Global walk: Channel Island hopping
Paul Miles discovers historic towns, secluded beaches and local intrigue on a new long-distance route linking Jersey, Guernsey, Herm, Sark and Alderney
“Can’t you see? It’s a baboon! And over there’s a camel.”
I’m not on safari but walking the coast of Guernsey. Islander and walking guide Gill Girard is vainly attempting to point out animal shapes in the pink granite cliffs. “Victor Hugo [who lived on the island] called this west coast ‘the coast of mirages’,” says Gill, exasperated by my lack of vision. The islanders can hallucinate even without the aid of absinthe, it seems.
For the visitor, though, there’s enough to see on this 30-square-mile island without resorting to an imaginary menagerie. “Walking is becoming increasingly popular,” says Gill, giving up on the camel – and not just on Guernsey. A new guidebook, The Channel Island Way, details a 110-mile coastal route over the five main Channel Islands – Jersey, Guernsey, Alderney, Sark and Herm. I visited all but Alderney, although I spent the most time on Guernsey.
France, flowers and film-making
Roughly triangular in shape, the second-largest island of this British Crown Dependency has some spectacular walking, especially along its highest – southern – coast. Here, few inhabitants and cliffs reaching nearly 90m/ 300ft make for picturesque and fairly wild hiking terrain. We started at Saints Bay on the southeast, a pebbly cove overlooked by an old stone loop-holed tower. The islands’ allegiance to the British Crown dates back to the 13th century, when Henry III surrendered his claim to the Duchy of Normandy but retained the Channel Islands. Their proximity to France means that all the coastlines are laced with defences. Most were built during the late 18th and early 19th centuries to deter French invaders. More recently, in the Second World War and under German occupation, slave labourers from Russia and the Ukraine built hundreds of lookouts, tunnels and bunkers. They lie empty now, but in true ‘swords to ploughshares’ fashion, some are used to grow mushrooms or farm fish.
We walked on past a dinky ancient harbour and then steeply upwards. The path is particularly well maintained along its route, with benches conveniently placed for views and rests. Alexanders, bluebells, gorse and campions lined the way, and a wren trilled from budding blackthorn. With the spring sunshine warming through the morning’s chill mist, it was a heavenly start.
The abundant wild flowers once staved off hunger for some. Under occupying forces, food was scarce and so the islanders learnt to make do and mend. “They made tea from bramble leaves and coffee from parsnips,” says Gill. The privations endured by islanders during the war are now set to become the subject of a major new film. Kate Winslet will take the lead in an adaptation of The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society. If all goes to plan, it will be filmed on the island within the year. “The location manager loved the place,” explains Gill, who was tasked with guiding her and director Kenneth Branagh around her native island.
It is undeniably pretty: a model toy-town island of little lanes (some with 15mph speed limits and priority for walkers, cyclists and horses) and sturdy homes, neatly built from local granite. There were more than 260 granite quarries in Guernsey in the industry’s heyday, and it’s thought the steps of London’s St Paul’s Cathedral are built from the island’s granite. The storm-washed cliffs display the rainbow spectrum so prized in the elaborate masonry the rock was used for.
After an hour-and-a-half’s walking, we reached Petit Bôt Bay. Although it was March, two women were towelling off after a swim. “It’s cold at first, then you go numb, and then it’s lovely,” said one stoically, who estimated the temperature at nine degrees. In summer and autumn the sea is pleasantly warm, they assured me.
An hour further on, after passing a launch point for a fishing boat that looked like a daring funfair ride with its vertiginous tracks down the cliffs, we reached a cliff- top restaurant-bar. Le Gouffre was a pleasant stop for a cold drink and some eavesdropping. One man, tucking into an £8 crab sandwich, spoke plummily about chandeliers, BMWs and African safaris. Although house prices are astronomical in this tax haven, it doesn’t mean that everything is hideously expensive (nor that everyone is pretentious). Holiday accommodation spans a similar price range to that of seaside resorts in the UK, with camping the budget option (about £10 per person per night). Likewise, drinks and meals range in price. Our day’s walk of 12 miles ended with a big pot of tea for just £1.40 at a beach-side kiosk where the fresh crab sandwiches cost a more reasonable £5.50. We then took a bus (£1) back to our hotel.
Unspoilt beaches and coves
The next morning I headed away from Guernsey across a mist-wreathed sea to car-free Herm, just 20 minutes away by boat. With its long, sandy beaches, this peaceful island beckons visitors from Guernsey’s picturesque – but sometimes traffic-choked – capital, St Peter Port. Oystercatchers piped me ashore as I set off around the half-mile-wide, mile-and-a-half-long speck. I stopped to admire views back across to Guernsey and the nearby private island of Jethou, just as the helicopter of its current leaseholder, Sir Peter Ogden, came in to land.
From such small islands, looking out to sea comes naturally. Appropriate, then, that an Antony Gormley statue – Another Time XI – does the same. I could have walked, briskly, around Herm in an hour, but instead I dawdled, unable to resist whiling away time on its most famous bay, Shell Beach. I was there off-season and the beach and shack-café were empty, but in summer it must be thronging with sunbathers. As well as day-trippers, there is accommodation for several hundred people on the island: one hotel, a campsite and some lovely self-catering cottages.
If Herm is a sparkling diamond, Sark is an uncut emerald. It is rugged and green, with a handful of stony coves accessible by steep steps down cliff-sides. The only road vehicles are tractors, horse-drawn carriages and bicycles. The roads are dirt tracks. Although Sark is just two square miles, the sea is often out of sight while walking the Way. There is no coastal path so I followed dusty tracks inland for much of the time, with only the sight of boats marooned in fields to remind me I was near the ocean. However, approaching the peninsula of Little Sark, there are vertigo-inducing sea views from the narrow isthmus known as La Coupée.
On Little Sark, La Sablonnerie Hotel & Tea Gardens is a welcome stop, whatever the weather. It was breezy and cool when I arrived, but waiter Bryan Dolan made me welcome with warm scones and fresh island cream next to an open fire. The postman called to deliver letters. “A pleasant job,” I said. “When the weather’s fine,” he replied, and regaled me with how – on one occasion – he had to kneel on top of his bicycle to stop it blowing away when crossing La Coupée.
This tiny, self-governing island has more than its share of stories. Bryan told me of a Frenchman who checked in to La Sablonnerie with a heavy suitcase. “The next day he put up posters around the island saying he was taking charge at midday,” said Bryan. “Then he put on combat gear and took a machine gun into the village. One of the constables managed to disarm him and two or three tractors surrounded him. He was duly escorted to the island’s two-man prison.”
Today, islanders talk of a new takeover, this time by the multi-millionaire Barclay brothers, who own neighbouring island Brecqhou. The media moguls are challenging the status quo on Sark, managed for centuries by a feudal ‘seigneur’. They are buying up land and businesses. Their projects – renewable energy, vineyards and sustainable hotels – are worthy, but the disharmony their approach is causing in the community makes national headlines. This tension, continuously bubbling below the olde worlde exterior, is arguably more dramatic than the walking. No wonder the next series of the BBC’s An Island Parish is to be filmed here.
The last I saw of Sark were its green cliffs rising from the sea as I stood on the deck of a fast ferry speeding from Guernsey to Jersey. Jersey is the big brother of the Channel Islands – even more so when the tide is out. The tidal range is so large that Jersey doubles in size to over 90 square miles, leaving huge sandy beaches to enjoy.
“The whole island slopes north to south, like a giant solar panel,” says Arthur Lamy, who wrote The Channel Island Way guidebook. I accompanied him on a short walk along one of his favourite spots, the north coast. After a sandwich at St Catherine’s Breakwater, we walked past lobster fishermen unloading their catch and up onto cliffs, past fields of Jersey Royal potatoes, houses of honeyed stone, villages, farms and mansions. We finished at Bouley Bay, where Mad Mary’s Beach Café does a mean mug of tea and fruitcake. On the horizon, the tiny, rocky Ecréhous islands were just visible through the haze. “You often see dolphins there, and it’s great for kayaking,” said Arthur. The craggy outcrops are uninhabited but for a clutch of holiday homes that cling to bare rocks. They look beguiling.
“A la préchaine,” I said to myself in Jersey French, or Jèrriais. Until next time.
Images © Paul Miles / Axiom