Close your eyes, and take a trip with me to a small group of five islands and 75 rocks in the northern Atlantic Ocean. At the age of 15, I closed my eyes, and took my first trip to these islands, having seen a picture of them in art class at school. What looked like a tropical paradise was in fact the Scilly Isles. Yes, the islands with a funny name, and big palm trees growing outside.
Two years later, and I’m in Penzance, the gateway to the islands, and getting on the Scillonian which will ferry me the three-hour journey to Hugh Town, on the main island of St Mary’s.
It’s a beautiful early April day, and everything’s sparkling. The town itself is like any other Cornish town, with slate roofs on all the houses, and small cobblestone lanes.
I have four hours to explore the island of Tresco, and jump on a small boat.
As I reached Tresco, my imagination took over again and I started to hear a voice.
‘Welcome to Fantasy Island’, but there’s no dwarf in sight, just large rocks and lots of pretty flowers, like the ones you see on the Californian coastline.
Off we all get, and up the path to this hidden paradise. It still doesn’t seem real, until we near the entrance and the plants start to do their thing.
‘We’ve been expecting you, Mr Bond…’
But where’s Dr No, and Ursula.
Twenty-two years later, and I have fulfilled my ambition to return and see this amazing garden again.
What did Augustus Smith, or should I say Dr Smith, look like? The man who, with the help of Scillonian master mariners, brought together an extraordinary collection of plants, and created a magical garden out of an old 12th-century abbey. Mediterranean and South American species are extensively represented, as well as those from California, New Zealand and the Canary Islands.
Altogether, there are over 4000 thousand different specimens, including cacti, an abundance of palms, Bamboo, New Zealand ‘Flame-Trees’, Echium, Agapanthus, Aeonium and King Proteas.
The figureheads from ancient wrecks, in the Valhalla museum, add depth to the experience, and remind us of the dramatic seafaring past.
For years, I’ve waxed lyrical about these gardens that lie on the same latitude as Newfoundland. Would I still have that same feeling?
The gardens, with all their botanical splendour, the village and all the terraced houses with giant cacti in their gardens were still there, much as I’d remembered.
The entrance had moved, and seemed more commercial, with a new coffee shop, and on the way back to the boat, there were more cottages for rent. With the new developments, some of the mystique was gone. But once inside the gardens I was a school boy again, in my fantasy world. – Alan McArthur
Images: Alan McArthur, Cambridge Images