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

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.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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A Pocket Guide to the Isles of Scilly