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Life on a Scilly Isle without the comforting sound of a helicopter

By Western Morning News  |  Posted: December 04, 2012

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The whole of the Scillonian archipelago is missing the helicopter service which closed in October, but Martin Hesp has been to an island that’s feeling the loss more than most.

The fact that a small Westcountry community of some 180 souls enjoyed its own dedicated helicopter service for almost three decades might seem a little fanciful in a region where some villages of that size fail to attract a single bus – but the regular flights have been the isle of Tresco's vital link to the outside world since 1983.

Now the high and happy days are over. The entire Scillonian archipelago lost its helicopter link at the end of October, but Tresco has been feeling the pain more than most.

Since British International Helicopters ceased flying out to the islands from Penzance, anyone visiting Tresco has had to either arrive by ship from the mainland, or fly in to St Mary's Airport aboard the Skybus fixed wing planes.

Either way, that's meant a boat ride on to the final destination – which the islanders of St Martins, Bryher and St Agnes and their visitors have been used to. But Tresco is run primarily as a tourist resort – and as such is a well oiled machine that has grown accustomed to welcoming its guests at its own heliport next door to the world famous gardens.

Now the heavenly acres of the beautiful isle shake to the deafening thrum of helicopter blades no more. All is quiet on the airy downs and dunes of Tresco's southern tip.

So how is the island coping with the loss? Some locals will, privately, tell you that it's similar to what many seaside resorts must have felt during the 1960s when Dr Beeching axed so many of the nation's regional train services – but Tresco Island Estate has been good at reinventing itself ever since Augustus Smith was appointed Lord Proprietor of the Scillies in 1834.

Smith was an innovator – and his direct descendent, Robert Dorrien Smith who runs the estate now, is made in the same mould – he has spent millions developing the island's tourist offering and his staff are used to adapting.

Mike Nelhams, curator of Tresco Abbey Garden, was also in charge of managing the island heliport until it was officially closed at the end of October, and he told the Western Morning News: "We've been waiting for the helicopter to close down for the last couple of years so we have been looking at all the other possibilities.

"Now we've developed a relationship with the Isles of Scilly Steamship Company (which operates Skybus) and we've got a system where, once you get to your chosen airport, we will look after you and your bags.

"We pick visitors up from St Mary's Airport, take them down to the quay where we will have staff to meet them and get them aboard the jet-boat to Tresco – in other words it's a seamless journey.

"Very few jobs went – if people wanted to stay, other jobs were available," he commented on the heliport's closure. "But some went to work at other airports because they were professionals."

Alasdair Moore is in charge of Tresco's marketing, and he told me: "There's obviously a sense of loss, but at the same time it certainly didn't come out of the blue. Recently part of the experience of coming to Tresco has been clouded by this are they, or aren't they, question.

"That led to a lot of unease in this community and also for our visitors – it was a vacuum and gossip and surmise fills it. But this is where we are now and we can make it work.

"I've had time-share people come up to me purely making the point about how well the new transport arrangements have gone. They'd been concerned about the change, but they'd been delighted by what had been put in place – and they really liked the jet-boat journey. It adds to the sense of being on an island.

"For the people who live here – well, the other off-islands have always had this as the standard way of travelling.

"One cannot argue that the helicopter didn't fly in very strong winds, because it did," he added, referring to the fact that the Skybus planes cannot fly to the islands in gale conditions.

"But the thing to be remembered is that last year there were more days cancelled on the helicopter than on Skybus – there were growing problems with it going 'technical'.

"Anyway, we all experience appalling weather – even on the mainland," shrugged Mr Moore. "Much of the transport network was inoperable last week – and we're 28 miles out into the ocean. We have to expect there will be times when things are difficult – but we have not had a dip in bookings because the helicopter has gone."

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