Thursday, 12 November 2015

The Trouble With Scilly - Part 1

There was a time when an autumn trip to Scilly occupied a slot on almost every birder's calendar. That is sadly no longer the case. Birders will tell you that it's simply not the same, that the magic has gone. I can sympathise.

After all, Scilly is a walking venue. You won't be driving. Okay, you'll probably do a bit of travelling by boat, but other than that it's 100% footslogging. Although you can rent a bicycle (or an electric buggy!) virtually no one does. And of course, what a birder needs after several miles of wearisome trudging is a decent cream tea, and/or cake. And herein lies the modern-day problem. Years ago you could be virtually anywhere on the islands, totally knackered and on the point of collapse, and there would a be a tearoom within about ten paces. That's why Scilly held something like six thousand birders during the second and third weeks of October - proper sustenance was absolutely guaranteed whenever it was needed. So, what's happened?

Well, the decline began when a couple of tearooms closed their doors at the end of September. It was like a slap in the face for some, and many Scilly regulars could see the writing on the wall. Sure enough, the following autumns saw a decline in birder presence. It was then a vicious circle. Fewer birders = less revenue = less reason to stay open for October. And the quality began to suffer. Scones got smaller, and one or two dodgy establishments even resorted to warming them by microwave. Dreadful. Birder numbers inevitably tumbled. Clotted cream portions shrank. Jam too. Enough was enough. Birders voted with their feet...which leaves us where we are today, with just a scant dozen or so birders across the islands throughout October.

So, what can the pioneering birder who heads for Scilly these days expect in the way of cream tea and cake? A few weeks ago I decided to find out...

There is now only one tearoom on the whole of Scilly. It's called Juliet's Garden. The proprietors have obviously seen the small niche market opportunity that a dozen birders provide and have at least made an effort. But there is a long way to go before birders are going to be attracted back in their former numbers. For example, just take a look at the size of the scones in the photo below. Any decent birder would want at least ten of them. And see how I've only managed a pathetic smear of cream and jam? I knew the cream tea was going to be insufficient, so ordered cake too. It went like this:

Me (having popped indoors to look at the cakes on offer): Hello.
Waitress: Hello, can I help you?
Me: I've just popped indoors to look at the cakes on offer.
Waitress: Oh. Well, we don't have them on display.
Me: You're joking!
Waitress: No, we keep them in the kitchen and just bring a piece out when you order it.
Me: But how do I know what I'm buying?
Waitress: You don't. That's why we keep them in the kitchen, so that you can't see what they look like or how small the portions are. [I'm fairly sure this is what she said]
Me: Okay, well, can you tell me what cakes you've got please.
Waitress: It's all on the menu. Which is on your table outside. I'll take your order when I come out.
Me: But...

Anyway, I gave up, defeated, and eventually ordered some chocolate cake. It was okay but, as you can see, way too small.

Compare that to how things were and, well, you can see the problem.

So, in the spirit of comparison I thought it might be helpful to post a couple of photos from days of yore.

This next one was taken at the now defunct Longstone Heritage Centre a few years ago. This is before the rot really set in. As you can see, nice big scones and heaps of cream and jam...

You're probably thinking 'not bad, but I'm sure they were even better than that in the eighties', and yes, you're dead right. As every birder knows, Scilly was amazing in the eighties. The scones were so massive that most of them couldn't support themselves as they cooked, and fell over a bit. And portions of cream and jam were so generous that you couldn't get it all on, and would end up having to finish it off with a spoon. So here we are then, a proper birder's cream tea from the days when Scilly was undeniably the best...

"Cream tea for one please"       The mid-80's - Scilly's heyday

While things remain as they are I find it hard to envisage birders returning to Scilly in any numbers. After all, what else has the place got to offer?

And I might add, Shetland has upped its game of late. The reason birders never bothered with the place in the past was because you couldn't get a cream tea for love nor money. Pies, yes, loads of them, but not proper food. Well, now look:

Victoria is originally from Devon, and offers a mean cream tea. This place is on Unst. Have you noticed recently how many decent birds are getting reported from Unst? Exactly.


  1. When I were a lad (birding in the 1970s), the average birder could manage 12 hours in the field, fortified by nothing more than a Mars Bar and a can of Tizer (one item in each front pocket of his old Barbour jacket). Nowadays, it's cream teas and Gortex. It's all become far too decadent. By the way, I was delighted to discover that you had resumed your blog, Gavin. It was always one of the best.


    1. Thanks Malcolm, it's good to hear from someone who remembers how it really was. Mind you, younger readers need to appreciate that a 1970s Mars Bar was approximately the size of a brick, and equivalent to three or four decent cream teas!

      Glad you've rediscovered NQS :-)