When I arrived on Bryher I was reminded of how scarcely populated the 1½-mile long island was. After an initial buzz of human activity at the quay, tourists and locals dispersed and I suddenly found myself completely alone, except for the ever-present wrens of course. One was perched high against the skyline only a few feet away, trilling with all its might. According to some Scillonians, wrens here are slightly different to those on the mainland. Their songs are different, and their mottled body markings are brighter. Perhaps this is a little Scillonian pride, but the shrews, bee and blackbirds are all unique here so I liked to entertain the possibility that Scilly wrens were just as special.
Bolstered by the wren’s enthusiasm, I made my way towards the northern side of the island, where the infamous Hell Bay laid waiting. So called because of its treacherous and unforgiving nature that had caused many a shipwreck in years past, it was hellish and beautiful in equal parts. I perched on a plump cushion of downy grass and watched the show – a dramatic display of rumbling waves, churning currents and seething white froth that surged up as each wave receded. Although each collision was intense, every so often a particularly furious wave thumped the rocks, sending vast plumes of water skywards. Backed as always by the wailing gulls and squealing oystercatchers, it was a feast for all the senses.
Time was pressing on. Conscious that I didn’t want to miss the only boat back to St Mary’s, I hugged the coast and followed the beaten track down the western stretch of Bryher. Red Ruby Devon cattle watched me cautiously, blinking with big bottomless eyes. Before long I reached Rushy Bay, and the sun was shining beautifully. I ate my lunch on the sand, which as always on Scilly was golden and impeccably clean.
Replenished, I began the search for what I’d come here to find: the dwarf pansy. With flowers 4-8mm long, I braced myself for a challenge. During my research I’d learned that a good spot on Bryher was “the sandy turf behind Rushy Bay”, which at the time had seemed a doddle. How much sandy turf could there be? I thought, quite deluded. True, the area wasn’t vast, but when you were looking for a flower that could fit several times on your fingernail, the sandy turf seemed to expand tenfold. I’d found the true meaning of “needle in a haystack”.
Wondering why I’d chosen to torture myself, I began to scour the ground, peering between thick grasses for a glimpse of violet. I found plenty of insects; sandy brown spiders that skittered in and out of sight (small enough not to trigger my panic response luckily), black beetles I couldn’t hope to identify and plenty of ladybirds sitting prettily. No such luck with pansies, though. Soon my knees and back began to ache so I tried my luck on Heathy Hill, another good spot for dwarf pansies and orange birdsfoot, a rare member of the pea family I was also hoping to find.
On the way, I stopped to admire the daisies. Interestingly, these common white flowers used to be known as “day’s eye” because they opened during the sunlight hours and closed at night like blinking eyes, but this soon morphed into daisies. By chance, my gaze wandered to a minuscule flower with purple petals that I could barely make out with the naked eye. In a slightly embarrassing lapse of composure I felt tears of joy prick the backs of my eyes, but I remembered that there were a lot of tiny flowers on Scilly. Due to the poor, acidic soil, often only small species could survive here. I knew I shouldn’t get my hopes up. It may not be my prized pansy, but I still lay sprawled on the floor photographing it for a good long while. Just in case.
I headed further west towards Heathy Hill. Here I found a rather large cluster of blue-violet blooms and once again I was stumped. What if these were dwarf pansies and I hadn’t made full use of the opportunity? So, even though the petals looked a little large, I spent another twenty minutes rolling around in the grass getting very atmospheric photos of what could have been Scilly’s most common wildflower.
Back on St Mary’s that evening, at a wildlife talk at the village hall, I consulted Scilly naturalist Will Wagstaff about my finds. The second species I had found was dog violet, so not even a pansy sadly, but he couldn’t identify the first flower I found, which was quite intriguing.