submerged prehistoric fields. Uncultivated parts of the islands are mostly covered with bracken and heather. On our visit, the heather was in full bloom, giving the hillsides a brilliant magenta glow.

Bant's Carn (Neolithic Entrance Grave)
On our first full day I joined a walking tour with Katherine Sawyer, a local expert in archaeology and Scilly history, who took us to see Bant’s Carn, a four thousand year old entrance grave on the west side of St. Mary’s. We also visited some prehistoric standing stones, the ruins of an ancient village, and the telegraph tower where Marconi did some of his early radio experiments. As we walked around the perimeter of the island we had to watch out for the shallow stone pits, remains of kelp burning in the nineteenth century. About three feet wide and two feet deep, these stone lined depressions were used as cauldrons for burning sea weed, which was gathered at low tide. The residue was then exported to the mainland for glass making. It was a laborious task, requiring more than twenty tons of kelp to produce one ton of finished product. It reminded me of a youthful experiment in making maple sugar which required boiling forty gallons of sap to get one gallon of syrup! At least the maple sugar smelled sweet as it cooked. Apparently the kelp burning produced a smelly, smoky pall that hung over the islands for the entire summer!

Part II will have more about what we did, what we ate, and what we saw during our relaxing week in the Scillies.


Monday, April 25, 2011

A Scilly Holiday, Seriously: Part II

(A continuation of my previous blog.)
Harbor at St. Mary's
Low Key Entertainment
Most entertainment on the Scillies is home-grown. It includes musical performances by the local choral society, family quiz night at the local pub--a sort of do-it-yourself Jeopardy game with prizes awarded at the end of the evening to the table that answers the most questions correctly–as well as slide shows and boat races. One evening we went to a shipwreck slide show at the Methodist Church hall where we sat on folding chairs and were regaled with witty stories of ships that have gone afoul in Scilly waters. The program featured the 1998 wreck of the German container ship, the Cita, whose captain had apparently gone to sleep at the wheel, only to wake up and find his ship stuck on a reef. The ship quickly broke up, littering the shore of St. Mary’s for weeks with designer shirts, baby clothes and sneakers (or trainers as they call them in Britain), tires, Toyota parts, plastic Irish fridge magnets and more. Photos and samples are on display in the museum.

Ships traveling through the Scilly Isles usually depend on local pilots to guide them safely through the channel or to bring them into harbor. In the nineteenth century, pilots competed to guide ships through the area. As soon as a ship was spotted, each pilot and his six man rowing crew jumped into their wooden boat, or gig, and raced out to meet it. The first to arrive got the job and the fee, so the pilots with the strongest, fastest crews were the most successful. Today, piloting is mechanized, but gig racing has become a professional sport, with races held throughout the summer. On the Friday evening we were there, it seemed as if the entire population of St. Mary’s had assembled on the quay to cheer on their favorite team. We watched from the opposite shore, in the garden of Juliet’s restaurant, using our binoculars to spot the boats as they approached the finish line. Later we enjoyed a spectacular sunset.

Playing Golf on St. Mary's
One day we played golf, primarily to enjoy the beautiful location of the golf course. Perched high on the moor, it provides views of the islands all the way to the Bishop Rock Lighthouse, Britain’s most westerly beacon, and the marker for the entrance to the English Channel. Our main challenge was keeping the ball on the fairway and not in the surrounding rocks, bracken, heather, or cow pasture. As it happened, we were almost alone on the course. The Scillies are sufficiently north to provide long summer days, and with twilight lingering late into the evening, one can begin a round of golf as late as 5:00 in the afternoon. We, however, started in the morning, and stopped halfway through for lunch at the clubhouse, where I ordered a sausage bap. Baps (buns) and other delicious fresh bread are available daily from a bakery on St. Mary’s. Another favorite lunch was Cornish pasties, the meat filled pies typical of the region, available at the butcher shop.

Cornish Cream Teas, Pasties and More
During the summer tourist season accommodations fill up quickly; most bed and breakfast establishments will only take a reservation for a week at a time. (Hotels book on a daily basis, but are more expensive.) We felt lucky to get a reservation at Eastbank–probably because it hasn’t yet been discovered. The owners were welcoming and provided us with more than enough breakfast food, which we served ourselves in a separate kitchen/living room that we shared with two other guests. They also gave us advice on restaurants and warned us that we should make dinner reservations a day or more in advance unless we wanted to eat at one of the pubs, which don’t require reservations, but where the food is typically English–hearty and served with lots of fries. The top of their restaurant list, and our favorite, was Chez Michel, housed in a tiny stone cottage in Hugh Town and specializing in Continental style food. On our first visit we arrived at a particularly chaotic moment and the waitress joked that we had come to Fawlty Towers, but after a glass of sherry, things settled down and we enjoyed a delicious meal. That night we ordered noisettes of lamb--tender pieces of meat served with a rich brown sauce and spinach souffle; another night we had duck with cranberries and fresh garden vegetables.

The best foods in the Scillies are the local specialties. Fish is always fresh and in summer so are the local vegetables. Tomatoes were in season and we enjoyed them on sandwiches, in salads and soups, and roasted. On several afternoons we treated ourselves to a Cornish cream tea. Small scones are served warm with fresh clotted cream, a heavenly product halfway between butter and whipped cream, and strawberry jam. With a cup of hot English tea, it is the perfect afternoon pick-me-up.

Bulbs and Produce for sale at side of road

Fresh Spring Flowers
Popular souvenirs from the Scillies are the locally grown flower bulbs. The mild climate of the Scillies makes it ideal for growing daffodils and other flowers, which mature earlier in the season than elsewhere in the British Isles, giving the Scilly growers a jump start on the market each spring. Fall is planting season, and we saw huge sacks in the fields, full of bulbs waiting to be put in the ground. I wished I could bring some bulbs home but knew that we would never get them past U.S. customs officers. Instead we bought some scenic watercolor prints at the Nan Heath gallery, one of the several art and craft studios on the islands. Watercolor is the ideal medium for capturing the brilliant light and clear waters that bathe the Scillies, and the deftly painted pictures will continue to remind us of some of our favorite spots.

Locked in Time
Although the Scilly Isles are a popular holiday spot for Brits and some French vacationers who sail across the channel in their private yachts, they off the radar screen for most Americans. During our week in the islands we encountered only one other American, a woman we met on the path in front of the Abbey Gardens on Tresco. She had flown over for the afternoon from the mainland and stopped us to ask if we knew where she could go shopping! We had to tell her that besides the garden gift shop, there was no place to shop on Tresco. If she had come for a longer visit she would have found a number of souvenir shops along the main street in Hugh Town on St. Mary’s.

Even though tourism is now the primary industry in the Scillies, the local residents are working hard to prevent the kind of large scale development and commercialism that would ruin the small town and rural charm of the islands. We were told that building permits are impossible to get except to replace an already existing building. And since most buildings are constructed of sturdy stone and old enough to be protected as historical structures, the town hasn’t changed much since the end of the last century. Our bed and breakfast was unusual in that it was entirely new construction. The owners had been able to build a new house only because the previous one had been filled with asbestos and had to be destroyed. We were among their first season’s guests.

Back to the Mainland
Flying Back to Land's End
Ferry service from Penzance to St. Mary’s runs Monday through Saturday, leaving in the morning and returning in the afternoon. (Sunday is a blessedly quiet day with no air or ferry service, and therefore no influx of day trippers. ) For our return trip to the mainland we took a small plane so that we would get there early enough to catch the train that day back to London. When we arrived at the tiny airport, we not only had to weigh our luggage, but step on the scales ourselves! We realized as we climbed into the plane behind the pilot that every pound had to be accounted for in arranging passengers and luggage in our ten seat fixed wing aircraft. As we roared down the short runway toward the ocean it seemed as if we would plunge into the sea, but as we crested the hill the plane lifted into the air. Ten minutes later we touched down at Land’s End in Cornwall, where a bus was waiting to take us into Penzance and the train station.

Before our trip to the Scillies we had been advised to get travel insurance on the off chance that the boat or plane might be cancelled. Storms and fog have been known to cut off the Scillies from the mainland for days, although usually not in summer. We never needed the insurance and had the good luck to enjoy a week of perfect weather–not too hot or cold and no wind or rain. We had chosen the Scilly Isles as the place for our summer holiday without knowing much about it. Now that we’ve been there, we can see why people go back again and again.

Our trip to the Isles of Scilly was in August 2003.
Click here for current MAPS and TOURIST INFORMATION.

Wednesday, April 13, 2011

Battle of Gettysburg

Reliving History (July 1997)
The hot July sun beat down on the sloping field in southern Pennsylvania, just as it had on July 1-3, 1863 when the Battle of Gettysburg was fought in this quiet farm community just north of the Mason-Dixon line. I wished we had brought parasols like those I saw carried by the hoopskirted ladies hovering at the edge of the crowd. Directly in front of us, on the stubble of cut hay, we watched gray uniformed Union soldiers loading their cannons. On the other side, beyond a stone wall, Confederate soldiers, armed with their own cannons and muskets, lined up their ammunition while drummer boys and flag bearers got ready to lead the charge. The regiment doctor, his white apron already stained, prepared to treat the wounded.

History was repeating itself--or so it seemed. This time, however, the soldiers and ladies dressed in 1860's attire were actors playing parts. Observers sat safely on bleachers or stood along the sidelines while the action was narrated over a loudspeaker. (The announcer also filled us in on background information--a benefit for people like me who were a bit rusty on Civil War history.)

KA-BOOM! The first cannon volley thundered across the field and smoke billowed skyward. Soldiers marched forward and fell in battle. KA-BOOM! KA-BOOM! KA-BOOM! For nearly an hour the cannons boomed and muskets fired with deafening realism. When the attack was over “victims” jumped up unharmed and the soldiers, sweltering in their authentic woolen uniforms, guzzled Gatorade.

Pickett's Charge
We were outside the small town of Gettysburg, Pennsylvania, at the reenactment of Pickett’s Charge, an authentic recreation of this pivotal Civil War battle presented by Gettysburg Living History Inc., one of several living history companies that stage Civil War events in Gettysburg. Every year during the 4th of July weekend thousands of Civil War reenactors from all over the United States congregate in Gettysburg to recreate events ranging from battles and drill competitions to medical demonstrations and fife and drum concerts. They also put on fashion shows, art exhibits, impersonations, and talks. Some events are free while others require tickets.

For my family, watching and talking with the reenactors was an ideal opportunity to visualize history as it happened. Dressed in authentic clothing and living in a tent encampment for the long weekend, the reenactors at Herr’s Ridge lived and breathed the history of the Civil War era. Although there are excellent exhibits at the National Park Visitor Center and other museums in town nothing makes history more real than meeting people who have incorporated it into their lives.

What the Women Wore
When the battle was over the announcer invited us to walk on the battlefield and through the encampment. While the men in our group examined weapons and cannonballs, my daughter and I were much more interested in talking with the women. Many wore elaborate costumes, varying from hoopskirts and sheer dimity summer dresses to more practical shirtwaists and sunbonnets. We learned that women reenactors had to carefully research their costumes to make sure that each part was consistent both with the time period and their character’s age and social class. Snoods, or hairnets, for instance, were only worn by young women during that period and were a kind of fashion fad.

We chatted with two women whose husbands had been on the battlefield. Both said they had been drawn into reenacting by their husbands’ military interest but once “bitten by the bug” it was hard to resist becoming an enthusiastic participant. Weekends such as this one were family events and included children who were also dressed in period clothing.

When we asked about the authenticity of women and children at this event we got a short history lesson on women’s participation in the Civil War. While most women stayed at home during the Civil War, maintaining the family farm or business while their husbands were fighting, many wives followed the camps, especially if their own homes had been destroyed by the war and they had no relatives to take them in. In a few cases, women disguised themselves as men, and fought as soldiers. If they were discovered, they were evicted from camp and lucky not to be shot for treason.

Sutlers and Vendors
At the Herr’s Ridge battlefield we also visited the area designated for sutlers and vendors. A “sutler,” I learned, is a person who follows an army for the purpose of selling the troops provisions, liquor, etc. The tented sutler and vendor booths contained everything from modern day food and drink to genuine and authentic reproduction Civil War uniforms and weapons. Reenactors are expected to be completely accurate down the stitching on the uniforms.

Vendors also sold women and children’s clothing, household goods and toys of the period. In a booth that specialized in jewelry I learned another new word, “chatelaine,” an ornamental clasp that the mistress of a house wore at her waist and which had hooks for attaching keys to the pantry, a watch, and perhaps a small purse. The chatelaine we examined was of chased silver and clearly meant as a status symbol as well as a practical item.

Steeping Yourself in History
If you want to thoroughly steep yourself in the Civil War era you can stay in the recently renovated historic Gettysburg Hotel and eat at the Dobbin House Tavern. Other area attractions include the National Park Service Visitor Center and Cyclorama on Taneytown Road, tours of Dwight Eisenhower’s farm (tickets and shuttle from the Visitor Center), and the national cemetery across from the Visitor Center.
If you like your history dramatized, you should plan your trip to Gettysburg so that it includes a summer weekend. Reenactments of various kinds of Civil War events occur on almost every weekend between May and October. Another way to put drama into your trip is to tour the battlefields by trolley. The tour guide plays the part of several Civil War characters. (We chose instead to buy the Auto Tape Tour at the National Civil War Wax Museum, 297 Steinwehr Avenue, for a self tour so that we could visit at our own pace.)

Getting there: Fly to Harrisburg, Pennsylvania and then go by car to Gettysburg. (South on 15 from Harrisburg, exiting on US 30 to Gettysburg. A scenic 39 mile drive.)
Current Gettysburg information: Gettysburg go to http://www.gettysburgaddress.com. Click on reenactments for current information.