I had long been impressed by the bleak savagery of the Scilly rocks, the dangerous and desolate aspect that they offer to those who view them from the decks of the passing liners; the low black reefs, and the rounded, wicked heads of rock, some greened over with slippery growths, some bare, that seem to emerge and sink as the water goes over them; and so, when it came to me that there was another side to it all; that those rocks, so bare and black and ominous, so apparently uninhabited and uninhabitable, really sheltered a district glowing with a lush and tropical growth and lived in by a unique community, it seemed as if it must be particularly worth visiting. And it was.
I went there from Plymouth, leaving my steamer there and taking a train for Penzance, the sailingpoint for the Scillys.
Plymouth itself no longer has anything of the past to show the visitor. It is a clean, comfortable, pleasing little city, neat and new-far newer than the Plymouth of America!-but in connection with its harbor there are two impressions that will be forever memorable. For it was from Plymouth that the Pilgrims sailed to a future, for themselves and their descendants, beyond their wildest imaginings, and it was in Plymouth harbor that the great Napoleon, a captive on an English ship, ‘had his first and last view of the country that he had so recently dreamed of conquering, but which was, instead, sending him from his empire of Europe to exile and nothingness.
From Plymouth to Penzance is a charming ride of eighty miles; and the English trains, of whose swiftness such wonderful tales are told, cover the distance in the dignified dilatoriness of froan three to four hours. But you have no desire for haste; you are in England to see England, and this is one of its most picturesque regions; for the gardens and fields and trees, the hedges and winding roads, the gently rolling land, the houses of weathered stone, all glimpsed successionally, are a delight to the eye. From London the ride to Penzance is a little longer; take a night express, and you will leave London at nine and reach Penzance for breakfast, but it is more pleasurable to take a day train and reach Penzance in time for dinner. In fact, the wise traveler in Europe to whom time and. money are important, seldom travels at night except “between England and the Continent, for so much that is of interest and importance, in any of the countries, may be seen from the car windows.
Penzance itself is a pleasant town, but when that has been said all has been said. In spite of operatic fame there are not even pirates there!-no, not even, so far as my experience goes, among hotel folk or shopkeepers. It is itself ten miles from Land’s End, but there is no town nearer than it to that point of jagged rocks, and so, being the farthest of towns and harbors, it is the point of departure for the Scillys, and little steamers ply from the town to the islands several times a week; in summer for the English boarder and casual tripper, and in winter for the chief industry of the islands. Thirty miles out beyond the supposititious ultima thule, Land’s End, and completely out of sight from where its sentinel rocks watch over the sea, the bleak-black islands lie; and there are somewhere from two score to two hundred of them, the computation being dependent upon whether a good many of the islands are classed as rocks or a good many of the rocks as islands. It takes some four hours or more to reach the Scillys from Penzance, and as they are right out in the ocean, with nothing between them and North America, the winds come sweeping with such force as often to rouse tremendous seas. I thought the passage over was rough, with the little steamer standing first.on one end and then upon the other, but it remained for the return ti rip, some days later, to show what the sea thereabouts could really do.
But one ceases to notice the roughness when, out of the sea, there begin to rise rock after rock, and one low promontory after another; and finally the little boat is steered precariously between jagged reefs, and through a narrow passage, and. into an interior island-locked bay, and up to the pier of the capital of the archipelago, on one of the five islands that are inhabited.
The islanders will tell you how, one morning scarce a dozen years ago, they awoke to find that in the night a fleet of British warships, without the aid of a local pilot and following only the leadership and signals of the flagship, had quietly entered through the narrow, reefed and rocky channel and lay at anchor there; and they say with awe (for, descendants of generations of sailors, they are themselves always ready to honor good sailing) that the captain of every British warship must be: able to enter, unassisted, any harbor in the world.
And if you should say that it was not always so, even in the good old days of wooden wall,,:, for the greatest of all disasters in English naval history happened on the Scillys because an admiral lost his bearings and ran his ships upon the rocks, they will hesitate for a moment, impressed, and then will reply that it is not precisely a case in poin t, for the admiral was not steering to enter the haven, but was trying to avoid the Scillys altogether.
St. Mary’s is the principal island and Hugh Town is the capital; a little, low-set town, looking out quietly over the land-locked water. There I landed, and I put up at one of the two little inns, and was fairly within the strangest corner of England.