Agriculture and horticulture in The Isles of Scilly – St Martin and St Agnes – Andrew Ormerod (February 2008)

I was out in the Isles of Scilly over the last few days and despite the bad local forecasts the weather was generally OK for walking.

When I arrived in the islands I went straight down to the tourist office from where I was staying – like everything in the islands it wasn’t that far away.  I was able to go out to the Islands each day I was there – except today when I walked around St Mary’s in bright sunshine.  I was lucky enough to go out to St Martins and St Agnes, which are my favourite outer islands.  I was as much interested in the local farming and food production and had some good chats with farmers and small holders as I walked around the islands.


St Martins 

All the boat trips had been cancelled for the day and the tourist office lady wasn’t very sure about boat trips for the next day.  The boatmen meet and decide if trips are running late in the afternoon.


Luckily I went down to the harbor anyway and found out that the St Martin’s boat service was running anyway – (there and more importantly back to St Mary’s!).  I had a really good walk around the island and it was great to see the little strips of daffodils in flower.  A grower was scraping a meager income from some of the small pockets near the New Quay and discarded daffodils were blooming in the denuded woodland near by.


Doorway and coastal walk St Martins

  Below the neatly painted houses in Upper Town strips of  daffodils and potatoes just emerging marched down the steep slope protected by the steep Pittosporum hedge.  I started walking around the island with a former dairy farmer who had been forced to sell up after 40 years in dairying by local milk prices and now worked for ‘the opposition’ as he called it – one of the supermarkets.


House leek on building St Agnes

In Higher Town the island has its own bakery – but unfortunately it was shut because it was winter time.  Nearby their was a gift shop that was open – and I asked if Jonathan Smith was around.  Jonathan is a young organic farmer and a great speaker – he acted as an ambassador at a Soil Association meeting a couple of years ago aimed at encouraging youngsters into farming.  The lady in the shop turned out to be Jonathan’s mum but said he was currently over on the mainland.  I walked on further and went to see the baker who also owned the Seven Stones pub – he said he managed to source most of his vegetables from Lower Town and I should look out for Ian Metcalfe the other vegetable grower who was working on the land below the pub.


On route I passed Church Farm one of the biggest internet sellers of Daffodils on the islands.  The operation is run by the Julian family and on busy days they also pack daffodils on St Mary’s rather than double handling flowers out and back from St Mary’s to St Martins.   I met up with Zoe Julian who showed me around – there were several women packing flowers for Mother’s Day and a team of women answering the phones.

St Agnes


Approaching St Agnes

Have you been to St Agnes? – Being the outer most island the people are probably the most self-sufficient and tend to muck in together as a community,   Apparently they are actually nick named ‘The Turks’ because of their dark complexion.

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Views around St Agnes

I met the local historian who was writing a book about the island – who told me about the poverty in the islands in the eighteenth and early  nineteenth century – reflected in the church yard by the high levels of child hood mortality.


St Agnes church and early 19th century graves – revealing poverty leading to children’s early deaths.

Locals could only fish in the summer time (I think to some degree this is still true) –  because of the rough winter weather and locals were reduced to eating limpets from the rocks to survive during the winter time.  They grew some cereals and potatoes – I think from the 18th century but the potato crop failed some years because of blight.

The Hicks family is one of the most prominent in St Agnes.  I met Sam Hicks whose parents were adding value to their milk by making St Agnes dairy ice cream (using a Dutch firms ice cream making machine – in a range of flavours and packaging).


I asked Sam if he used his uncle Mike’s egg’s from his flock – but he said it was to laborious separating the eggs from the white without a machine – besides there was enough demand locally for the eggs as there is also  for Mike Hick’s honey (the most south-westerly honey in the UK and so far free of Varroa and other bee diseases.


Mike and the most Westerly bee hives in England

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Mike his perfumed soap making based on locally grown plants, egg production and cut flowers

I went to see Mike and he showed me around his little fields – which were like little rooms in a house with their high hedges providing protection.  I saw his lavender and the remnants of camomile and geraniums he was growing and extracting the oil for soap using steam distillation.


I also saw his chickens and bees – few were out foraging for early nectar among an abandoned plot of carrots coming into flower.

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Chickens for eggs (left) and meat (right)

Mike was quietly spoken – but he had a genuine connection to the land.  He wanted to find some commercial production from the land – as a potential replacement for the small plots of narcissus which are loosing out to imported flowers.


He didn’t want the land to be abandoned as it has been in many parts of the Isles of Scilly in the last two decades.

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Mike had found and rescued a single clump of a sweetly scented narcissus with long stems that had been fighting through the undergrowth for generations.


He and his brother had dug the clump up – they had to dig deep as in common with old abandoned narcissi the bulbs had worked their way deep into the earth.  He was the only one to grow this Narcissus which be named ‘Bishop Rock’ after the nearby light house.

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He also showed me his parents pocket sized orchard – shoe horned into one of the little oblong plots surrounded by tall wind break hedging.

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Mike’s still distillate from local plants and the finished ’28’ Isles of Scilly soaps.  Named because there are 28 islands and its 28 miles from the mainland. 

For more detials about Twenty Eight soap and other products  See and

Mike later showed me some of the final soaps he had made – including an unusual soap made from oil extracts of samphire.

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After leaving Mike’s farm I walked around the wild and rugged north of the island. Past the dangerous rock outcrops in the sea looking towards the Bishop’s Rock – looking very calm and peaceful on that day and past little sandy or rocky inlets.

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I ended up walking along the coast by the channel between St Agnes and its less inhabited twin Gugh – with its umbilical cord of a sand strip exposed at low tide.

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Island life leads to a co-operation and multitasking to get jobs done.

Near the harbour there was much activities with diggers as local people had teamed together to landscape and put steps in place near the new quay.  I met up with Ben Hicks the organic grower who took a break from his mechanical digger to speak.


Leaving St Agnes – after an enjoyable day.




About cornucopiaalchemy

Dr. Andrew Ormerod has 14 years experience working as the Economic Botanist at the Eden Project - researching topical stories, artefacts, ethnobotanical inks, catering and retail links to exhibits. Previously I was involved with plant breeding and plant tissue culture working on a range of crops including winter cauliflowers, agricultural lupins, vining peas, wheat and barley and coconuts. I am now freelance and am interested in opportunities for lecturing; writing articles; consultancy linked to development of botanic gardens for crops based exhibits; supply chain work for unusual food or non-food crops with interesting stories about plants and people attached to them.
This entry was posted in agriculture history, Cornish Crops, Cornish Produce, Flowers, Food Resilience, Niche Product, Orchards, Uncategorized, Value added Product, Winter crops. Bookmark the permalink.

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