Clearly visible for miles around the Daymark is undoubtedly the most iconic structure on St Martin’s. Wherever you are on the island somehow it feels like it is drawing you towards it.
Despite the Scillonian boatman trying to convince gullible visitors that the stripped tower is the cone of a rocket it is in fact the oldest surviving daymark in the country.
A watchman on this coast for more than 300 years.
The area on which the daymark stands is known as Chapel Down. Early maps from around the 15th century onwards show a small chapel on St Martin’s Head. It seems that from the medieval period onwards a small church with a beacon occupied this headland.
The beacon fire would have been tended by monks, as a navigational aid and a warning to passing shipping of the dangerous rocky coast. The men would have lived there too and used the chapel for prayer. However, it seems that after frequent attacks from pirates and ne’er-do-wells the priests were forced to abandon the site and it subsequently fell into disrepair.
The wall footings of the old chapel, which has never been excavated, are still visible just beneath the turf beside the tower.
“The downs around the Day Mark are beautiful with ling and heather but the gorse bushes are literally cut back on the windward side by the salt breeze which comes up the bay as through a funnel. We had a glorious view from the Day Mark. Big steamers and full rigged sailing ships passing; some near, some far.”Western Times, 26th August 1910
Thomas Ekins’ Daymark
The St Martin’s daymark which replaced to chapel was built by Thomas Ekins, the steward on the islands from around 1660, He worked for the Godolphin family who were leasing the Scillies at that time. Ekins is said to have encouraged more families to move to St Martin’s and set about building the daymark tower in the 1680s (though the exact date is up for debate).
FUN FACT: St Martins is thought to have become a separate island, at high tide at least, in about 1100. It was then known as Nurcho which is said to derive from ‘noeth’ meaning barren or uninhabited”
Ekins was said to be ‘a considerable merchant’ and even produced his own coins, one side depicting his own face, while he was on the islands. He also built the first church on St Martin’s in c1683. Unfortunately it burnt down in 1866 when the thatched roof was struck by lightening and was replaced with the present building.
The daymark stands on one of the highest points across the whole of the Isles of Scilly and the headland is the first landfall that shipping approaches from the mainland.
The tower is 6.4m high and roughly 4.8m in diameter. It has an internal spiral staircase leading up to slit windows between the body of the tower and the curve of the cone top.
There was once a doorway to access the inside but that was bricked up sometime in the 1960s (roughly) because, according to local gossip, the daymark had become a popular spot for young courting couples. Scandalous!
The exact date that the daymark was built has caused a bit of confusion over the years because of the date inscribed on the outside of the tower. 1637. This date is before Thomas Ekins came to the islands, in fact it is before he was born, so it is thought that is may once have read 1687 and somehow the 8 became a 3.
However, the official date given for the construction of the tower, taken from account books of the time, is 1683 . . . No one knows quite why this mix up has happened . . .
The Wreck of the Hope
Though the daymark has certainly proved its worth over the centuries there has still been, perhaps inevitably, the occasional shipwreck.
On the 19th January 1830 the ship Hope came to grief just beneath the daymark. Noble, her captain, had mistaken the tower, which was then painted plain white, for the St Agnes lighthouse. When the mistake was realised the ship’s anchor was dropped but it was too late and she was driven onto the rocks.
The Hope had been on her way to London from Cape Coast Castle on the notorious Gold Coast, now in Ghana. Cape Coast Castle was one of 40 ‘slave castles’ along the African coast used in the horrific trans-Atlantic slave trade. Fortunately the Hope had a different kind of cargo on board that day, although there was one passenger of note whose grave you can visit to this day.
He is just known as the West African Boy.
“The brig ‘Hope’, Noble master, was wrecked near St Martins, the daymark on the island having been mistaken for the lighthouse on St Agnes. She dropped her anchor but was driven onto a rock and went to pieces. About 100 casks of palm oil, 300 elephant tusks, a box of dollars and some other articles of the cargo have been saved by the exertions of the islanders who have behaved with the utmost kindness and hospitality to the captain and crew. Before the ship went down a boat containing a Dutch officer, his lady, a black boy and others put off for shore, but before she had cleared the vessel the main mast of the brig fell upon and crashed the boat to pieces. By which the officer, his lady, the boy and one of the crew were drowned.”Royal Cornwall Gazette, 30th January 1830
Some reports claimed that there had also been a large quantity of gold dust and peppercorns onboard, it is unclear whether this was all recovered.
The ‘black boy’, who in some articles is referred to as that unknown Dutch officer’s servant, was buried in the churchyard on St Martin’s. A granite marker there bears the following inscription:
In the memory of
a young West African boy,
buried here after the
HOPE was wrecked on
St Martins Head due to
mistaking the white
Day mark for
St Agnes Light-house
19th January 1830
I will set you captives free
All details of this boy’s life, his name, his age and where he called home were washed away in that storm.
In September 1831 the newspapers reported that due to the tragedy the daymark had been repainted bright red. This colour did not show up as well as the white however so it was later repainted in its distinctive red and white strips.
Napoleonic Signal Station
Close to the daymark it is hard to miss the ruined walls of an old building. This was once a Napoleonic Signal Station built in 1804. It was home to a garrison of four men and comprised of a signal tower, store rooms, living quarters and an animal pen. It was their job to watch for French ships and report any unusual movements of shipping around the islands
From this signal station ‘orders were relayed using a flag, pendant and four canvas balls, to men-of-war waiting off shore.” It was a short living placement however, the signal station was replaced by a semaphore tower on St Mary’s in 1814.
Walking to the Daymark
St Martin’s is a small island, not more than 3 miles long by less than a mile wide, so it is fairly easy to find your way to the daymark, especially as it is such a prominent feature in the landscape.
If you are arriving by boat to Higher Town Quay just follow the coast path which takes you past the stunning Perpitch Beach and across Chapel Downs.
Whatever the season the Scillies really are a wonderful place to visit, with a powerful and varied history to explore. Why not visit out of season like I did when you can enjoy the islands at their most peaceful . . .
For more information go to https://www.visitislesofscilly.com/