It should come as no surprise that I’m excited about The Nature of a Lady, the first book in the Secrets of the Isles series. But I have to say, one of the things I love most about this series is the setting: the Isles of Scilly (pronounced “Silly”). And so, I absolutely MUST take some time to introduce it to you. Which requires some visualization, for sure! So settle in, and get ready for a little visual tour of one of England’s most remarkable island chains.
The entire series is set in the isles, during the summer and autumn of 1906. The series begins with my first heroine, Lady Elizabeth “Libby” Sinclair, striking off from Land’s End, near Penzance, in Cornwall.
Land’s End, Cornwall
My family and I had the privilege of visiting Cornwall in 2016; we stayed in Penzance, and hiked across Land’s End, which was one of the most stunning vistas we’ve ever seen.
From there one would board a ferry and prepare for a two-hour trip across the 28 miles between the English mainland and its southernmost islands, the Isles of Scilly. These beautiful islands have a bit of a tropical look about them…and they’re in fact in a whole different climate zone from the rest of Europe! Spring arrives in the Scillies two months before it reaches anywhere else, which means that the flower industry has become one of their major sources of income.
The ferry (the last several have been called the Scillonian, though it would have been dubbed something different in 1906) takes its passengers to the main quay in Hugh Town, on the largest island in the chain, St. Mary’s.
St. Mary’s Island
This is the island on which my heroine, Libby has rented a holiday cottage for the summer. And there’s much to see on St. Mary’s!
From the quay, Libby and her maid, Mabena (a native of the Scillies), take a stroll through Hugh town. The islands are made of granite, and most of the construction is of stone. Back in the day, these cottages would have had thatched roofs, and many gardens still have upright granite slabs with holes in them that would have had a rope tied through it, and stretching to the roof. These “thatch anchors” bear a resemblence to some Druid-era standing stones but, alas, had a simply practical use.
Libby and Mabena rented a cottage along the Garrison wall. From their holiday home, they’d have been able to follow a path through the sea grass directly down to the shore. Libby is an avid nature-lover and spends many a morning on the beach, studying the birds, the flora, and pretty much anything else she can find.
But over the course of the book, Libby and Mabena explore most of St. Mary’s and many of the other islands in the chain too. No matter where you go on the isles, you’re met with stunning views.
And Libby was extremely fascinated by the unique plantlife to be found in the islands, to be sure. In the image above, on the right side, you’ll note what looks like a palm tree. These are commonly known as Cornish Palms and can be found all throughout the Cornish coast. They aren’t a true palm but are actually a cabbage tree. Still, they add to the tropical flair of the islands and Cornwall in general.
Throughout all the isles, there can be found flora that exists nowhere else in England. Because of its warmer climate, the Scillies can support varieties of plants that can’t live elsewhere, and so specimens from all over the world were transported to the Abbey Gardens on Tresco, where they thrive. Over the centuries, the seeds from these imported plants have been carried by the wind and birds to other islands in the chain. In addition to these “wild” transplants, the islands have many cultivated flower fields, where European favorites are grown and harvested and shipped to the mainland.
But interesting plants aren’t the only things littering the isles. The Scillies have been inhabited for thousands of years, long before there was an England to claim them. All over the islands you can find Druid burial chambers, liths, and cairn fields, with new examples being discovered into the 20th century.
Of course, no one in the Scillies stays on just one island. Visitors today will find that there are boat captains aplenty happy to take holiday-goers island hopping for a modest fee, and it was no different in the Edwardian era. In The Nature of a Lady, the other island Libby goes to the most is Tresco.
Tresco is the second largest island in the chain and where one can find the only manor house in the islands, Tresco Abbey. This is the home of the Lord Proprietor–the person put in charge of running the isles by the legal owner of the island, the Duke of Cornwall (aka the Prince of Wales). No one in the islands actually owns any property–it all belongs to the duke. But there are very longterm and “permanent” leases in such cases, which can be passed along in a family. My hero’s fictional family, the Tremaynes, had a permanent lease on a house I completely fictionalized; bigger than its neighbors, but smaller than the Abbey. They also own a modest estate on the Cornish mainland, making the Tremaynes landed gentry. Their hearts are in the Scillies, though, so that’s where they live.
Adjacent to the Abbey, you’ll find one of the main tourist draws of the islands–the famous Abbey Gardens. These will have a post all their own coming next week, but for now a really quick overview. The Gardens are filled with plants from all over the British Empire, many of which won’t grow in the climate of the English mainland. Libby, being a naturalist, was very eager to visit the Gardens. I imagine her spending many an hour on a bench like the one below, studying and sketching the plants…when she hasn’t forgotten herself and sprawled on the ground for a closer look.
In my story, I came up with a fictional gardener, Mr. Menna; and my hero Oliver has always been an avid student of botany and is an unofficial apprentice.
A longstanding tradition in the isles is gig racing–gigs are 5- or 7-man rowed boats, and every Wednesday morning, local teams pit themselves against each other to see who can race between islands the fastest. It seems that these races actually began when locals raced to return sailors to their ships, which were anchored in open waters. It’s a fun way the community comes together every week, and I couldn’t pass up including it in my story, even though from what I could find, the Wednesday races hadn’t begun quite yet. We actually meet Oliver Tremayne during an early morning gig race, where we see him pitted against his longtime rival, Casek Wearne, as their teams slice through the water.
In my version of the gig races, there are two steady teams who participate, with the islanders placing just-for-fun wagers on who will win each week–losers get to buy the drinks in the pub that night, or perhaps fetch some treats from a bakery.
After the races, you can well imagine all the islanders laughing their way back to their homes. The main settlement on Tresco is called Grimsby. There are both Old and New parts of the town.
But even Old Grimsby has nothing in age on some of the ruins to be found scattered throughout the islands! The Scillies have countless examples of old churches, priories, monks’ hermitages, and cottages that are now tumbling reminders of the ages gone by.
Included in the ruins are two castles, which feature a bit in The Nature of a Lady too! Cromwell’s Castle reigns over the coastline on the northern tip of Tresco, and you can see in this photo how close it is to Bryher, another of the inhabited islands.
I hope you enjoyed this little visual tour through the two largest islands in the Scillies, which feature most prominently in my book! Next week I’ll take you on an exploration of the Abbey Gardens, and after that, get ready for a pirate tale, because I’m going to introduce you to one of the isles’ most notorious past residents: John Mucknell, vice admiral of a pirate fleet.
(All images of the Isles of Scilly are licensed from Shutterstock)