Friday, 20 March 2009

Lost Lands (Part Two - The Scillies and other rocks)

Today I want to carry on looking at the area between Lands End and the Scillies as well as the Scillies themselves but from a slightly more modern perspective.

It seems that the sea between the Scillies and Lands End only became navigable for large ships in Tudor times. Half way across the sea between Lands End and the Scillies are some rocks called Lethowsow or Seven Stones and they form a reef just below the surface. The area between these rocks is known as Tregva which means dwelling and is the mythical site of the City of Lions.

This reef was the one upon which the Torrey Canyon ran aground causing a huge pollution incident in Cornwall in 1967. The ship was carrying crude oil and attempts were made to stop the pollution with bombs and fires. An account can be read here. This wreck occurred on the 18th March and it feels slightly eerie to think that by accident I am posting about this huge event so close to it's anniversary. This wreck was the first large oil disaster at sea.

Some rumours suggest that the wreck was bombed by less practiced pilots as being a bank holiday (must have been an early Easter) the best were on holiday. Many of the bombs were released late and divers still find unexploded bombs around the wreck. The slick was set alight and napalmed. Apparently the smell in Penzance was awful.

The Torrey Canyon may be the most famous of the ships wrecked here but there have been an estimated 200 wrecks including the Rarau which went down in 1972, the Chiswick in 1891 and the Fantee in 1949. Hardwood from the Fantee was still coming ashore in 1992.

A lightship is anchored between the reef and the shipping channel to the North and at one time this was manned. The crew of the ship were often involved in rescues. In 1999 the ship broke free of it's moorings and began drifting towards Penzance before it was returned by the Mermaid.

The Scillies are a magnet for wrecks as well.

The disaster of Sir Cloudsley Shovel who lost 2000 men on the Scillies in 1703 was a catlyst. Sir Shovell was a naval hero of his time and had become Rear Admiral of the British fleet. They were returning from Toulon when Shoveel was warned by a crewman that they were off course. Legend has it this crewman was a native of the Scillies and recognised the smell of the burning kelp pits of his homeland and so was able to say where they were. Shovell had him hung from the yardarm for mutiny.

Legend also had it that Shovell was washed ashore alive although he didn't live long. Some versions say he was killed by other surviving sailors, some by locals and one by a local woman who wanted the ring from his finger. One version says thus lady bit his finger off to get his ring, while he was still alive. There is a memorial stone to him where his body was found but some time later his body was removed to Westminster.

The collection of islands and rocks are linked by channels with some islands connected by sand bars at very low spring tides. While others become joined at every low tide.

Six islands were inhabited but the tenants of Samson were evicted in the1800s. The islands were obviously the hill tops of a larger land and as such they are covered in the remains of times gone by. In neolithic times hilltops were valued for fotified dweelings and religuous purposes and the range and number of remains is staggering. When I visited some years ago a walk round St Mary's took us to barrows and a maze that I remember clearly.

When the tide is low archaeological remains are found below the normal water level. Nornour houses the remains of a farm but is too small now to be farmed. Ancient field walls are visible beneath the sea.

Four miles beyond the Scillies is Bishop's Rock which rises 45 metres from the seabed. This rock is the smallest island in the world to have a building on it. The first lighthouse built here was washed away by storms before it's light could even be lit. The current lighthouse was built in 1858 and takes up the entire island and marks the Eastern edge of the North Atlantic shipping route. It was a 35 metre tower built of dressed granite that gets hit by everything the sea can throw at it. One time the sea ripped the 550lb fog bell from the gallery at the top of the tower. In 1881 the tower was strengthened and a further 12 metres added.

This is the last land before America.


  1. What about smuggling? I seem to remember reading (as a child -so I may be completely wrong) that Cornwall was a haven for smugglers...all those lovely coves and secret caves....*grin*

  2. The smugglers are a whole other story... And yes, there are a lot of stories about them! Some future time I may have to find out about them! Got to go walk a dog before sleeping.... *sigh*

  3. Oh goody!! I was hoping you'd say that....:)