For a long time the idea of a visit to the Channel Islands has attracted me. The only previous links were when a refugee Guernsey boy was temporarily evacuated to us during the war, but I must confess that my knowledge of that time is a little hazy. So when we saw the advert in Slacks’ brochure it was too much to ignore.
The journey could not have been more civilised – bus into Derby, then the regular airport bus to east Midlands and a late morning flight to Guernsey where our accommodation within minutes of the harbour was next door to the house where Victor Hugo wrote les Miserables.
Guernsey is the second largest island in the archipelago, the last part of medieval England’s French territories. Completely self-governing, like the other islands it has its own currency and tax laws, making it a convenient off shore banking haven. The island sits more or less in the centre of the group and regular ferries make visiting the smaller islands a simple procedure.
As the weather seemed set fine we decided to give our sea-faring trips top priority. Our plan was to start at Alderney, the most northerly and furthest island, but here we hit a snag. Even though the ferry service had a full page advert in the local guide, when we tried to book we were told the service was not operating – ‘for political reasons’, the lady at the booking office enigmatically told us. This was no real problem and a quick change of plans saw us on the Herm ferry that was just about to leave.
Herm was our first taste of remote island life. Tiny, you could walk round its four mile perimeter in a couple of hours, but that would be a pity. Completely natural and with wide, pure white sandy beaches where, if they were being enjoyed by more than three or four others, a selfish person might complain about it being crowded! The island is currently owned by a couple called Singer who welcome all visitors and simply ask them to help preserve the island’s tranquillity and its amazing range of wild flowers and sea birds. St Tugual appears to have been the first person to use Herm as a sanctuary and the tiny church is dedicated to his memory. We walked clockwise round the windswept granite cliffs to the southern end where weirdly shaped granite rocks set in the sand marked the turning point. A couple of beach cafes made sure we didn’t starve until we strolled back to the busy little harbour.
Walking on Guernsey is a pleasure made easy by a frequent bus service, where the cost is one pound for whatever length of journey; we were surprised one day to find the bus so crowded, but realised that the passengers were all holidaymakers taking advantage of the cheap fare in order to travel right round the island.
Our first walk started at Grand Havre in the north of the island and we beach-walked across 8 beautiful bays. Miles of spotlessly clean sand with no trace of rubbish of any kind led from headland to headland. Almost every bay had its beach café. None of them could be remotely called ‘greasy spoon’ and in the one where we stopped for lunch, we were able to buy freshly made crab sandwiches.
The islands suffered badly during the war. For some odd reason Hitler thought that because the islands were British territory, Winston Churchill would try to invade, an odd thing when one thinks of military strategy, as it was far more practicable to by-pass them and invade mainland Europe. Using slave labour, the Nazis spent a huge amount of effort in defending the islands and their surreal concrete pill boxes and gun emplacements are still a reminder of those unhappy days. Even at the end of the war, Guernsey was not liberated until the day after VE day.
Guernsey’s one-time tomato industry is a mere fraction of what it was pre-war. The decline began when in the 1960s when Dutch growers could enjoy the benefits of subsidised fuel, something the British government was loathe to copy. Its final death knell came when Doctor Beeching produced his infamous report on the future of our railways. Apparently the ferry service that carried the tomatoes was run by British Rail and as they were returning more or less empty, they were considered uneconomical and therefore axed. Without transport, the island tomato growers stood no chance of survival. All round Guernsey there are the sad reminders of this once thriving industry, with abandoned greenhouses slowly collapsing. However, not all growers have abandoned their trade. Some now grow cut early green vegetables and cut salads, or flowers, with freesia a profitable speciality.
We were staying at St Peter Port, the capital of Guernsey. The busy marina just off the promenade is full of expensive looking sailing boats and fishing boats, but while we were there a ‘Round Britain’s Islands’ cruise came in and had to park itself further out in deep water with passengers ferried ashore to be taken on a conducted tour . Pleasant as it was to gaze at all that seafaring activity, we were really on our way to Castle Cornet, Guernsey’s pre-German first line of defence. Guarding the harbour mouth, it was built in the time of George III, but its main purpose was during the Napoleonic Wars; then it withstood bombardment from a French man of war. Like Edinburgh Castle they fire a noon-day gun that went off bang on time with a lot of noise and smoke. Inside the castle the maze of corridors and dead ends would have been enough to bewilder any attacker lucky to get through its massive walls, but we did eventually reach the highest point and its more modern ex-German gun post.
The other essential visit we made in and around St Peter Port was to Victor Hugo’s house, where he lived after failing to support Napoleon III. Owned not as one might expect, by the National Trust, it is run by a similar French organisation. Everything about the place is French, even to the tricolour flying proudly over the entrance. Hugo seems to have been a bit of a DIY enthusiast, making things from cast off items such as a chandelier made from bobbins, or a double door made from old panelling cut in half and turned through ninety degrees, but the overall effect is very post Jacobean, part 18th century Franco/Chinese. It is easy to imagine him pacing up and down across his rooftop Captain’s walk, planning the next stage in his great masterpiece.
The Saumarez family were in the top echelon of Guernsey’s Georgian society. Their house in the north-west corner of the island is now a retirement home, but the old stable block has been converted into a museum of island costume and old fishing, farming and industrial equipment of a by-gone less mechanised era.
Our final walk on the main island was around the mist-shrouded pine-covered south-eastern corner. The island authorities look after footpaths extremely well and it was just a pleasant up and down stroll, guided by the boom of the foghorn on St Martin’s Point. It was here that the Germans built yet another of their gun posts. The concrete though succumbing to the test of time is still there, though its effect was weakened by the sight of a little boy using it to jump into his mother’s arms. Carrying on for three or four more miles we gave the German Occupation Museum a only a passing glance before catching one of the one pound buses back to base.
I have often been intrigued by a photograph taken on the Island of Sark. It is of a narrow ridge perched high above the sea which is on both sides and connects the two parts of Sark that may one day crumble into two islands. Sark is almost medieval in the way it is run, but no one there seems to mind in the least. It is completely free of cars with the only form of transport either horse drawn or tractor; even the local fire engine with its London omnibus wheels is pulled by a tractor. The crew were practicing cliff rescues as thankfully in lieu of fires their main work is rescuing sheep or tourists who stray on to the surrounding cliffs.
We sailed to Sark past Brecqhou, the bleak tax haven island-home of the reclusive Barclay brothers, owners of The Daily telegraph; unlike all the other tiny islands, visitors are not welcome on Brecqhou. With the single thought in my mind we headed for the ‘ridge’, first passing a flourishing vineyard the first stage in Sark’s almost unknown vintage. The ridge when we reached it surprised all expectations; a narrow road, nothing more than a surfaced track fills the ridge top. Not a place for anyone with vertigo, they should avoid the awesome drops on each side tumbling down to a hungry sea. A plaque half way across says that it was built in 1945 by a unit of the Royal Engineers together with German Prisoners of War.
Tiny as it is, Sark has its fair share of interesting people. We passed a strange looking timber house where the notice on its gate told us that the witch was at home! In what passes as the town centre, all six or seven buildings of it, we spotted a golden GPO pillar box; it commemorates the 2012 Olympics gold medal Sark islander Carl Hester won for the GB Equestrian team in the dressage event – not bad for an island with a population of around 600 and one witch!