If there’s anything more beautiful than a cave carved from a cliff by the sea, I’m not sure I’ve seen it. There’s just something breathtaking about that visual reminder of the power of the waves, isn’t there? Words like erosion and corrosion just don’t capture the majesty and beauty of it.
When my family visited Cornwall in 2016, we saw many places along the coast at Land’s End with gorgeous columns of rock and crevasses cut by the water and time.
And the same sort of beautiful sea-made wonders can be found dotting the coasts of the Isles of Scilly—the largest and most famous of which is Piper’s Hole.
About Piper’s Hole
The sea cave is actually subterranean. The entrance is a rocky opening at the beach at the base of a cliff, and for the first bit of it visitors actually have to crawl over the huge boulders guarding the entrance. Back in the days when the historical guidebook Guide to the Isles of Scilly was written (1880s), lanterns or torches would have been the order of the day in order to see. By the time The Nature of a Lady takes place in 1906, electric torches (aka flashlights to those of us not from the UK) would have been a far more convenient way to light our path.
Once one has scrambled over the rocks, there’s a ledge you can drop over, beyond which is the true attraction: a pool. In days gone by, a small boat was actually kept there so that visitors could paddle around the small lake and explore, perhaps pull up at the sandy beach on the opposite side. Locals would sometimes place candles throughout the cave for tourists as well, which is said to have turned it into a romantic grotto.
The entrance to Piper’s Hole looks similar to the coastal rocks at Land’s End, seen here.
How Piper’s Hole Got Its Name and Other Legends
Where, you may ask, did this sea cave get its name? There are various theories. One more modern one says it’s named after clay smokers’ pipes (because there are seams of clay in the cave), but the more appealing theory is that back in the misty past, it was believed to be a fairy cave and it was said that one could hear the fairy’s playing their pipes from its depths.
I personally find that theory much more in line with many other whimsical names abounding in the islands.
Visitors to the isles may also notice there is a second Piper’s Hole. This one—smaller and not as impressive—is located on St. Mary’s island. Why, you may ask, does it bear the same name as the other cave on Tresco? Well, legend has it that the two are connected by an underground passageway. Men, it’s been said, have vanished into these caves never to be seen again…but there’s an old story about a dog going into the cave on one island and, a week later, emerging from the cave on the other, nearly starved and missing much of its fur from the tight passages it had to squeeze through.
Truth or tall tale? We’ll never know. But it’s a story that has persisted for hundreds of years, even appearing in the works of historian Samuel Drew, who is known for sharing only the facts—he presents this tale as being unbelievable, but he still includes it, which is unlike him. What made him write about this tale, even to scoff at it, as opposed to others he simply refused to include in his work? Perhaps there’s something about the idea of labyrinthian passages under the waters that struck a chord of truth in his mind. (You can find Drew’s book, The History of Cornwall, in Google Books. The story in question is on page 265.)
The History of Piper’s Hole ~
Yesterday and Today
In the 1600s, Piper’s Hole was actually a mine. There’s a vein of tin in there that was discovered and exploited. But that’s not actually where the cave’s history begins. It was already a cave at that point in time, not one created for the sole purpose of mining or anything. Historians agree that the cave has been around far longer than the seventeenth century…but what purpose it may served in the days of the Druids is still a mystery.
By the nineteenth century, tourism had become a major draw of the islands, and Piper’s Hole was one of the primary attractions. To that end, it was outfitted with the boat and lights mentioned above.
Today, the sea cave is a “visit at your own risk” location. If you want to tour it by boat you’d have to make special arrangements with a local to provide a dingy, and one scientist who toured it recently in search of evidence of the mine that once existed there, declared the water cold and appealing and littered with evidence of people—bits of wood and Styrofoam floating on the surface. Visitors are encouraged to check the tide charts and go only at low tide, and make sure someone knows where you are and what you’re doing so help can be sent if you don’t reappear in good time. After all, no one wants any modern tourists going the way of those dogs from the legends. 😉