I have a small watercolour painting, hanging on my wall, about 5″x5″, painted by Paul, a friend of John’s. The painting is dated 1981 and is of the Post Office Cottage on St Agnes. Paul was an amateur painter who had a fine eye for detail. The cottage is surrounded by a stone wall; you can almost feel the texture of the stone from his painting. The wall is overgrown with ivy and encased by large trees giving the cottage a secluded feel. Paul has painted the leaves of the trees in such fine detail, and in many and varying colours, that it has really come alive. It is one of my favourite paintings.
John and I had helped Paul move home and, as a ‘thank you’, he suggested that I choose one of his paintings as a gift. I fell in love with this painting; Paul had a great eye for framing which gives a real presence to the painting. Paul used to go to the Isles of Scilly for at least two weeks a year, if not more, for his holidays, staying in the same Guest House on St Agnes; this was so that he could continue to paint in his favourite place. He found the Scilly Isles inspirational; he found so many different things to paint. Looking at his paintings, and hearing how he spoke about the Scilly Isles, made me want to go there. So that is exactly what John and I did in 1984.
As a tourist, you cannot take a car to the Scilly Isles. The journey needed to be planned. We drove to Ealing to stay with my parents overnight. From Ealing Broadway we travelled to Paddington Station and from Paddington to Penzance. On arrival at Penzance we took the two and a half hour boat trip, on the Scillonian, to the Scilly Isles landing at Hugh Town, on St Mary’s. I have no idea if, 31 years later, the journey by boat is quicker but what I do remember is beautiful weather, blue skies, a calm sea and being on deck the whole time. Of course, in those days, there were no fancy suitcases on wheels, or even lightweight luggage; I remember lugging suitcases across London, up and down stairs and escalators, up and down the gangplank of the Scillonian and finally from the boat to the Atlantic Hotel. I remember the hotel because there were so few hotels; I expect there still are only a few. We stayed a week and it was a week of perfect weather when it was possible to be out all day long. Hugh Town, on St Mary’s, was a very small ‘town’ and the choice of what to eat during the day was very limited. Our staple diet at lunchtime was pork pie, crisps, an apple and some chocolate; not to be recommended for a healthy diet but delicious all the same. The Scilly Isles are made up of 5 inhabited islands; these can all be accessed from Hugh Town by boat.
My priority on the Scilly Isles was always to go to St Agnes and find the Post Office Cottage in my painting. St Agnes was not the most popular of the Scilly Isles to visit because it is one of the smallest islands which, at that time, had a population of less than 50. Birdwatching was a significant past time for visitors. It was great because the day that I went there were only four of us in the boat; we spent all day on the island and never saw another visitor. The peace and tranquillity was indescribable. St Agnes is only a tiny island, about one mile across. You can cover as much of the island as you want, in a day. The curving white sandbar between St Agnes and Gugh or the granite cairns on Wingletang Downs offer not only fantastic photo opportunities but also the chance to sit in solitude, listening to the sound of the waves or the birds singing. From St Agnes you can see Bishop Rock Lighthouse. When I was there, there was no hotel and I understand that is still the case; that, in itself, limits the numbers of visitors which enhances the unspoilt nature of St Agnes. St Agnes also doesn’t have a mains water supply so all the water is pumped from a scattering of wells and boreholes. Residents are meticulous about collecting rainwater.
St Agnes is a viable working community with flower farming from November to March each year, harvesting early narcissus in the frost-free climate while the rest of the year is taken up with bulb sales, fishing and crafts. Many farms cater for tourists.
I had wanted to see the St Agnes that Paul had painted; I was thrilled to find the cottage of my painting, to see it in real life and to see for my own eyes what a good artist he was. I was ‘gobsmacked’ to find that the Post Office and General Stores actually sold tea towels. This simple tea towel shows the Bishop Rock Lighthouse, the traditional stone walls of St Agnes, narcissi and puffins which sums up St Agnes. St Agnes lived up to my expectations, if not actually exceeding them. The blue skies, lapping sea water, small boats, sea thrift and tranquillity are all things I can clearly remember after all these years. Using the tea towel, I can remember that feeling of wanting to return to the Scilly Isles because I knew there was that much more to see. And I did that the following year.
Click below to return to the Virtual Tea Towel Museum