A tiny British island in the western approaches to the UK has over the years been in the forefront of the country’s defences.
However, probably very few people are aware of that fact!
St Mary’s the largest island in the Isles of Scilly group has been fortified and been treated as a strategic place and well worth defending since Elizabethan times.
The building of the Star Castle towards the end of the reign of Elizabeth I on a hilltop on the western side was one of the first major defensive building projects on the island.
This task was taken on by land owner and Island Governor Sir Francis Godolphin.
Which included the construction of about 1/3 of a mile a curtain wall and bastions on the east side or landward side. It also provided protection for the port and nearby Hugh Town, the main town for the whole islands.
Following the star shaped castle and first defensive wall being built during in the next century nearly in 1640. Nearly 2 miles of stone fortifications were added protecting some 40hectares of St Mary’s.
The stone defensive ring included additional gun batteries in the defensive mix.
As well as enclosing the castle, which today that 8-pointed building has been converted into a unique hotel, but more of that later.
Many developments were carried out to improve the quality of the overall defences with additional walls added on the south western side.
Other improvements were the building of a powder magazine close to the entrance gate which was sunken into the ground and surround by a blast wall. These were very important features, bearing in mind the often, unstable explosives of that time.
Today, the magazine is home to an excellent exhibition and is near to location where a circular walk of these fortifications starts from. With your back to the magazine building, the gravel path in front takes you to gently down the slope to the first battery and the counter clockwise walking route.
Many of the cannons located around the walls are from a later period, However, they do help to tell the story and are popular with children or adults whom are still children.
The walk is easy and fairly level there are places where if it has been raining can be muddy. Mostly though it’s a delightful ramble with numerous information signs at key points helping to expand the story of the walls. The views of this coastal area and small islands and hidden reefs that also provided a maritime hazard for any would be attackers.
Over the years those 16th and 17th century walls have been seen as having great potential to be added to or used in later conflicts. In the early 20th century a powerplant was added to Boscawen Battery in order to power search lights to assist a more modern style gun battery made up of six-inch Naval guns that could fire on attacking shipping at night.
The two World Wars also saw up to 1,000 troops arrive. 1939 it was the start of the battle of the Atlantic. Over 30 pill boxes were constructed around St Mary’s and at places in the walls they were built to blend in with them. You are still able to be see them as you stroll on the circular wall walk.
Standing high on the hill the Star Castle Hotel as it called now is rented from Prince Charles’ Duchy of Cornwall and the hotel uses the former fort and also has extensive hotel rooms built in its garden. A conservatory restaurant and swimming pool too take up part of the grounds.
I stayed for two days and thoroughly enjoyed the experience with its classy comfortable rooms and amazing locally sourced food served in the dining room within the castle. A perfect pre-dinner drink in their cellar bar or on their raised terrace on the ramparts of the castle.
The hotel is very close to the main town, Hugh Town and also near to the island ferries drop off points where you can visit the other nearby islands of Tresco, St Agnes and St Martin.
During the English civil war Tresco was taken in 1651 by Admiral Robert Blake for the Parliamentary cause. He set up a battery at the closest point to the then Royalist garrison on St Marys after brief siege Sir John Grenville’s troops surrendered and were allowed to leave for Scotland and Ireland.
World War I saw the islands being used by flying boats on early U-Boat patrols, in World War II a flight of Hurricane fighters from 87 Squadron based there from 1941 and saw action almost at once and shot down a German seaplane.
My recommendation is that a trip to the Isles of Scilly is an ideal place where you can trace in just one small area a really varied amount of military history.
World War II Secret Telegraph Bunker Opened
Starting and staying at the Star Castle and taking the Garrison Wall walks offers a great insight into the local history of this unique group of islands 24 miles from Land’s End in Cornwall.