Finding heaven in Hell Bay, on Bryher

Scilly Bryher Hell Bay ariel

Hazel Southam, journalist, broadcaster and author, ponders the meaning of 'Hell Bay' on a peaceful Spring day. 


I’m sitting looking out of the dining room window at the Hell Bay Hotel on Bryher, contemplating a bowl of Cornish mussels and a glass of white wine.

Outside the window, there’s a large pond on which two swans are gently gliding. The island is also famous for its sea birds: kittiwake, herring gull, razor bills, shags and storm petrels as well as black-backed gulls all breed here.

Beyond the pond is the beach, which is full of interest, wildlife and colour. There are vivid seaweeds in rock pools the like of which I’ve never seen before. The sea is clear, sparkling and blue on this sunny, spring evening. Everything is vivid and I think to myself that this is quite possibly, the most beautiful view from any dining room that I’ve ever sat in.

So why then is it called Hell Bay? On a day like today this seems unfitting to say the least. The hotel’s general manager Philip Callan explains that not every day is quite as beautiful as today.

In the winter of 2012, he tells me, high tides and strong winds meant that, for the first time, ‘a tenth of Bryher was covered in water. Roads disappeared and there was a lake in the middle of the island,’ he says.

Now the island’s not big: just 1.2 miles long and less than a mile wide. So for a tenth of it to be covered in water is dramatic.

But Hell Bay didn’t get its name in the last few years. It’s been on the map for centuries. So this suggests that there’s a longer story. And the place to start in discovering that story, is indeed, the map.

The community around Hell Bay is the most westerly in England. It looks out onto the Atlantic Ocean. It’s low-lying. So any bad weather is going to hit Hell Bay first. And Hell Bay is going to know about it.

It gained a reputation therefore as a notorious place for shipwrecks back in the 18th and 19th Centuries. Ships would be heading for Tresco Channel, which runs between Bryher and Tresco. This was the main anchorage point for the islands.

Imagine yourself trying to reach the safety of Tresco Channel in strong winds, high waves and stinging rain. But then remember that there are 147 islands making up Scilly and you’ll see that this was a perilous task. Perhaps it’s not surprising that most ships were in fact wrecked well before they got to Hell Bay itself.

So that’s how, and why, Hell Bay got its name. When you walk along its footpaths and roads and see them covered in sand, don’t think to yourself that this is some fashionable design feature made to make the place look rustic and charming. The sand is everywhere because the wind brings it in.

On a spring day, like today, that’s just scenic. In winter, Hell Bay lives up to its name.

But with mussels and wine before me and the quiet beauty of the beach and sea beyond, right now, this is not so much hell as heaven.