“Gradually the magic of the island settled over us as gently and clingingly as pollen.” ~ Gerald Durrell
I do love islands. I seem always to feel more comfortable living on an island than in a landlocked country, be it as big as Australia or as small as the microscopic Channel Isles floating off the coast of Normandy. Even though France is only fourteen miles across the sea, these five islands – Jersey, Guernsey, Alderney, Sark and Herm – plus a handful of uninhabited ‘islets,’ are dependencies of the British crown, one hundred miles from the English coast. At low tide, it feels as if you could walk across the sand to Normandy.
The Channel Islands have always been easy prey for marauders, and there are endless tales and legends of enemy invasions. Throughout the 14th and 15th centuries there was a daunting stream of raiders who plundered the islands, burning crops and homes and murdering the locals. Yet, the one invasion that continues to enthrall our imaginations, however, is that of the German occupation during World War Two. If you have ever read ‘The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society,‘ you will know something about this chapter of its history. Guernsey was taken, undefended by the British, on June 30th 1940. A day later, Jersey also surrendered to the German Army. The Channel isles would remain occupied by the Germans until May 9th 1945.
I first went to the Channel Islands in 1991 for a three week posting on Jersey – the largest of the islands and the closest to France – where I was to look after an elderly lady with Alzheimer’s in her home on the eastern tip of the island.
Flying into the airport at Saint Peters in a pocket-sized prop plane is a magical, if somewhat unnerving experience. I first spotted the island from a height of several thousand feet. Lying in the Bay of Mont Saint Michel, the tiny island was lapped by glittering blue sea. The plane looped around over the Colentin Peninsula in Normandy, then descended so rapidly I thought we were going to land in a field among the doe-eyed Jersey cows. Swooping in low, over farmhouses, riding stables, fields and trees, I had my first glimpse of the legendary Jersey wealth: a helipad marked out on the lawn beside a country manor house. As the plane slammed on its brakes and rushed down a ridiculously short airstrip, I thought we might career off the end of the runway and tip into the sea. Perhaps a helicopter would have been safer?
Luckily, we didn’t end up under the waves, but I got a soaking anyway, as I discovered the unpredictable nature of the weather in the Channel Islands. Advertised in travel magazines with overtones of a Caribbean or Pacific island, Jersey may benefit from the Gulfstream, which softens the blow of the English winter, but Fiji it most definitively is not. We had flown in through powder puff clouds in a deep blue sky. I stepped out of the airport into a deluge.
Jersey is 5 miles x 9 miles or 45.6 square miles. (Of course, at this tiny size, every square foot counts.) Like intestines, almost 350 miles of narrow lanes twist and tie themselves in knots around the island, hemmed in by shoulder high stone walls and hedgerows, capable of confusing the hell out of even the most astute navigator. Yet, I was more than happy at the prospect of losing myself in this maze of lanes, strolling along the cliffs or clambering down into the rocky coves in every spare moment.
Historically, Jersey has always been intensely farmed. Fields of cabbages and parsley were once kept well fertilised by the seaweed harvested from the beaches. Today, potatoes are the most important export crop, shipped mostly to the UK. And of course, there is the famous Jersey cow whose loyalty to its eponymous home ensures that those exported from the island never reach quite the same levels of excellence as those that remain. I often spotted them peering curiously over the walls as I wandered by, or was forced to tuck myself up against a hedge to avoid their hooves as they crammed into the green, tunnelled lanes at milking time, lowing wearily, their engorged udders swinging heavily and giving them a strange bowlegged gait.
Tourism also plays a part in the local economy, and both Guernsey and Jersey become offshore tax havens long ago. This has escalated the population from 57,000 at the end of the war to 106,000 in 2020. Population control has now become a major political issue on Jersey, as more and more houses are built, and housing prices rise beyond the reach of the locals.
Enough facts and figures, let’s jump back on our bikes, as I’ve discovered they are cheap to hire and even cheaper to run, requiring only the cost of a little muscle power…
Inevitably, every bike ride leads to the coast, where rocky promontories fold protective arms around tiny coves and bite-sized bays, clusters of small fishing boats nestling cosily on a polished silver sea, like dozing ducks. Or, if the tide is low – Jersey has one of the largest tidal ranges in the world, the island almost doubling in size twice a day – the boats loll drunkenly in the muddy grey sand that stretches out towards the French mainland, to which it was once connected by huge oak forests. On the way, I pass elegant manor houses tucked behind what remains of those ancient oak trees, and many of the old stone farmhouses that were introduced by the Normans. I was told that the true Jersey house traditionally has five windows across the front of the upper storey, and consequently spent the next fortnight religiously counting windows.
Aboard my trusty bike, I took to the coast roads to look for the plethora of military defences that sit above the beaches. Before the Germans built their sturdy, rather grim looking turrets along the coastline, the British had built some rather more attractive military architecture to keep the French at bay. These older fortifications include numerous medieval castles and forts, Martello towers to defend the island against Napoleon, artillery batteries and seawalls.
Mont Orgueil is a thirteenth century fortress built as Jersey’s first primary defence. It squats high above St Anne’s Port, where the narrow terraced houses of the town huddle at the foot of its mighty walls, clinging like toddlers to their mother’s apron strings. When superseded by Elizabeth Castle, it became, for a while, the island’s only prison.
Elizabeth Castle was constructed on a tidal island in the bay at Saint Helier. Originally an Abbey, the Crown confiscated the monastic buildings during the Reformation and the buildings were then used for military purposes. Construction of the castle itself began in 1594. It became the Governor’s residence and was named for Elizabeth I by Sir Walter Raleigh, who was Governor of Jersey between 1600 and 1603.
I also discovered a multitude of Nazi gun escarpments along the cliffs. But perhaps the most fascinating reminder of the presence of the Third Reich is the underground hospital in Saint Lawrence, much along the lines of one I have seen on Corregidor in Manila Bay. A marvel of modern engineering and muscle, the hospital was dug into the hill by slave labour, prisoners of war who were marched barefoot across Europe to die in crushing rock falls 130 feet below the surface. These underground tunnels remained unfinished at the time the island was liberated in 1945, but were nonetheless fully heated and air conditioned, and could provide 600 beds, staff quarters, an operating theatre and extensive kitchens. Although the Channel Islands had little strategic value to the Germans, their psychological importance for propaganda purposes was enormous. For the first time in British history, the German army had its foot in the door, albeit at a small back entrance.
On my afternoon bike rides I head west, where a vast expanse of sand stretches around the coast and provides superb views of the La Corbière lighthouse to the south. To the north, are the cliffs and rocky outcrops of l’Etac. At Grouville Bay, when the tide is low, neat rows of oyster beds lie just below the surface of the sea and are apparently the largest oyster beds in the British Isles.
Jersey is divided into 12 parishes – Grouville, St Clements, St Brelades, St Helier – that were originally set up as Norman fiefdoms. Did I mention the Normans? In 933, the islands were annexed to the Duchy of Normandy. When William II of Normandy invaded and conquered England in 1066, the islands became possessions of the English Crown. The heavy influence of Jersey’s Norman ancestry can still be seen in the street names, on the farms and in the surnames on the gravestones in every parish churchyard. In the late eighteenth century, as wealthy French émigrés fled the Revolution and sought refuge on the Channel Islands, the islands were nicknamed ‘the French Isles’. It’s history is also apparent in the local Norman dialect, Jèrriais, although today, this French patois is only spoken by a handful of inhabitants, and the official French language of previous centuries has been firmly replaced by English in the twentieth century.
Today, Jersey is a self-governing parliamentary democracy under a constitutional monarchy, with its own financial, legal and judicial systems and the power of self-determination, with a resident Lieutenant Governor as the personal representative of the Queen.
Famous people associated with Jersey include King Charles II, who spent a year in exile at Elizabeth castle from 1649-1650. Victor Hugo also spent many years in exile, first on Jersey and then on Guernsey, where he finished Les Misérables. When I was there in 1991, Roger Moore had a house just down the road from where I was staying in St. Martins. It looked like a wedding cake with blue edging and he had named it Moonraker. Of course.
Gerald Durrell established his famous zoo on Jersey in 1959, designed to preserve endangered species by increasing their numbers in captivity before returning them to the wild. Today, it is operated by the Durrell Wildlife Conservation Trust, but Durrell was still alive when I visited the zoo thirty years ago. The site for the zoo is Les Augres Manor, a 17th-century manor house which Durrell originally leased. I remember spacious gardens, beautifully laid out with wide lawns and colourful flowerbeds surrounding enclosures made to look as natural as possible; an aviary that was large enough for parrakeets to stretch their wings and fly about, while the gorillas and apes were provided with a broad range of climbing and swinging equipment. Eventually, in 1971, Durrell arranged to buy the property from its owner, to ensure his animals had a permanent home. It has also provided a permanent home for Durrell, whose ashes were buried there in 1995.
So, to finish where we began, with another quote from the inimitable Mr. Durrell: “Until we consider animal life to be worthy of the consideration and reverence we bestow upon old books and pictures and historic monuments, there will always be the animal refugee living a precarious life on the edge of extermination, dependent for existence on the charity of a few human beings.”