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Steven Rittey travels to the southernmost location in England – on his bike, of course.
After working at RideLondon 2016 and with a holiday down in Cornwall with Jilly, her Mum (Pauline) and her brother (Chris) planned for the following week, an opportunity arose to finally go on the night train to Penzance from London Paddington and cycle around a completely new place - St Mary's on the Scilly Islands!
Pauline joined me on the GWR 'Night Riviera' train from London Paddington along with her new 'Swifty Scooter'. We decided to stay in the standard seated section rather than one of the sleeping cars. It was fairly comfortable and for only £35 represented great value and meant that I could connect to the Scilly Islands ferry with a simple Monday morning change of train in Plymouth.
I am never normally nervous about travelling, however after reading some online reviews of the ferry crossing between Penzance and the Scilly Islands, I was quite worried. The weather forecast had changed from being a nice day to windy, rainy and fairly stormy. Not ideal conditions for a ferry that has been given the nickname 'the stomach pump'.
The 1977 built ferry itself looks old fashioned in comparison to the modern car ferries on other routes such as Dover to Calais that I have been on, yet is modern inside and has amble facilities for the 2h 45m crossing.
The Scillonian III is also unique in that its flat bottomed hull means it can sail in all tidal conditions and acts as a lifeline for the Scilly Islands. The merging of the Atlantic Ocean, English Channel and a prevailing south westerly wind hits the ship from all sides and can make for a rough crossing. Today was no exception...
After handing in a token to board that resembles a gambling chip (subliminal message about sea conditions?), the moment the Scillonian III departed Penzance Harbour to complete the 42 mile journey to St Mary's, the rain started to fall, the wind picked up and the ship started to roll. However, the speed of the vessel was impressive and you could hear the roar of the engines as we ploughed our way out to sea.
I sat out on the top deck until the rain became unbearable and headed to the bottom deck. This area is at the waterline and is the most stable part of the boat. The rocking at this level was pleasurable, despite some people changing colour upstairs!
I had pre-planned my bike rental with a very helpful local company Book a Bike On Scilly and they had told me to collect the excellent Ghost mountain bike close to the ferry terminal. It is probably the only time I have ever picked up a hire bike unlocked! It is somewhat surprising then that one of the Scilly Islands' most famous exports recently has been a memoir about the life of a local Policeman!
Sadly, the weather on the day meant that my dream of seeing Caribbean white sands and exploring the 'Seychelles of Britain' whilst riding along tranquil, quiet roads was washed out by torrential rain and at times, it felt that the whole Atlantic Ocean was raining down over the archipelago.
I completed a 9 mile lap of the island and visited the Old Town, Hugh Town, the Garrison, the tiny football ground to mark a unique 'groundhop', the informative Isle of Scilly Museum and the small airport. However, I was so wet and cold that the fun factor was certainly missing from the day.
I did stop off at some of the amazing beaches and had an impression of what might have been. The beaches are really lovely and I would have loved to have just parked the bike up, ate a pasty and chilled out in the sun in this unique place!
I was only on St Mary's for a short day trip and had a few hours ashore to ride around the island. It is fairly easy to go to the surrounding islands using the local boats if you have longer. The queue for boat embarkation was quite long as the ship holds nearly 500 people, but despite the rain there were only a few glum faces. Most of us were happy to have just visited the islands and ticked off a place in the U.K that is well off the map.
We left St Mary's at 1615 as I watched a van being crane loaded into the depths of the ship along with other exports including fish and flowers. The poor weather meant that all flights to the island were also cancelled, so the boat was very busy. I managed to reclaim the solo seat on the bottom deck, but spent most of the journey on the outside deck. I even felt the weird sensation of sailing through the warm jetstream where a pocket of warm air blew across the boat for several miles.
The crossing on the return was overall fairly choppy and the boat lurched up and down from all angles. At points, the Scillonian was nearly sailing sideways!
After heading back down to the bottom deck to close my eyes and roll with the motion of the ship for the remainder of the journey, the Scillonian III reached Penzance around 1900 in cold drizzle and a town that had shut up shop for the day. I must admit that I was glad to reach land again after 24 hours on the move.
My clothes were still soaked from the cycling and for the first day of August, this was very disappointing and such a shame. However I did not feel down as I had visited somewhere new and from what I had seen through the drizzle, the islands would look fantastic on a sunny day.
I then caught the bus to nearby Hayle from Penzance to begin the next part of my Cornwall tour with Jilly, her family and Pauline's extended family of four whippets!