On a glorious, hot summer day I was invited to try out the Condor Vitesse ferry as it restored its regular run from Weymouth to Guernsey. In a mere 3 hours I am in St Peter Port, the capital of the island. As we dock, I see instantly that this is a town full of character and history. And it is ablaze with colour as there is an unfeasibly abundant number of floral displays in every place imaginable; in window boxes and pots, decorating roundabouts and on rooftops. In fact, the Summer Floral Guernsey Festival (6- 14 July) had just finished with the winners of the various competitions savouring their trophies.
You wouldn’t think you could see much of a 24 sq. mile island in four hours but you’d be wrong. With a snappy tour guide to help (Carla is independent and available for hire, Carla.Bauer@CWGSY.net) we saw a great deal of this well-fortified island. It is easy to tell that Guernsey has always been strategically important due to the fortresses, watch towers and fortifications that are literally everywhere.
There are fascinating remains of German built tunnels, batteries and other military works especially in the vicinity of the red rock western coast and Fort Hommet. Liberation day, 9 May, is celebrated every year as the day the defeated Germans were finally ousted from these shores at the end of WWII in 1945.
A tour of the capital is de rigueur and does not disappoint. I noted a gargoyle’s head protruded from the ancient church and nearly touching the antique Albion Tavern next door. Built around 1050, the parish church was home to the French Normans who were the second wave of settlers after ancient pre-historic tribes had left. This proximity of a church to a public house is recorded in the Guinness Book of World Records – as the closest in the world! This is only one of the many quirky things about the next to the largest of the Channel Islands, 72 miles from the English mainland.
But my favourite ‘must see’ is the delightful Little Chapel down the lane from Blanchlande College in the rural middle of the island. Built by Brother Déodat to replicate the famous grotto and basilica at Lourdes, he tore it down and rebuilt it at least twice. The tiny chapel, garden walls and arches are covered entirely in broken bits of ceramic and pottery. This is a folly that is fun as well as poetic.
Castle Cornet, protrudes out beyond the pier and township. This ancient fortress has historically defended this port for at least a millennium. Its construction dates back to when the French Normans were first colonising this island. The early French occupation of Guernsey is noticeable in many of the names of famous folk, landmarks as well as street names: Cherbourg Point, La Rue Des Forges and General Sausmarez to name just a few. And St Peter’s Port parish church, which began construction in 1052, became Anglican in 1664.
VICTOR HUGO AND HAUTEVILLE HOUSE
As I pass through the corridor into the lush garden behind Hauteville House, I am taken by the lovely fountain and the abundant foliage. Though there are many military figures of note that lived here on the island (and currently quite a few famous millionaires as well) it is Victor Hugo who stands out as the most notorious resident of Guernsey. Having been exiled from France for his political leanings and writings in 1832, he stayed here for 16 years and then returned frequently. His white expansive house is now run and maintained by the French Government. It is here that Hugo wrote Les Misérables and La Légende des Siècles. The interior was designed exclusively by the writer and is said to be ‘a poem in many rooms’. The tour is free of charge and takes approximately one hour. There are also spectacular views from the roof of the house thrown into the deal.
FLORA AND FAUNA – FARMING AND FISHING
Long before finance and wealth management took over as the main occupation on the island, the main occupations were farming and raising dairy cows. The pretty rural interior of the island has tiny country roads lined with hedges and granite walls. If on attempting to pass another vehicle you get to close to one of these walls, you may discover you have, what the islander’s quaintly call, ‘granite rash’ on the side of your car. In the 1970s, Guernsey Toms (tomatoes) were famous the world over but became redundant when the Netherlands started mass production in the same decade. The island is still famous for its award winning Guernsey cows that produce particularly rich milk. The full fat milk, butter and ice cream from these cows’ milk is top notch and in demand on the mainland, too.
Hedge Veg boxes abound along roadsides all over the island and stalls are filled with fresh vegetables, fruit or even flowers. Whichever crop is in season is placed in these strategically perched wooden boxes by farmers and can be purchased. And there is an honesty box as this proposition is entirely self-service.
Seafood is excellent as you might expect from an island in the English Channel. Sea bass and lobster are particularly popular with visitors. The restaurant, Pier 17 in St. Peter’s Port, is well known for the quality of its seafood. Foodie festivals are growing in prominence as various
Fish ‘n chips can be purchased in the tiny tin shop near the Rubis Garage in Cobo Bay. This local treat has now been discovered by visitors as well. Noshing on your dinner while perched on the sea wall opposite while the sun goes down is truly one of the best experiences Guernsey has to offer.
Many peoples from varying cultures have inhabited this island over the centuries but it is truly British today. With bunting hanging all over St Peter Port, parish churches dotted about, flowers and fish ‘n chips everywhere, you know Guernsey is actually a little slice of Blightly.
Guernsey private tours range from £25-£30 per hour depending on the guide. For more details and bookings: http://www.guernseyguidedtours.com/index.html
Condor Ferries operates a year-round service connecting the UK via Weymouth, Poole and Portsmouth to the Channel Islands and France including Guernsey. Call 0845 609 1024 or visit www.condorferries.com. Prices start from £198 for a car + 2 return. Foot passenger return – From £55 per adult.