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SCILLY SEASON : Nothing much happens on the Isles of Scilly. But that's exactly the point of visiting a spot reminiscent of rural England generations ago.

August 14, 1994|RICHARD HOMAN | Homan is an assistant foreign editor at the Washington Post

HUGO TOWN, Isles of Scilly — For a yuppie couple from Britain's Midlands, a high point of their week's stay on the Isles of Scilly, 30 miles off the southwest tip of England, was the whistling concert they heard one night from the parking lot below their hotel window when the Mermaid, the islands' most popular pub, closed.

"It was really rather interesting," the woman related in the breakfast room the next morning. "It wasn't just little tunes they whistled, it was whole songs, all the way through. They started with "Rule Britannia" of course, and then somebody whistled something else. Then people would call for more and someone else would whistle something. I don't know how they have the muscles to whistle for so long, but it beats fighting--and it sent me right off to sleep, I'll tell you."

For a boy on a rented bicycle, it was pumping his way to the top of the road to the 16th-Century Garrison overlooking Hugh Town on St. Mary's Island. "My whole family is down there, cheering me on," he volunteered proudly to a passerby, as he gulped for air.

For Petra, a dental nurse in her 20s, the Scillies provided a place to let the stress of a frantically paced London melt away. "In London, people measure time by the second," she said. "Here they hardly measure it at all. I'm sure the people who live here can see the tension in Londoners' eyes when they first arrive--before they've realized they can relax."

The Scillies--a compact cluster of dozens of islands, only five of them inhabited, and each of those small enough to be walked easily from one end to the other--look like a chunk of rural England of a couple generations ago, maybe lifted from coastal Cornwall or Devon and flung out into the Atlantic.

Burial artifacts give evidence of prehistoric settlement 1,000 or more years BC, and skimpily recorded history puts Christian monks on the Scillies in the 5th or 6th Centuries AD, when, according to maps they left behind, the islands were a single land mass, not yet eroded by the ocean into their present fragments. Arthurian legend places the idyllic land of Lyonnesse on portions of a Greater Scilly now submerged beneath the sea.

What still remains above water (the highest point is just 160 feet above sea level and geologists give the islands only another 49,500 years before they vanish) constitutes, today, the Isles of Scilly, with patchwork fields covering the leeward sides and moors of tougher vegetation braving those exposed to the ocean winds. Between them are shoals, and waters shallow enough that at some seasons one can walk between the islands at low tide. Standing on a hill on one of the islands one afternoon, a Scillies resident looked at a neighboring island, across two miles of ocean whipped by a breeze into frothy whitecaps. "I walked over to that island once at low tide," he reminisced. "It was hardly more than thigh deep. But bear in mind, it was March then."

To understand the Scillies--and to avoid disappointment if you're put together differently than the people who flock there yearly--it's important to know what they are not.

They're not hot, although the people who live there think they are. "Yesterday was a scorcher," one told me by way of warning the August morning I arrived. It had gotten up to 69, she said with a grimace.

Since it's not hot, there's no ocean swimming or sunbathing to speak of. Most of the few people in the water on an August day are hardy children wading, or adults, with nets, shrimping. A woman who complained that she had fallen asleep on the beach and "got sunburned" acknowledged, under questioning, that what had gotten burned was her left ankle--the only part of her otherwise fully dressed body left uncovered against the chill breeze.

Except for a couple of pubs and some hotel bars, there's virtually no night life. One evening a community theater presented J.B. Priestley's "An Inspector Calls," and other nights there were slide lectures on local birds, flowers and shipwrecks. On a Sunday night, I walked the six-block length of the main street of Hugh Town, the Scillies' only commercial center, without seeing or hearing a moving vehicle.

And it's definitely not a jet-set destination. Access to the Scillies from London is by train or car to Penzance, the closest city on the English mainland, and then a 20-minute helicopter ride or three-hour ferry trip. The biggest of the islands' 10 hotels has only 40 rooms, and most are much smaller. When former Prime Minister Harold Wilson, who has a modest house on St. Mary's, and Prince Charles, who, with his family, stays on privately owned Tresco Island, come to the Scillies, it's to escape clamor, not to cause it.

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