When Harold Wilson was Prime Minister, journalists followed him to the seaside for their August briefings. Paul Kirkwood reports from the Scillies.
Suits look a bit out of place on the beach in August on the Scilly Isles. Who are these men flourishing notebooks with such anxious intent, clearly desperate to catch every word of the man lolling on the beach in improbable shorts and sandals?
They are journalists out of their natural environment, sitting awkwardly in the sun instead of in the gloom of the parliamentary lobby. During Harold Wilson’s premiership, they had to pursue him all this way to his holiday home for answers to their questions on matters of state.
Harold gazes into the mid-distance as if looking for his return boat or trying to solve a particularly troublesome crossword clue rather than addressing big questions of the day. The year is 1965 and in this picture Harold is being asked about Singapore, Anglo-Russian relations, trade figures and the prospect of a Liberal-Labour coalition in an arrangement under which journalists agreed to leave him alone for the rest of his holiday.
Compare this picture with today’s carefully managed shots of the man at the top enjoying his summer break (until riots bring him home in a rush). Nothing so disagreeable disturbed the even tenor of Harold’s days on the Scilly beaches.
The Wilsons originally travelled down by overnight sleeper from London to Penzance then either took the airbus service from Land’s End or sailed on the ferry. The journey is easier today – I drove from Yorkshire to Bristol then flew – but it still feels like an adventure by the time Scilly finally comes into view, 28 miles south-west of the mainland. The islands look like a Pacific atoll, fringed by sand and crystal clear, turquoise sea.
Harold knew Cornwall from visiting his parents there before the war. He first visited Scilly in 1952 and soon decided to build a home there. Six years later he bought a plot of land 300 yards from the sea for £200 from the Duchy of Cornwall and built a three-bedroom bungalow.
“It is not pretty: squat, stone-ribbed, with no concessions to its setting, it is an austere reminder of an undistinguished episode in functional British architecture,” writes Hugh Pimlott in his biography. He adds: “Wilson would not have wanted anything that detracted from his image as a plain, ordinary, accessible man. The Scillies chimed perfectly with his ‘middle England’ image”.
He wanted to call it Hugo’s Home, presumably a play on its location, Hugh Town. In the end, though, it was named, Lowenva, an old Cornish name meaning “house of happiness” which was suggested by his sister Marjorie.
Wilson’s wife, Mary, loved the bungalow. She paid off the mortgage with profits from her first book of poems and became the owner. Now aged 95, she still visits Lowenva. In fact, she had been in residence with one of her sons, Robin, and daughter-in-law the week before my visit, the driver of the airport bus told the passengers as he pointed out the bungalow en route from the airport to Hugh Town. Visitors to the bungalow in the 1960s included Frank Cousins (general secretary of the TGWU), and two of what Scillonians called Wilson’s “mini-cabinet”, Ray Gunter (his Minister of Labour) who had a cottage in nearby Old Town and Michael Stewart (his Foreign Secretary) who stayed in a hotel in Hugh Town.
A Conservative politician once unwittingly knocked on the door canvassing for support ahead of an election. Among Wilson’s other less welcome visitors were, in the August of 1967, a gaggle of Bee Gees fans. Dressed as flower people and bedecked in large square sunglasses, they picketed Lowenva in protest at the deportation of the part-Australian pop group the following month.
A far more sinister presence, in the eyes – and mind – of Wilson, at least, were Russian spies that, in the summer 1974, he believed were watching him from ships disguised as trawlers. He had been warned about the dangers of discussing sensitive information on the walkie-talkie he used during bird-watching expeditions but, it was believed, his fears of espionage were unfounded.
Little has changed in Scilly since the 1960s and ’ 70s comparing the Pathé newsreels of the era to what I saw. Like a vivid John Hinde postcard brought to life, the films show Wilson and his family striding purposefully down the main street in merry little Hugh Town, waving at and stopping to chat to the locals. He smokes a pipe, his beige shorts are pulled high up above his waist and he carries a canvas knapsack with leather straps and buckles. These were the days when people took flasks to the beach. He just looks like a dad – my dad, for that matter – enjoying a sunny day with his family which, on these occasions and media permitting, he was. Like I did, he shopped at the Co-op which is still going strong and bustling with customers in the hour before 10.15am when, just like the olden days, the day trip boats set off from the harbour for the tranquil “off islands” of Tresco, Bryher, St Agnes and St Martins.
The first pub holidaymakers pass on their return is The Mermaid, Harold’s favourite, and then some may walk up the steep hill to the eight-pointed Star Castle Hotel, the former 16th century garrison, where the Wilsons used to stay before buying their bungalow. On a clear day views extend as far as the Bishop Rock lighthouse, the most south-westerly point of the British Isles, and the twin humps of Samson, better known these days as the start point of the traditional pilot gig races to Hugh Town harbour.
One of the best walks from the hotel takes you beside the garrison wall which runs all the way around a small peninsula. Harold, a keen hiker, probably knew it well. The full eight-mile circuit of St Mary’s was an Easter Saturday ritual. Some days Mary would set off in one direction looking for wild flowers and Harold would set off in an another, often carrying a notebook for jotting down ideas for speeches, policies and such like.
One of his best ideas – he said it was his proudest legacy – came to him in 1963 while he was at home and the family were at church. He initially called it “university of the air”, today we know it as the Open University. His son, Robin, went on to become the university’s professor of pure mathematics.
The Wilsons were part of community life. As well as being regular churchgoers, Harold played golf at the only club (on St Mary’s) and was an honorary elder brother of Trinity House, while Mary became president of the Ladies’ Lifeboat Guild.
Boatkeepers, shopkeepers and neighbours far out-numbered the Labour party dignitaries, led by Tony Blair, among the congregation of 300 at Wilson’s funeral at St Mary’s Old Church in June 1995. Despite his pre-eminence, his gravestone isn’t the grandest in the churchyard. That distinction goes to Louise Holzmaister, who drowned with 311 others when The Schiller was shipwrecked near Bishop Rock in 1875 en route from New York to Hamburg. An obelisk was erected by her husband, a wealthy German.
Harold’s grave isn’t even in the main churchyard but in an annexe off the lane that leads up to it. The location, overlooking Old Town Bay, an idyllic beach, brought to my mind the last resting place of Sir John Betjeman in Padstow.
The Isle of Scilly Museum tells the story of the Wilson’s Scilly connection and includes one of his pipes, two Gannex raincoats (one appearing to have two coffee stains on the lapel) and a telephone box which provided Harold with a direct link to No 10. Nearby is the Harold Wilson Lifelong Learning Centre, a provider of recreational, vocational and e-learning.
It might seem strange that there is neither a statue of Harold nor any sort of Wilson heritage trail. But then perhaps the way that the islands’ most celebrated holidaymaker is remembered matches how he went about his business when he was here: discreetly. The closest I found to a monument was the last thing I saw before departing. No prizes for guessing who opened the airport terminal on April 1, 1975.
For the British Pathé newsreel of Wilson’s visits to Scilly see www.britishpathe.com