Rising from the English Channel among an island archipelago, Guernsey is a sparkling emerald blessed with a mild climate, beautiful beaches and the hallmarks of its fascinating history. Spread over 24 square miles, the island has a population of 62,000, swelling with seasonal visitors, mainly from France, Germany and the UK. Thanks to the recent publication of the acclaimed novel Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society by American author Mary Ann Shaffer, the island is attracting interest further afield, with travellers curious to see the landscape that inspired writings of post-war hope and friendship. French tourists have been crossing water for decades to visit the former home of their own literary hero Victor Hugo, exiled to Guernsey in 1855 where he remained for 15 years, penning Les Misérables during his stay, and also to see some of the views that inspired Renoir’s paintings.
The second largest of the Channel Islands after Jersey, Guernsey was once part of continental Europe until the end of the last Ice Age, and archaeological evidence reveals that there has been human activity here since 10,000BC, with Neolithic monuments dotted around the island. Les Fouaillages in the north is the site of a burial mound thought to date to 4,500BC, making it older than Stonehenge in Wiltshire, England. Guernsey has enjoyed a special relationship with England since 1066 when it became part of the Duchy of Normandy after the Normans conquered England. The Channel Islands remained loyal to the Crown even in 1204 when King John lost Normandy back to the French, and since then have been Crown Dependencies, separate from the government of the UK, despite falling under their ‘ownership’. Jersey and Guernsey (along with its smaller neighbours including Herm, Sark and Alderney) were eventually divided into two bailiwicks, able to make their own laws and tax systems, even their own banknotes. And while the British pound sterling is accepted currency, the island’s blue post boxes hint at its independence.
Guernsey is a Viking name, possibly meaning ‘Green Island’. Prior to this, the Romans are thought to have named it ‘Lisia’. Gill Girard, a guide for Visit Guernsey tourist board, says: “Guernsey’s prosperity is down to its geographical position as the most westerly of all the Channel Islands. We were on the trade route from Roman times and our attractive cobbled harbour town of St Peter Port witnessed the arrival of these early seafarers.” The naturally sheltered port developed at the same speed as its trading prosperity – signs of which can still be seen in the stonework of both its medieval and Victorian-age harbour. Beneath the surface, traces of Roman occupation discovered in this busy corner of their empire include pottery, and a shipwreck dating to AD280. Such finds provide conclusive evidence that the island was under their control for centuries before eventual abandonment to the lesser-known populaces of the Dark Ages, and the Norman Empire much later. Prosperous years followed the end of the Hundred Years War in the 15th century. In St Peter Port wealthy merchants had fine houses built for their families, their financial success owed to the import of luxury goods: wines, spirit, fabrics and tobacco, which were openly traded, away from the restrictions of customs and excise laws of the mainland.
To protect the island from the threat of French invasion Castle Cornet was built on a rock in St Peter Port harbour, with work starting in 1250. This incredible fortress now houses five museums telling the history of Guernsey, leading the visitor through the building of the castle, its maritime and military heritage. It is also a kind of adventure playground, full of nooks and crannies, steps leading enticingly hither and pockets of windswept gardens with views stretching across the bay. To fend off foreign attack in the lead up to the Napoleonic Wars the British army was stationed in Castle Cornet, but conditions were cramped and they were transferred to a new base built in 1780 just outside town at Fort George, now a housing development with sea views. Beyond the military personnel charged with defending the island, farming and fishing were the main industries for centuries. In medieval Guernsey agricultural families would supplement their meagre income by knitting English wool into clothing to sell. The famous Guernsey jumper is a traditional fisherman’s sweater made of worsted wool in navy blue – for generations it has been knitted in a unique style and still made by a few dedicated local residents, though sadly these skills are fading. Today, Guernsey’s economy is fuelled by the financial services industry. “The Channel Islands are a very favourable place to do business,” explains Gill. “This means we have a lot of young vibrant professionals, many of whom want to base themselves here.”
In August 1846 Queen Victoria and Prince Albert sought out Guernsey’s charms on a whim, and St Peter Port was hurriedly decorated in time for their arrival. This honoured visit was later commemorated with the construction of Victoria Tower, one of three prominent landmarks on the harbour town’s skyline. The tower’s striking colouring is all natural – the red hues of Guernsey’s famous granite quarried from Le Guet on the west coast. Granite was exported in vast quantities in the 1800s with 260 quarries excavated for roads and monuments in the UK. Many have since been used to hold water or landfill, now forming part of Guernsey’s interesting landscape. “You can walk the whole way round the coast,” says Gill. “Along the way you might see some of our wild orchids, unique to the island. Thanks to the mild climate subtropical plant life thrives, and there are fewer pests to interfere with it: unlike the UK our wildlife does not include moles, squirrels, badgers, foxes or snakes.”
Guernsey inhabitants are resilient. They have withstood change as frequent as the tides, but one constant has been the fertile lands which have made the cultivation of fruit and vegetables, including the cider apple and humble tomato, a simple task. Today, the island exports flowers along with dairy produce from the lovely Guernsey cattle, while the rare breed Golden Guernsey goat is prized by islanders. The fishing industry has naturally always been important. In the fancy seafood restaurants menus tempt with lobster, spider crab, turbot and bass. On some dinner tables the traditional Guernsey Bean Jar meat and vegetable stew continues to provide a filling and cheap alternative to island delicacies. Another culinary favourite is the ormer, in season from January to April, and though more challenging to find along the shoreline than other molluscs, the search is considered well worth the effort. “Visitors need to know the wind directions and the tides if heading to the beach,” says Gill. “For families, there’s a lovely beach at Fermain Bay within walking distance of St Peter Port. Be aware of the dangers though. We have one of the highest tidal ranges in the world at around 30ft – it makes a huge difference to the coastline. While on the south coast there’s barely a beach at high tide, on the west the beaches are at their best at high tide as the water is shallower and the beaches flatter.”
The sea has proved a difficult mistress throughout Guernsey’s history. Vulnerable as the island was to attack, defences were continually improved. Fortresses were erected around the island during the 18th century and major work at the start of the 19th century changed the local geography. Until then Guernsey was in fact two islands separated by a tidal channel. In 1804 General Sir John Doyle, Lieutenant Governor of Guernsey, decided to dam and drain the waterway – finally completed in 1806. At the same time he reinforced the forts already in place around the coast and on the newly reclaimed land built military roads to the army garrison. These formidable forts played no part in preventing the arrival of 20,000 German soldiers who landed on a semi evacuated Guernsey on 30 June 1940 in the early days of the Second World War. Hitler’s troops were stationed on the island until Liberation Day on 9 May 1945 and to defend their new base some 5,000 prisoners of war were tasked with building 700 fortifications, including bunkers and watch towers: menacing concrete edifices that stand as defiant reminders across the cliffs. Post-war action was taken to remove them but proved futile.
For those who chose not to evacuate, all semblance of the traditional Guernsey way of life was stripped away, including the national language of ‘Guernesiasis’, an old form of Norman. Those who returned from the mainland following the liberation had little, if any, recollection of the old patois, though local groups are now reviving it. The German Occupation Museum near the airport is a treasure trove of items left in the wake of the Nazis’ defeat, collected by curator Richard Heaume. See letters sent between local women and their German sweethearts, Nazi coffee pots and napkins, photographs of officers socialising and the weapons they carried. One of the wonderful and surprising things to note today is the sense of trust among the islanders. It is not uncommon to see boxes of ‘hedge veg’ produce left on roadsides outside farms or smallholdings for passersby to help themselves to, leaving payment in an ‘honesty’ box – a scheme that leaves many visitors baffled. During the 19th century Victor Hugo described his adopted home as: ‘the noble little nation of the sea’. For wildlife too, it is a haven. Migratory birds flock here, and seals and dolphins can be spotted offshore, as can a clutch of the smaller Channel Islands including Herm and Sark.
With its many European influences, temperate climate and tranquil pace of life, Guernsey feels a world away from the British mainland. Enjoy the duty free shopping on your way home or find a reason to stay longer.
Planning your visit
By air, Flybe travels to Guernsey from airports across the UK. Tel: 0871 700 2000. www.flybe.com. Alternatively fly from Gatwick, Stansted, Manchester, Bristol or East Midlands with Aurigny Air Services, www.aurigny.com; Blue Islands, www.blueislands.com; or Air Southwest, www.airsouthwest.com By sea, car ferries run from the south coast of England: www.condorferries.com Guernsey buses are a great way of getting around and cost £1 per journey. Or take a hire car with Hertz. Tel: 01481 239 516. The island speed limit is 35mph and parking is free.
Where to eat: Auberge bar and restaurant in St Martins offers award winning cuisine against a sea view backdrop. Tel: 01481 238 485. www.theauberge.gg
Where to stay: The Duke of Richmond Hotel, Cambridge Park, St Peter Port offers excellent, friendly service and is close to the Guernsey Museum & Art Gallery and Victoria Tower. Rooms start from £50 per person per night with breakfast. Tel: 01481 726 221. www.dukeofrichmond.com
Don’t miss: the Bailiwick of Guernsey Tapestry at St James in St Peter Port which illustrates 1,000 years of the island’s history.
More information: VisitGuernsey tourist information provides details for planning your stay. www.visitguernsey.com