CHANNEL ISLANDS: Part III

GUERNSEY (continued…)

Thursday-Thursday, May 23-30, 2019

We didn’t only do indoor touring as these islands offer a gorgeous backyard in which to play.

We had heard of two beautiful islands close to Guernsey–Herm and Sark. Daily ferries connect to both for day tripping, and based on some friends’ recommendations we decided on Sark.

The island is populated by 600 people, not including the seasonal influx of tourists, animals–both domesticated and wild

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(saw a rabbit, Deborah, and thought of you :), tractors, horse-drawn carts,

and bikes. What we didn’t see are cars, which are not allowed on the island ensuring lovely cycling roads–when not avoiding the tourists, animals, tractors, horse-drawn carts, and other cyclists.

We saw a few of the formal sights such as the local prison,

and the 17th-century La Seigneurie where two of the three ruling families (seigneurs and dames) lived.

Not quite understanding exactly who these Seigneurs and Dames were, I learned about one of the more recent ones when stopping in at the Tourist Information (TI) Office. There I read about the Nazi Occupation and the formidable and feisty Dame Sibyl Hathaway (1884-1974), the feudal overlord who inherited the position of Dame when her father, the Seigneur, died.

Wanting to learn more about this Dame, I found a wonderfully entertaining article, which is definitely worth reading if you’re interested.

During her lifetime Dame Hathaway fought to maintain Sark’s bucolic way of life, one established way back when. She did so with comments such as, “If it was good enough for William the Conqueror, it should be good enough for us”. After reading the above-mentioned article, this pronouncement gives you a pretty good idea of why she could be labeled ‘feisty and formidable’.

Speaking of good ole William, feudal laws followed under the Normans still existed well into the 1900s, which is how Sibyl inherited her right to govern over the other islanders.  This changed in 2008 with elected officials replacing this hereditary position, but not necessarily voiding all of the Dame’s ‘rules’ as cars are still not allowed on the island…

Similar to other islands of intoxicating landscapes, Sark has attracted its share of artists. Prior to WWII some set up their own colony calling themselves the Sark Group. They built their own two-story studio and gallery, which today serves as the Post Office and store. We saw some of their art work on signage in the small TI office. Every time I read about creative retreats such as this one I think of our artist friends and how they would soak this up.

The painting above captures one of the most spectacular views on the island. It appears when crossing to ‘Little Sark’ via a manmade bridge (repaired in 1945 thanks to Dame Hathaway’s use of German POWs from the occupation).

In spite of quite a drop on either side my fear of heights didn’t keep me from enjoying the 360º vista.

Although, I do admit the handrail came in handy every now and then as we walked our bikes across. Walked because riding wasn’t allowed.

I can’t tell you how much I loved exploring this island. And, I can’t specifically state why except to believe it came from riding down country roads under a sunny, blue-sky day, poking here and there, stopping for refreshments (yes, coffee) while engaging in conversation with other contented souls, and just literally ‘being’. Talk about lucky.

The only dark cloud above Sark, and not one tourists would necessarily know about, comes from the recent domination of two landlords, the billionaire Barclay twins. In 1993 they purchased Brecqhou, a little island NW of Sark and proceeded to build a huge Gothic castle. Subsequently, they bought/built four hotels on Sark and also planted a vineyard (in an area not necessarily noted for its fine wine…).

With all of this wealth they exhibited the typical 1%-ers behavior:  we later heard of the Barclays helicoptering in a head of lettuce from their Ritz Hotel because it was organic. It better make some good salads if that’s how they’re doing their grocery shopping.

Being the wealthiest islanders they aimed to mold Sark into their own private fiefdom. They bullied the islanders into changing an inheritance law, reducing Brecqhuo’s taxes, and challenging the centuries-old rule of the Seigneur (or Dame). The latter the Barclays said wasn’t democratic enough. But, then, after the 2008 voting in of a democratically elected chamber they threw a temper tantrum when their candidates weren’t voted in. For revenge the twins shuttered their businesses  (tossing over 100 locals out of work). They reopened them later only to close them again. Trust me, it gets complicated.

For visitors, though, this friction seems pretty muted.  We learned of only two signs of this divisiveness: (1) when our waitress said they had just opened after four years of closure,and, if the Barclays felt the business did well, they’d remain open;

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(2) the withering grape vines we passed cycling out of town. But, as I said, we didn’t feel any simmering undercurrent during our short stay.

Returning our bikes we walked down the steep hill back to the ferry dock, feeling completely sated with a summertime joy.

You don’t have to go off island to appreciate Guernsey’s outdoor attractions.

The town itself provides interesting walks. A maze of cobblestone streets and stairs wind up and down the hills. It seemed we were always going up or down some incline.

Yet, any climbing resulted in a lovely view over the city.

Even after a week of going places in town I still couldn’t tell you the most direct way to reach anywhere. Other than our coffee place, of course.

During one of our first self-guided tours around town we passed a plaque on Tower Hill. It was one of the most disturbing ones I’ve seen, for it marked the spot where a mother and her two daughters, one being pregnant, were burned to death for their Protestant belief under Bloody Queen Mary’s rule.

To make it even more horrifying the daughter gave birth during the burning, and the executioners decided to throw the baby back into the fire. Makes me sick just writing this even now.

When discussing this with the minister mentioned in my earlier Guernsey post he said people were horrified to hear this and determined the islanders needed to be educated. So, when reigns changed from Mary to Elizabeth I, the Elizabeth College for Boys was established by the Queen in 1563.

A much pleasanter walk took us to a peaceful oasis in the middle of town where stunning photographs serve as part of the flora.

Candie Garden, perched on a hillside in the north part of town, drew us to another spectacular piece of St. Peter Port. We didn’t visit the Guernsey Museum and Art Gallery there but did see a statue dedicated to its famous exile-er.

I had mentioned in Channel Islands: Part I the best-seller, THE GUERNSEY LITERARY AND POTATO PEEL PIE SOCIETY, as being one of my few sources of information prior to arriving here. Set during the Nazi Occupation 1940-45 the story features landmarks existing today.

I found reminders of this book scattered throughout the town, which isn’t surprising considering the tourism board has embraced this novel whole-heartedly. They’ve even created a ‘passport’ you can get stamped in various locations.

Adding to that, one of the walks promoted in their “Tasty Walks” guide book features a city trail dedicated to locales associated with the book’s characters.

That guide book turned out to be a great resource. We didn’t really do any of the 20 self-guided walks but wish we had, especially after circumnavigating the island on the public buses.

Halfway around we had to switch buses, and while waiting we noticed a wetsuit throng of little ones hoisting surfboards for a lesson. Whenever we come across surfers I always think of my Nags Head family who, for sure, would have been catching waves if they were here. Those wetsuits would come in handy as I believe the water is about the same invigorating temp as Maine’s.

We ended up taking a trail on the south side of the island, and the scenery was stunning.

Being a Bank Holiday Weekend plenty of other visitors were out and about strolling the streets. Especially the one fronting the harbor featuring an annual fair. A mushroom of tents had sprouted up over night and now offered a range of wares from ice cream to pet accessories.

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And, no surprise seeing dog collars and catnip for sale:  tThe Guernsey SPCA sponsored the fair. Which also accounted for the appropriately dressed folk playing ball.

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The day also offered one of our favorite activities:  sticking our heads out of head holes…

Being in a harbor where boats appeared to come and go as often as the tide we met some fabulous folk, both visiting cruisers and locals:  Karen and Jean-Luc; Elie, Jan and Mike; Sadie and Denis; and, the local port captain of the Cruising Association, Richard. And, being sailors, they kindly shared their knowledge of ports and anchorages assisting us in where to head next.

This port didn’t lack for boaters, especially with the number of regattas. We’d go to bed on an almost-empty pontoon only to wake up the next morning surrounded by a boat load of racers, some even rafting to us in the middle of the night. Definitely added a higher level of energy to the harbor.

Experiencing some of the Channel Islands I was amazed we hadn’t really thought of them as a vacation destination. The lovely outdoors combined with a distinct cultural experience felt similar to visiting the Azores, another European archipelago (albeit a bit further away from the mainland).  Although, we had heard more cruise ships were popping into the harbor here, which explained the American accents we heard when walking in town or riding the buses.

In speaking later with a resident, she said tourism had actually decreased since the heyday of the 1950s, 60s and 70s.

During those decades these islands served as an exotic destination for Brits who wanted sun and beaches (and there are some amazing ones here) while also enjoying the ease of an English-speaking country. Furthermore, frequent ferry runs between the mainland and islands ensured convenient transportation.

Yet, as the Brits began to venture further afield to Spain and other countries offering similar amenities, and sometimes for less money, the Channel Islands lost a lot of their visitors. Now an emphasis is on marketing these islands resulting in an increase in tourism, one of Guernsey’s main economic drivers. 

So, if you’re looking for a relaxing spot to stretch your legs and treat your eyes, consider the Channel Islands. And, if you do, please say hello to Mrs. Tiggy-Winkle for me :)

 

 

 

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