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Published: July 31st 2022
A hidden gem in the British Isles, less than an hour from the English mainland, lies the Channel Island of Guernsey – one of five islands nestled in the bay of St. Malo, just 30 miles off the French coast. Here is a destination to get away from it all and recharge the batteries. Embrace island-hopping and outdoor adventures on land and on sea. Dine at a multitude of eateries, from beachside kiosks and cafes to local pubs and award-winning restaurants. Delve into the past to explore their incredible heritage on guided walks or in museums. Hike the coastline along miles of cliff paths with views. Feel the sand between your toes on one of many unspoiled beaches. Take a somewhat chilly dip in crystal clear waters – basically create memories to last a lifetime. I didn’t accomplish all the above, but I did create some marvelous memories to be sure.
I spent the most delightful 3 hours in a taxi with John, a born-and-raised local from Saint Peter Port (the capital of Guernsey), a walking encyclopedia who’s forgotten more about his home island than most people will ever know. It was John who introduced me to lawnmower
racing, hedge veg and a place which doesn’t number their residences, they give them names! More about these later, but first….. A little bit of history……
Evidence has been found proving existence of neolithic farmers as far back as 5,000 BC. Discovery of amphorae from the Herculaneum area and Spain are evidence of a Roman settlement on the Island, and a further discovery of a shipwreck in Saint Peter Port harbor is thought to be a 3rd
century Roman cargo vessel probably at anchor, when a fire broke out. The Channel Islands were originally part of the European continent (Normandy in France), before rising seas formed the English Channel and created these new isles. Governed by France for hundreds of years, the French influence is everywhere, from architecture to street names and French, along with English, are the two official languages. Since the early 1800’s it is a British Crown Dependency, using the British Pound Sterling and recognizing Queen Elizabeth II as head of state. During World War II from June 30, 1940 to May 9, 1945 both Guernsey and Jersey were occupied by German troops (estimated to be between 10,000 and 15,000 during
these 5 years), resulting in Guernsey being very heavily fortified out of all proportion to the island’s strategic value. German defenses and alterations remain visible particularly to Castle Cornet and around the northern coast. Upon liberation on May 9, 1945, a national holiday was created and is now celebrated as Liberation Day on both islands. A few interesting facts:
- Guernsey is in the shape of a triangle with a population of approximately 63,000, of which 34,000 live in Saint Peter Port
- It has an English/Norman culture with a legal system originating in Norman Customary Law, overlaid with principles taken from English common law
- It comprises 10 parishes (the French influence) and measures just 8 miles long by 3.5 miles wide
My latest adventure began at Pier 17 down at the waterfront where I met John and off we went. First a twisting, turning ride thru narrow streets bordered on both sides by both French-influenced architecture and Guernsey style buildings (you can tell the Guernsey ones by the 5 windows in a straight line on the ground floor) – each structure built with the local blue and
orange granite mined just a few miles away. These are roadways which were NEVER intended for vehicular traffic – we are talking horse and cart transportation only. But to give credit where it’s due – these island folk are the politest and most considerate drivers I have ever encountered. With street width at a premium whichever driver can, will immediately either stop, pull over or backup to allow oncoming traffic, with a smile and a wave. This is obviously not an American city! Due to the twisting nature obviously speed could be an issue but it wasn’t – John kept us moving at around 25mph and that gave me the opportunity to eyeball the fascinating scenery along the route.
Following the main coastal road, it quickly became obvious why so many shipwrecks have occurred here. Yes, there are many beautiful beaches (some even have sand) but when it comes to rocks, Guernsey takes the prize. This place goes toe-to-toe with the rocky coastline of Maine and lighthouses appear on a regular basis.
First stop was at Jerbourg Point and walking out to the cliff-edge revealed a sweeping vista of sea and land for miles
around. I could see the sister islands of Jersey, Sark and Herm hovering on the horizon, but the heavy overcast skies cast a somewhat gloomy atmosphere to everything. This Point once had a German spotting station to report on Royal Navy supply ships – now just a large “X” marks the spot. We didn’t stop at the German Occupation Museum, but I understand it is a very comprehensive one. No doubt a “must visit” for another time.
John gave me a quick drive around Guernsey Airport, and I was surprised to learn there is about 50 flights in and out every day. Only small planes are allowed to land here (maximum 120 seaters) due to the length of the main runway, but talks are underway to extend this as tourism is booming here. Most of the planes on the tarmac had names I’ve never heard of, but I saw one for British Airways which makes a Guernsey stop enroute to Palma.
As we approached the northern coast, John pointed out the various batteries built by slave labor during World War II. Of course, the guns have been removed but above-ground turrets and tunnels are
visible, and some are located on private property. One such battery was covered in creeping ivy vines and flowers of every color – quite the art piece. There is a long stretch of stunning beach at L’Eree Bay, and I counted at least 4 massive concrete batteries with walls some 4’ thick. Impossible to remove or even blow up, so they are left “as is” – a monument to the Occupation. On the landside of the road was a large mansion (it looked abandoned) and is known as the White House. There is a rumor that Sir Elton John was interested in purchasing this, but nothing has happened with that so far. Bunting was hung from every lamppost along this stretch, as a local festival was kicking off today. Market stalls and food trucks were lined up at Guernsey Pearl selling just about anything from soup to nuts, and both locals and tourists were crowding the narrow beach walkway.
At the northern end of this beach stretch is the Colin Best Nature Reserve where, once each year, the Lawnmower Races are held. John had stories of people who had jacked up their rides with motorbike engines and
someone even used a helicopter engine – sadly most of these didn’t win, they either fell off, flipped over, or went airborne! Too bad I missed that excitement. Rules are that it must resemble a lawnmower, but it doesn’t have to actually cut grass – does that make any sense to anyone? Certainly not me but what the hell, I would have enjoyed watching it.
Directly across from this nature reserve is Lihou Island, a small tidal island in the English Channel with a population of 1 – he’s the warden. There is a 5-hour window every day at low tide when you can walk across the exposed 1,300’ stone causeway, but once the waters return that’s it, you don’t go anywhere for another 24 hours! In the past, the island was used by locals for the collection of seaweed for use as fertilizer, but today, Lihou is mainly used for tourism and school trips. It’s also an important center for conservation, forming part of a Ramsar wetland site of rare birds and plants, as well as historic ruins of a priory and a farmhouse. At one time there was a collection of seaweed-eating sheep here (can
that be for real?) but not today.
There is a major tourist attraction on Guernsey known as The Little Chapel, which would be our last stop before returning to Saint Peter Port. This was a work of art and labor built by Brother Deodat in March 1914. His plan was to create a miniature version of the famous grotto and basilica at Lourdes in France – the version seen today is the 3rd
version. His first effort measured a tiny 9’ long by 4.5’ wide but was highly criticized so Brother Deodat spent the following night demolishing it. He soon set to work again and in July 1914, the grotto was completed and officially blessed. This 2nd
structure survived until September 1923 when once again, Brother Deodat demolished it because the Bishop of Portsmouth had not been able to fit thru the doorway. Had it been me, I would have told the bishop to go on a diet. He soon set about the construction of a 3rd
chapel which can be seen today. The building operation proved very laborious, collecting pebbles and broken china dishes to decorate the shrine. Suddenly the Little Chapel became world famous, thanks
to an illustrated article in the UK’s Daily Mirror. Gifts poured in from around the world and islanders supplied colored china and the Governor offering remarkable mother-of-pearl. In 1939 Brother Deodat returned to France due to ill health. After his departure, the care of the Little Chapel was entrusted to Brother Cephas, who continued to decorate the building until his retirement in 1965. It’s open daily to visitors from 9am to 5pm and with no charge to enter the Chapel, it relies totally on public donations. By the way, it can only accommodate 6 people inside at one time.
A short walk to the end of the lane brought us to a gift shop and it was here that I had a small 6oz tub of the famous Guernsey ice-cream – I died and went to frozen treat heaven. The brown and white Guernsey cows produce the creamiest milk, and it isn’t exported. It’s so good that no other milk can be imported to the island, except for “long life” milk. It’s fat-rich cream content gives the ice-cream a pale yellow color and once tasted, you never forget it.
Are you ready for some
“Hedge Veg?” The entire time we drove around the island, I kept seeing what looked like a soapbox turned on its side with the open end facing the road, on top of walls/hedges in front of private residences. This is a unique concept and symbol of Guernsey heritage. More and more people are turning to local produce especially being more conscious about the quality they source and consume. Being the inventive and creative people they are, residents place fresh fruit, vegetables, home-grown plants, flowers, baking goods, jars of jams and jellies, eggs and handmade goods inside these boxes and using the honor system, you buy this stuff. A small locked and chained cash box is attached to the wooden dwelling and obviously the locals have great trust that what is taken is paid for. Only drawback is (from the purchaser’s point of view), the prices are low and there is no way to make change – so you either don’t pay or overpay – I’m guessing the latter is probably what happens most of the time. The products on offer are usually directly from the property owner but not always. Some buy it at the local markets in town and
sell it for a little higher price – that’s capitalism for you.
The main section of Saint Peter Port is a shopper’s paradise – you name the store, they have it. Great restaurants and pub food galore and being an island, seafood and shellfish are the order of the day. Oysters and lobsters are a major industry here. It’s a very walkable town and for those who would rather ride and get a guided tour, there’s Tuk-Tuk Tours (2 people in an open tuk-tuk) 60 pounds for each hour. Probably my favorite is the Petit Train, very similar to what you see in the parking lot at Disneyland, which offers a sightseeing trip with onboard commentary around this capital city. Departs from Pier 17, also known as Albert Pier opposite the Town Church, every day thru the summer season Tuesdays thru Sundays 11am to 4pm. It’s definitely geared more for kids, but the information gained is worth the ride, giving a great overview of the entire town, so you get your bearings for further sightseeing. The round trip lasts approximately 40 minutes, tickets are 6 pounds for adults, 3 pounds for children and those under 2 years
of age ride free. Purchase these at the ticket kiosk right at the waterfront. I highly recommend it. It isn’t wheelchair accessible.
Give Guernsey a try and don’t forget to bring lots of small coins for your Hedge Veg purchases!
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