Touching history on holiday

Aerial photograph of Star Castle

Hazel Southam, journalist, broadcaster and now author, recalls her love of  Scilly's rich history.  

How many hotels have you stayed in that were built in the shape of an eight-pointed star? For me, the Star Castle Hotel just outside Hugh Town was a first.

And there’s a good reason that it was built like this. It’s not the whim of some multi-millionaire developer. The Star Castle was the fortification that defended the Isles of Scilly against the Spanish.

Built at the garrison overlooking the sea, the fortification has a great vantage point across the waves. You can see a long, long way on a clear day: certainly far enough to know if invaders are coming.


So what’s its history? Take yourself back to 1587 when Mary Queen of Scots was beheaded at the orders of her half-sister Elizabeth. This, it was feared, was enough to send Philip, King of Spain to attack Britain as just deserts for killing a fellow Catholic.

In 1593 Sir Francis Godolphin (to whom the islands were leased) fortified them at Garrison Hill. It was completed in 18 months which is an extraordinary achievement when you look at the thick walls, the clever design and the sheer difficulty of getting all the materials needed up the hill in the first place.

Peace came and the garrison never saw action. Time passed and in 1933 it was turned into an hotel. Since 2003 it has been run by Robert Francis.

Today, the Star Castle is still a great place to watch boats. There’s a bench conveniently situated just in front of the tough outer walls that gives a fabulous vantage point over the bay.

From here, you can watch the ferry coming and going with streams of new holidaymakers arriving. You can watch others heading for days out on local boats, heading to the neighbouring islands. And if you’re lucky, you’ll see Robert setting out on a lobster-catching trip to provide something fresh and succulent for the dinner table.


He’s been mucking about in boats since he was a child and owned his first little vessel aged just 16. Now he heads out into the waters around St Mary’s three times a week on his boat, The Gallos, as part of a sustainable lobster fishing project. ‘I love fishing. Guests love the lobsters,’ he says, smiling broadly.

There are eight thick-walled bedrooms in the fortification itself. The rest are in what is now the garden, but presumably was once the yard. Wherever you’re staying, you get a huge sense of the history of the place just collecting your key from reception.

The narrow passageways and steep stone steps speak of a time when people were consciously defending the islands and their population here. Then, the good view was a life-saver. Now, it’s simply a pleasant way to while away an hour whilst the thrushes sing and the local rabbit population nibbles at the grass around you. 


Hazel Southham
Journalist, broadcaster, and author