Some of the finest walking you'll discover in Britain
Sometimes in this job I almost feel that an apology is in order – I am an extremely lucky chap who gets to go to some very lovely places and occasionally feels guilty about it. But not for long. In fact, right now, perhaps as you read these words, I will be tramping around the island where these photographs were taken.
The Isles of Scilly offer some of the finest walking to be found anywhere in Britain – and today marks the beginning of the archipelago's annual walks festival.
It's been running for seven years now and I've been lucky enough to attend all but one. If you're an old Scillonian hand, or if you've never been out there and dreamed of going to walk in the islands, now's the time. The archipelago is not crazily busy at this time of year and the hiking is truly fantastic. Not only are the islands sublimely beautiful, but they have for most part been left untouched by the ravages caused by the internal combustion engine.
Which is presumably why the walks festival has proved such a resounding success. I've known more than 700 people to take part in the event in a single week – indeed I've led walks which have been attended by more than 75 people (slightly scary from a responsibility point of view).
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Between now and Friday evening there will be 24 guided walks, ranging from short strolls around the capital Hugh Town and its fascinating military defences, to more demanding six-hour hikes taking in entire islands.
Each of the five inhabited isles is circumnavigated to some extent by its own coast path, and there are countless lanes and footpaths weaving in between. In late winter and spring these sheltered byways are bedecked by swathes of wild flowers.
But no matter where you are in the islands, you are rarely far from the crash of the big green waves that constantly beat upon the rocky coasts and the white sandy shores. And, always, you can breathe what must be the cleanest, most unpolluted air in Europe.
During one of the festivals I found myself on the fabulously beautiful isle of St Agnes – a place that somehow seems to say: "Right, you've done the difficult bit and managed to get here – now you'd better see all I have to offer."
Arrival at St Agnes means disembarking at the refurbished quay at Porth Conger. The island has something that passes for a main road. It is a tiny track just big enough to cater for the smaller kind of tractor (which is just about the only sort of traffic you are likely to see) and it climbs away from the quay, passing the Turk's Head pub as it goes. I have many happy memories of this establishment, but tend to march right on by, saving that well-deserved pint for the end of the hike.
At the shoulder of the hill the main-drag heads inland to run across the island's central ridge before coming to a halt at Troy Town Farm in the west.
My advice is to leave this central track just above the Turk's Head and follow the tiny coast path down towards the sandbar that connects St Agnes with its sister island Gugh (pronounced to sound like the name Hugh).
If time allows and you are feeling fit, cross the sandbar and take a turn around Gugh – you will be treated to wonderful views of the main island of St Mary's and there are all sorts of ancient remains. Kittern Hill rising in the north boasts traces of prehistoric dwellings and tombs as well as remains of ancient field walls.
Towards the centre of Gugh you will also find Obadiah's Barrow (in which a skeleton and a dozen prehistoric urns were found in 1900) and the magnificent 9ft Old Man of Gugh standing stone. But do keep an eye on the tide – you would, quite frankly, need to be a bit of an idiot to get cut off – but it has, locals tell me, happened before.
At high tide the bar disappears and Porth Conger and the big bay, known as The Cove, turn into the sweeping channel that separates Gugh at St Agnes. It is down the St Agnes shore of this channel that the island's little coast path ducks and weaves to take you all the way to Beady Pool under Wingletang Down.
A 17th-century merchant ship went down somewhere off the cove and part of its cargo contained countless brown and black and white beads, which can occasionally still be found upon the shore. I have spent several hours looking for these baubles over the years but have yet to find a single one – part of the problem being that the natural granite grit looks strangely bead-like. However, John Peacock has shown me the ones he has picked up over many years. I've heard that these beads were on their way to Africa where they'd have been used to purchase slaves – which puts a rather strange and uncomfortable tingle in your spine as you wander off over magical Wingletang Down.
This corner of heaven has a southerly appendage in the form of a cape that stretches around from Beady Pool, past Grandfather Hugh's Point, and Horse Point and a rock called The Beast. It's well worth taking a turn around this, especially on a stormy day when you can be awed by the crashing of the waves. Last time I was there we had both waves and warmth – despite the cold wind we were able to find some sheltered rocks above Porth Askin where we sunbathed while enjoying a picnic lunch.
Now we walk north up the west coast of St Agnes. Just above Porth Askin there are some big wind-etched rocks that really do look like prehistoric beasts, then there's St Warna's Well, which is said to be the place where the patron saint of shipwrecks landed from Ireland in her wicker coracle. She couldn't have picked a better place – there are many dozens of wrecks within a mile or two of the spot.
Around St Warna's Cove and we found ourselves on the southerly slopes of Castella Down. Keep an eye out for the weirdest shaped rock of them all – the Nag's Head looms about 15 feet high just inland of the path and looks something like a cross between a horse and an angel. Just beyond this, threading our way between the big stacks called Camper Dizzle Rocks – we come to the island's famous Troy Town Maze. It would be nice to think this was put in place by the same people who erected The Old Man of Gugh – but the maze was actually arranged by a bored lighthouse keeper in 1729. However, historians believe he may have copied a much earlier maze that he found on the same site.
Now we wander up the coast past Carnew Point and the island campsite (keep an eye open for the splendid homemade chairs built of driftwood as you go) to reach the old lifeboat house in Piriglis Cove. This is where the islanders keep their boats in summer and where a young chap I know builds and/or repairs fabulous old wooden vessels reminiscent of the days when a lifeboat really did live here.
Now I recommend you leave the coast (the short northern section back past Porth Killer to the quay is not the most exciting) and walk up New Lane to what could otherwise be known as downtown St Agnes.
You'll find a café up near the Old Coastguard Houses, you'll see the grand old lighthouse, Britain's smallest school, the post office and stores and then there's another tearoom at Higher Town – or, at least, was when I was last there.
This will bring you back to the shoulder of the hill where you left the island's "main road" – so now it's simply a matter of strolling back to the landing quay past the conveniently placed pub. If you have time, treat yourself to a well-earned pint, happy in the knowledge that you've more or less circumnavigated the most south-westerly corner of the entire UK.
A Scillonian visitor survey showed that more than 95% of the people who visit say that walking is their favourite pastime during their stay.
And it's to cater for this massively popular pastime that festival organisers hold the annual walking event, putting together a fascinating and exciting line-up of routes and activities.
If the weather is good, the festival offers the most interesting, informative and altogether enjoyable welcome to these remarkable islands that you could hope for.