I couldn’t visit 53 islands and not visit Guernsey! My Mum and and my Grandmother were born here, as well as several other members of my family. It’s a special place for our family. I came here with my Mum when I was about 9 but hadn’t been here since. I was accompanied on this trip by my cousin, Christine. Both of our Mums grew up here so there was a lovely, nostalgic, family-orientated quality to our trip. I drove us to Poole and we took my car full of camping stuff over to Guernsey on the high-speed catamaran which took about 3 hours (£300 return!). Unfortunately, the weather changed the day we travelled and it was raining by the time we arrived. After much driving around, we finally found (the excellent) Le Vaugrat campsite on the north east side of the island and discovered that google maps is not much use in Guernsey! Putting the tent up in the rain wasn’t fun either! Luckily we managed to find the pub, some dinner and a much-needed drink just before the kitchen closed.
Situated off the coast of Normandy in Northern France, the Channel Islands’ political status is interesting and complicated. The Bailiwick of Guernsey and The Bailiwick of Jersey are two of 3 Crown Dependencies (the other one is the Isle of Man). Defined as self-governing possessions of the Crown, these independently administered jurisdictions do not form part of the United Kingdom or the European Union but do form part of the EU’s customs area. The Bailiwick of Guernsey itself is divided into 3 separate jurisdictions – one includes Guernsey’s 10 parishes and the smaller islands of Herm, Jethou and Lihou (the other 2 are Alderney and Sark).
Whilst it looks a bit like the UK at first sight, you soon realise it is quite different – postboxes are blue, telephone boxes are yellow, houses are made of grey stone or painted white or pastel colours and everywhere you look there are flowers – lots and lots of flowers! Flowers in tubs, hanging baskets and troughs are all over the place. The States of Guernsey flower budget must be enormous! Arriving by boat, you drive along the harbour-front full of pleasure and fishing craft. The first impression is of hundreds of yacht masts and thousands of flowers!
Driving is also fun! Residents have distinctive number plates and hire cars are marked with a huge black H on a yellow square. You therefore have nowhere to hide if driving a British car!! Driving is a very civilized experience though. There are few traffic lights and those that exist are recent additions. Mostly there are yellow box junctions in the middle of the road indicating that drivers should merge in turn – and they do, very politely and nicely and in an orderly fashion. Generous allowance is made for the failings of the driving tourist! It wouldn’t work in London!! Streets are narrow and often lined by high stone walls. Vehicles, including the bus, think nothing of driving on the pavement whenever extra road width is required. There is a good and efficient bus service during the day – £1 a journey – but at night you are on your own as the service seems to stop around 7 pm. There are taxis!
Guernsey covers an area of 65 kms² and has an estimated population of approx. 63,000. It’s official language is English but Guernsey has its own language, Guernésiais, – often known simply as ‘patois’ – a derivative of Norman French with some old Norse and English thrown in. Only about 2% of the population speak Guernésiais fluently and most of them are over 65! No-one in my family speaks it! There is apparently some interest in reviving the language and more recently lessons have become available. French is still used in legal matters and can be seen on official signs.
St Peter Port, referred to simply as ‘town’ is the capital although the towns and villages all seem to merge into each other. Our family’s former house is here, famously situated up a very steep flight of steps (which our Grandad was said to have sprinted up to court our Gran!) We found Constitution Steps and the house easily and knocked on the door to see if anyone related to us was living there but, sadly, it seemed to be empty. We visited the church we think our family frequented and had fun wandering around the little streets of St Peter Port. The old quarter is quaint and charming and full of boarded-up, empty shops. Someone in an open shop told us it was due to greedy landlords charging exorbitant rents and preferring to keep properties empty rather than reduce rents. (Even the boarded up shops had flowers though!)
Castle Cornet, the 800 year-old, huge citadel and previous tidal island, dominates St Peter Port harbour. Accessible on foot from the town centre via a long causeway, the castle is home to 5 museums, 4 internal gardens and offers amazing views back to town and over to Sark, Herm and the surrounding islets, the castle is a must-see when visiting Guernsey. Soldiers dressed in 19th century costume fire the noon-day gun at noon every day and you can join a guided tour every morning (we didn’t).
Guernsey was occupied by the Nazis during the war from 30th June 1940 – I remember my Gran telling me about it and how they felt about people – particularly women – who collaborated with the occupying forces. There is an excellent museum here (www.germanoccupationmuseum.co.uk) and many of the German built fortifications remain. Over 25,000 people were evacuated from the Channel Islands immediately prior to the occupation. Today Liberation Day (9th May) is a popular festival and Guernsey nationals return from afar to be part of the annual celebrations. The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society is a novel by Annie Barrows and Mary Ann Shaffer which explores this period. The book is being made into a film which is sadly being filmed in the Isle of Man as the producers apparently did not want to pay any location fees. We came across a cemetery of soldiers’ graves in the woods below Fort St George in St Peter Port – one half of the cemetery was full of graves of German soldiers, as well-tended and looked after as the British ones on the other side. (Black and white photo http://www.livingwiththeenemy.com)
Guernsey was once famous for its cows and the cultivation of flowers and tomatoes. A few cows can still be seen but the many empty or overgrown and abandoned greenhouses which can be seen all over the island are a sad sight. Today, tourism and financial services have overtaken those more rural industries and many large banks and insurance companies are represented here due to the advantageous tax laws. The island is also home to Specsavers and Healthspan – two large international companies. It has its own bank notes, including a £1 note (as does Jersey) and its own very pretty stamps.
My own particular fascination (because we could see one from our tent!) was with the Loophole towers – a series of watch towers built in 1778/9 by the British during a time of conflict with the French. Often mistakenly referred to as Martello towers, many of them were built to protect the north side of island, thought to be particularly vulnerable to mass invasion from the sea. Today, only 12 of the original 15 still stand and they are now being taken care of as an important part of the island’s heritage. Named loophole towers because of the holes built on 2 floors in the towers for musket fire – the only defences available at the time – batteries were built around some of them later as cannons became available.
The coastline is rugged but studded with lots of beautiful bays and beaches (and my beloved loophole towers) and there are some brilliant walks. The Guernsey website has some good suggestions. http://www.visitguernsey.com/blog/great-coastal-walks-guernsey
One of the highlights of our trip to Guernsey was our visit to the magical Little Chapel. This beautiful chapel was built as a labour of love by Brother Déodat, who started work on it in March 1914 with the aim of creating a miniature version of the grotto and basilica at Lourdes in France. This one is apparently the third version. The first, smaller version, he demolished and re-built after it was criticised; the second one he demolished in 1923 when the Bishop of Portsmouth was not able to get through the doorway! Brother Déodat then re-built this current and third version which he cared for until 1939 when he returned to France because of poor health and handed its care over to Brother Cephas who continued to add to it until his retirement in 1965.
The chapel is intricately decorated by pebbles, pieces of broken, coloured china and beautiful mother-of-pearl-lined orma shells. Apparently the building was made famous by an article in the Daily Mirror which made the building famous and inspired donations of money and broken china and enabled the chapel to be taken care of more easily. Restoration work is entirely dependent on donations and the chapel is free of charge to enter. It is a magical and amazing place!
On our last day we took a walk out of town to see the Victorian bathing pools at La Valette we had heard about from our family. Situated on the edge of the sea, the bathing pools fill up with sea water at high tide and the water then remains trapped in the pools. There are three pools – ladies, gents and children. We chatted to a group of people who meet there to swim together every morning at 9 am. We told them our Mums used to swim there and they invited us to swim with them the next day – sadly we were on our way home so couldn’t join them.
Guernsey is a fascinating and beautiful island, although it is apparently often fog-covered and bleak in winter. I was so pleased to come and see it properly. My only regret was that I did not come here with my Mum as an adult to hear more about her early life there. I left Guernsey feeling proud to be 50% Channel Islander and I’m sure my cousin did too!
NEXT ISLAND: Staying in the Channel Islands, the next island is little Herm.