The unique Valhalla collection is situated within Tresco Abbey Garden and contains some 30 figureheads, as well as name boards and other decorative ships’ carvings from the days of sail.
Over the years, many ships and lives have been lost on the rocky coasts of the Scillies and it is from shipwrecks – mostly of merchant vessels – that the collection was built up, starting in about 1840, by Augustus Smith of Tresco Abbey, ‘Lord Proprietor’ of the Islands.
The figureheads in the Valhalla collection represent the final century in a tradition dating back over 3,000 years. From the earliest times ships’ bows have carried carvings of human or animal forms as part of the overall decoration of the vessels. The figures have altered over the centuries. Their pattern, size and shape have adapted to fit new types of ships’ hulls, while their artistic style has changed to reflect contemporary fashions.
At Valhalla, most of the figureheads date from the middle and end of the 19th century and come from merchant sailing vessels or early steamships that were wrecked on the Isles of Scilly. As such the collection is a random cross-section of generally modest vessels, whose small and simple figureheads contrast with larger naval examples surviving elsewhere, such as the figurehead of HMS Ajax in the National Maritime Museum, Greenwich.
You can see the Valhalla collection as part of your visit to Abbey Garden. We have a special Valhalla Challenge for under 11s which involves surviving a shipwreck, finding life-saving plants in the garden and discovering the name of their rescue ship in the museum. Visitors can purchase Trails Packs at the Abbey Garden ticket office.
We recommend a visit to the National Maritime Museum website which is full of fascinating information about British maritime history. We would also like to acknowledge the use of their descriptions for the figureheads on display on Tresco.
Tresco is somewhere else altogether - a completely independent entity with its own unique and precious culture. Not just paradise on earth, it's paradise in Britain.