The tiny island of Bryher is just a ten minute hop from Tresco by boat, but to me it felt like a whole new world. In part, that impression might have been brought on by the change in weather the morning I arrived. Beneath moody grey skies, Bryher’s rocky coastline and coarse, heather-strewn moorlands seemed extra dramatic. I felt like a character in a Daphne du Maurier novel, and the fabulously named Hell Bay Hotel only served to feed my smuggler themed fantasies.
Fortunately, this charming boutique hotel (the only one on the island), is nothing like the dark smuggler’s haunt it’s name evokes. In fact, it’s absolutely gorgeous; a neat little complex of charming white wooden cottages trimmed in pastel blues. Perched on the edge of a small lake, Hell Bay Hotel is surrounded by silence. Green hills, a small woodland, neatly hedge-rowed farms, and silence. There’s nothing hellish about the sheltered bay nearby, with it’s white sand and shingle beach, or about the winding footpaths that trail through fields of long grasses and wildflowers. Around the hotel, bright pink foxgloves and vivid red hot pokers nod in the breeze, and the reigning atmosphere is one of sumptuous peace and quiet. This was the perfect place to unwind, switch off, and escape.
Exploring Bryher: Seascapes and Seafood
After my four days on Tresco, I was already under the spell of island life. Bryher was the perfect continuation: if possible, even more remote and quiet than it’s larger neighbour. Whilst the hotel, with it’s heated pool and aura of total relaxation, was enticing, I couldn’t wait to go out and explore. Braving the grim skies, I headed out around the island, following winding foot-trails along the rocky coastline. In fact, I barely stopped walking the whole time I was on Bryher. For such a small island, there’s an awful lot to see. Isolated rocky coves; shingle beaches and white sandy bays – which I almost always had to myself – wind-swept cliffs; heaths smothered in pale purple heather… there was always one more thing to keep walking towards. By the end of my first day, I’d hiked most of the northern top of the island, where I could look across the narrow passage to Cromwell’s Castle on Tresco, and covered most of the ground around Hell Bay as well.
Luckily, there was plenty of incredible food to fuel all that walking. The produce on the Scilly Isles is so incredible, especially the seafood, that it seems impossible to find a bad meal there. From the simple steak pasty I picked up at Bryher Shop, to the heavenly three course dinner I had in the Hell Bay Hotel Restaurant, everything was delicious and made with a focus on seasonal local and regional ingredients. The latter was laid back but formal, with a menu that changes daily and celebrates the very best of Scillonian produce. The former I ate in the grass at the top of Samson Hill, surrounded by stunning views of the rocky archipelago. Both meals were special in different, but the food at Hell Bay really was something to write home about!
Bryher’s real food highlight is something of a local legend, one which has proven impressively popular for something so simple. Hell Bay Hotel’s Crab Shack, a rustic little restaurant housed in a converted cattle shed just across the orchard, is often booked at the same time that people book the hotel. It opens just three nights a week, and only during the crab season, and by all accounts it’s always heaving. On the night I visited, the little white-washed room was packed out with noisy groups crowded around the wooden tables. More of a dining experience than a meal out, the beauty of the Crab Shack is it’s busy, informal atmosphere. You crowd around, you share your food, and you use your fingers.
The menu was wonderfully simple, scrawled on a blackboard above the tiny room. For starters, sharing platters of either scallops or mussels, for main the only choice is what size crab you want. Sides of bread, chips, or salad, and a choice between three flavoured butters (I recommend the lime, chilli and ginger), plus a short but decent drinks menu, and that was it. The crab is the star of the show, here, so why bother offering anything else?
Star it was. Caught that day by local fishing family the Penders, who run Island Fish Ltd, this crab was by far the freshest – and best – I’ve ever tasted. In fact, I’ve never eaten crab from the shell before, so this was a bit of an adventure for me. Clad in a Crab Shack apron and armed with a shell cracker (after a brief lesson in how to use it), I followed the lead of every other diner in the place and got stuck in. It was messy, it was noisy, and it was far from formal – but it was easily one of the best meals I’ve had this year so far. Just the perfect dining experience, and the ideal way to get to know Bryher.
Getting Lost: Highlights of the Island
Bryher is so close to Tresco that you can walk between the two islands during the low tides of Spring, but each island has it’s own distinct personality. Privately owned Tresco was serenely and luxuriously relaxed, while Bryher felt more adventurous and rugged. The pace of life seemed even more laid back here, and while Hell Bay Hotel itself was certainly as luxurious as the accommodation on Tresco, island life on Bryher seemed just that little bit more informal.
Slightly ridiculously, if you consider it’s size, I was lost at least three times on Bryher. There are just a few roads, but dozens of winding walking trails, and apparently my sense of direction is not as strong as I thought. Setting out to find a fudge stall recommended by the Hell Bay staff, the fifteen minute round trip took me two attempts and almost two hours.I hardly minded. On an island that looked like the setting for an Enid Blyton book, everything took on a tinge of adventure – even getting lost trying to find some fudge. Ambling down lanes between scruffy hedgerows or colourful wildflowers – many of them exotic species blown over from the Abbey Gardens on Tresco – and along grassy coastal trails, I was very happily lost much of the time I was on Bryher.
Half by accident, I managed to find the small bay near Droppy Nose Point, a patch frequented by local seals. Spotting a darkish blob out to sea, I scrambled my way over some small cliffs and slippery wet rocks until I was level with it. “It” was either a rock or a seal, until it snorted, barked, and swam away – ending the ambiguity and utterly making my day. Too bad I didn’t have a zoom lens with me, so there’s no proof. You’ll just have to believe me.
Over the course of two days, I must have covered the entire island at least twice over. I passed picturesque fishing boats, picnicked in meadows full of bright yellow buttercups, and chuckled at the Hell Bay chickens in their adorable miniature blue cottages. I bought fudge from a roadside honesty stall, and marvelled at the idea that there are still places in the world that these work. As ever, I ate my way through the best local food, and added the Scilly Isles to my ever growing list of favourite places to eat. I was chased off a beach when I bumblingly wandered into the realm of some nesting gulls, and befriended a local cat who joined me for a walk on the sand. But mostly, I simply wandered through the beautiful and often dramatic landscapes of this lovely island, the perfect setting for numerous smuggler related daydreams. It was a truly lovely couple of days; exciting in a sweet, small-scale way, absolutely beautiful, and utterly relaxing.
On my last night, I sat on the Sunset Deck to watch what turned out to be a particularly special sunset. A beautiful idea, Hell Bay Hotel’s sunset deck was built just above the Great Pool, and kitted out with wooden garden furniture and a chest of blankets. This was the final, and biggest, highlight of my time on Bryher. I snuggled down beneath a thick throw and watched the sun disappear into the sea just beyond the lake, truly in love with island life, and very reluctant to leave.
How to Get to Bryher in the Scilly Isles
Getting to Bryher: You can reach St Mary’s with Isles of Scilly Travel, either by flying with Skybus or on the Scillonian III Passenger Ferry. From St Mary’s transfer can be arranged by Tresco Boats and includes airport pickup.
Flying: Skybus operate multiple flights a day to St Mary’s from a choice of three airports – Land’s End (15 mins), Newquay (30 mins) and Exeter (60 mins). Skybus travels year round from Newquay and Land’s End and between March and October from Exeter Airport. Prices start from £140 return from Land’s End.
Ferry: The Scillonian III sails from Penzance Harbour from spring through to late autumn up to 7 days a week. Prices start from £90 return.
Where to Stay: Hell Bay Hotel is Bryher’s only hotel, and I would highly recommend it. Alternatively, there is a campsite, as well as several guest houses and self catering cottages.
I was a guest of Hell Bay Hotel during my stay on Bryher. As always, all words and opinions are my own.