EXPLORE… THE ISLE OF SARK A
A true escape from modern life, this tiny car-free island is a wildlife haven made up of bucolic countryside, secluded coves and a vibrant community
true escape from modern life, this tiny car-free island of bucolic countryside and secluded coves is a wildlife haven
I SHOULD HAVE KNOWN, as I watched a lone cormorant diving in and out of the turquoise water of Guernsey Harbour, that I was about to go somewhere a bit special. Waiting for the ferry to Sark, as my avian companion perched on the rocks, spreading his elegantly tapered wings so they could dry in the sun, there was a definite sense of things slowing down and, as a result, nature’s presence being a bit more prevalent. Just 4.5 square miles in size with 550 inhabitants, the Isle of Sark, the second smallest Channel Island, is one of the few remaining places in the world where cars are banned (the fire engine and ambulance are pulled by tractor; other transport options include bike or horse and cart). The result is a sense of escapism most of us can only dream of.
A RICH PAST
The unusual history of Sark stretches back to 1565, when Elizabeth I granted it in perpetuity to Helier de Carteret, a nobleman who planned to re-cultivate the then-deserted island. As a result, de Carteret become its first leader or ‘Seigneur’ and recruited 40 men to make up the governing body or ‘Chief Pleas’. Amazingly, 550 years on, this constitution remains in place. Not considered a part of the UK or Great Britain but a ‘Crown Dependency’, the island continues to self-govern via the Chief Pleas to this day and the dynastic line of Seigneurs has passed between only four different families since the 16th century. Far from a ceremonial role, the Seigneurs are actively involved in governing the island – perhaps the most notable example being Dame Sibyl Hathaway, whose dignity and negotiation skills when the island was invaded by German soldiers during World War II were said to be the reason the residents received such favourable terms during the ensuing occupation.
The result of this remarkable backstory is that, as a visitor, you encounter a true community on Sark. It could so easily be populated by oftenempty holiday homes but, in fact, most of the families who live here have done so for generations. There’s a primary school, a post office, a local doctor and constable, and, as you’d imagine, everyone knows each other. This leads to an extensive calendar of community events, which visitors are welcome to attend, that ranges from poetry readings at Stocks Hotel to guided walks and festivals. (For details on what’s on, visit sark.co.uk/events.)
Another result of Sark’s past are the numerous historical sites (you can easily cycle between them). The most unmissable has to be La Seigneurie, which has been the traditional residence of the Seigneur of Sark for centuries. The building itself is worth seeing, with towers and crenulations, and its own windmill, built in 1571 and used up until World War II when it was turned into an outpost. The spectacular gardens that surround it have a Victorian glass house, a kitchen garden and a maze for visitors to lose themselves in. You can also follow a path through mature woodland to the ponds created by the monks of St Magloire Priory in 565 AD (laseigneuriegardens.com).
A WALKER’S PARADISE
While the island is a joy to cycle around (sailing down tree-lined avenues without any oncoming cars is surprisingly liberating), you can see even more of what it has to offer on foot. The whole of Sark is criss-crossed with beautiful routes, but the walk round the southern section known as Little Sark is particularly memorable. To get there, you will need to cross La Coupée. An isthmus only a few metres wide, with an 80-metre sheer drop either side, it is now topped by guard rails and a road laid by German prisoners of war, but the story goes that, before this, children would have to crawl along it for fear of being blown off. Pushing your bike over it is safe and comes with amazing views, but you may need to wait for a horse and cart to cross as they have to do this at speed in order to make it up the steep gradient.
Most walks on Little Sark begin at La Sablonnerie Hotel, a charming place for afternoon tea among the flowers (sablonneriesark.com). From here, you can walk along the west side of the island past views of neighbouring Brecqhou, gorse bushes thick with bees and butterflies, free-ranging hens and the odd Guernsey goat. Turning along the southern tip, you may see swallows diving for insects along the cliff edge before you get to Port Gorey, where the remains of a 19th-century silver mine can still be seen. A little further along and you’ll find Venus Pool. One of the best swimming spots on the island, this is a natural basin in the rocks, which can only be accessed for two hours either side of low tide. Getting your timing right is worth it, though, because you’ll be able to bathe in cerulean waters before drying off on the sun-warmed rocks. (Find out about walking routes at sark.co.uk or by popping into the Tourist Office in the middle of the island.)
STARS AND SANDY BEACHES
There are no streetlights on Sark, so the island is plunged into velvety blackness once the sun has set. This leads to exceptional night skies, officially recognised by the International Dark Sky Association in 2011. Take advantage of this by visiting Sark’s observatory, run by local expert Richard Axon (who also runs the tiny brewery). His knowledge is remarkable but almost as wonderful is the nighttime walk up to the observatory in total darkness (sastros.sark.gg).
When the sun is up, make sure you visit the beaches. Sark has some sandy ones such as Dixcart Bay as well as pebbly coves you are likely to have all to yourself (Port du Moulin was our favourite). But, to feel like a true Robinson Crusoe, take the ferry to nearby Herm. At just a mile and a half long, it’s surrounded by a ring of pristine white sand, which, as you walk barefoot along the water’s edge, gives the feel of an undiscovered desert island.
OPPOSITE La Coupée is the narrow causeway that links ‘Big’ and ‘Little’ Sark THIS PAGE, CLOCKWISE FROM TOP LEFT The island’s residents have lived here simply and traditionally for generations; the beautiful gardens at La Seigneurie; Sark Lighthouse...
CLOCKWISE FROM LEFT Traditional means of travel are utilised instead of cars; Dixcart Bay; guillemots lay their eggs on Les Autelets rock stacks; the cavernous sea cave system