Saving the Isles of Scilly: Rising Seas, Succulents and Braving the Storm

The future of the Isles of Scilly hangs in a delicate balance; it’s reliant on tourists flown in by helicopter and yet under threat from rising temperatures and sea levels. We chat to some of the artists drawn by the island’s volatile weather and vibrant flora.

The first thing that we notice is the flowers. A kaleidoscope of colour: the Isles of Scilly are like one giant window box brimming with giant echium, succulents and pink clover.

Flowers have been of undeniable significance in the history of the Scillies. Before tourism took off here, the exportation of flowers (primarily scented narcissi) was the main industry on the islands. As flower fields all over the British Isles were reappropriated to grow crops during the Second World War, Winston Churchill granted Scillonians a special permit to carry on growing and exporting their blooms. They would, Churchill said, bring some much-needed joy to the mainlanders.

Perhaps it is psychological, knowing what we do of Scilly's history, but as we disembark the boat from Penzance, we feel full of joy. The air is sweet and perfumed.

Bryher, Isles of Scilly | Photo by Anna Richards

The Scillies attract artists from all over the world, people drawn by the tropical flora, sparkling white sand and iridescent sea that shimmers in green and blue like an enormous, translucent dragonfly. As we traipse around the sandy streets of the little isles, we pass dozens of ramshackle artist's studios. The doors are wide open and unlocked bicycles are propped outside. Inside, seascapes on canvas lean on walls and windows, mirroring the backdrop of the cerulean sea through the glass.

One little studio on Bryher particularly captivates us. We marvel at how trusting the owner must be, but where would a thief run to anyway? Tiny Bryher is little more than 2km in length. Maybe this is why the Scillies' only police station, tucked away up a sidestreet in the island capital, Hugh Town, is more or less the same size as a zone-two rental bedroom. This too is covered in flowers and there is an air of serenity in imagining the officers, with no arrests to be made, taking the time to tend to the unruly agapanthus bursting rebelliously from the station walls.

This year has been particularly tough for Scillonians. Global and domestic travel restrictions have meant that tourism, the islands' primary source of income, has been severely depleted. It is the August bank holiday when we visit, but the streets are quiet. Big events such as the World Pilot Gig Championships that would have brought in high-spending tourists by the hundreds were all cancelled this year. The islanders are resourceful and supplement their income in whatever way they can. Almost every home that we pass has a little stall set up at the end of the drive. Organic vegetables, homemade fudge, second-hand books.

Artist studio on Bryher, Isles of Scilly | Photo by Anna Richards

At our campsite, we meet artist Chris Hankey and his son. They are almost identical: matching ponytails, bicycles heavily laden with panniers and a tent apiece. Chris comes to Scilly every year to paint the storms. This year, owing to lockdown, he's been on the islands since February.

"The storms are unpredictable and ferocious," Chris tells me. "The weather changes so quickly here, it's fascinating and shapes everything. Storms have become more common in recent years. August seems particularly bad; we receive the tail end of several hurricanes."

Even though we know that the victims of centuries of fierce storms, some 500 odd shipwrecks, litter the coast around Scilly, it is hard to imagine. When we visit, the sea is as flat and reflective as varnish. A family is standing on the sandbank between St Martin's and Tresco, marooned on the most idyllic-looking desert island.

It is a curious dichotomy that the Scillies are so impacted by climate change and simultaneously so reliant on the carbon-belching little planes and helicopters that bring much-needed tourists and supplies from the mainland. Tresco, the garden island, would be unable to function without tourists, the vast majority of whom arrive by air. The entire island is privately owned. Most of its properties are holiday lets, hotels or timeshares. It is an exquisite, albeit exclusive, holiday resort.

Chris's creative camp | Photo by Anna Richards

Artist John Dyer has been coming to Tresco since 2001. "It's my favourite place in the world to paint," he tells me enthusiastically. "It reminds me of Brazil, of the Amazon rainforest. It is Cornwall with the saturation turned up, everything is 10 times brighter."

John is the founder of Last Chance to Paint, an initiative that teaches school children about the effects of climate change on nature through art. The potential risks of climate change on the Scillies haven't escaped him.

"The Scillies are so unique," he says. "We are so close to Cornwall, but the flora that you get here, particularly on Tresco, is very different. If the world keeps heating up, the Scillies will lose what makes them unique. These flowers won't just grow here. They'll grow in mainland Cornwall too, in Devon, maybe even in Essex."

We are so close to Cornwall, but the flora that you get here, particularly on Tresco, is very different. If the world keeps heating up, the Scillies will lose what makes them unique.

John Dyer, artist

John painting | Photo credit John Dyer Gallery

On Tresco, the plants escape the garden, breaking free of the protective gorse barriers designed to shelter the anemone-shaped succulents. Flowers are everywhere: on the rooftops, the chimney pots, even the sand dunes where seeds have been washed up from the Gulf Stream.

"They need tourism," says John. "I hope that the Scillies see an influx of tourists in future years. They need the money to keep all of this going. Without tourism, they'll collapse - Tresco in particular."

When we return home, we plant our own anemone-shaped succulent in the garden. Away from the warm winds of the Gulf Stream, it blooms and flourishes, as resilient as the Scillonians themselves.

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