Rocks of ages: The Chan­nel Is­lands

A craggy ar­chi­pel­ago is proudly pre­serv­ing its time­less — and quirky — way of life

The Washington Post Sunday - - TRAVEL - BY AN­DREA SACHS

The air­plane was the color of a No. 2 pen­cil and about the same width. For the 15-minute flight, I sat on a bench­like seat with a view of the sky splin­tered by a tall woman. Be­hind me, a lightly weath­ered face hid be­hind large sun­glasses and a pair of hands rested primly on a stack of parcels. Far­ther back, I could sense — but not see — lug­gage, Eng­land and greater Europe.

A pas­sen­ger mut­tered to her com­pan­ion that the pi­lot was fly­ing us to France, a rea­son­able con­cern given that the coun­try was only eight miles away. But then the cap­tain started to de­scend on a large rock shaped like a Scot­tish ter­rier. The con­tours of the land­mass emerged from the sea: ser­rated cliffs, lumpy green ex­panses, the out­stretched wings of birds. For­get the prof­iteroles and acute ac­cents; we were land­ing on a rook­ery.

I was half-right. We were alight­ing on Alder­ney, a Chan­nel Is­land with about 1,900 res­i­dents and more than 270 bird species, plus pip­istrelle bats, white-toothed shrews, and blond and brown hedge­hogs. A peb­ble’s toss away, ap­prox­i­mately 8,000 pairs of gan­nets roosted on the islets of Les Etacs and Ortac.

It is easy to misiden­tify and mis­un­der­stand the is­lands in the English Chan­nel. For in­stance, one might think that they are part of the United King­dom. Or that the third-largest is­land is a nest­ing colony. Or that blond is not the hedge­hog’s nat­u­ral hair color. (Con­fes­sion: I made all three mis­takes.)

Some facts should help. About 160,000 in­hab­i­tants live on a half-dozen ma­jor (Guernsey, Jersey) and mi­nor (Herm, Sark, Alder­ney) is­lands in the ar­chi­pel­ago. The Chan­nel Is­lands are Bri­tish Crown de­pen­den­cies, which means that res­i­dents pledge their al­le­giance to the queen but mainly fol­low or­di­nances passed lo­cally or by the baili­wicks of Guernsey and Jersey. Un­til 2008, Sark still obeyed some feu­dal laws dat­ing from the mid-1500s and the reign of Queen El­iz­a­beth, No. 1.

The is­lands are close to Eng­land, France­and one another, yet trav­el­ing be­tween the beads on the bro­ken neck­lace can be an ad­ven­ture.

For in­stance, be­cause there is no in­ter-is­land ferry ser­vice be­tween Herm, Sark and Alder­ney, I had to re­peat­edly re­turn to St. Peter Port in Guernsey, of dairy cow fame. My tri-is­land route zigzagged across the Chan­nel like a fish be­ing chased by a squid.

Inad­di­tion, harsh weather con­di­tions can sud­denly roil plans. The ferry op­er­a­tor, for ex­am­ple, might can­cel pas­sage to Alder­ney be­cause of rough seas, so you fly in­stead. Then the air­line sus­pends re­turn flights be­cause of thick fog. So you or­der another pint at the pub and revel in your good for­tune.

Soli­tude onHerm

I was on a puf­fin quest and planned to walk around all of Herm un­til I found one.

Sounds im­pres­sive, no? Like I am Lit­tle Miss Audubon, claw­ing through pin-sharp bram­bles in blus­tery winds to track down a bird that re­sem­bles a pen­guin in a Tou­can Sam mask. Yet the sim­ple truth is that the small­est Chan­nel Is­land open to the public is it­ty­bitty, mea­sur­ing a mile-and-a-half by a half-mile. Also, the spring weather was glo­ri­ous, with clear blue skies, a tick­ling breeze and a sun that seemed re­sis­tant to set­ting. And the veg­e­ta­tion — large swaths of wild­flow­ers, heather and grass— was de­fanged.

On the ferry ride over, I stood on the aft deck and watched Guernsey re­cede. (At only three miles away, I still see you!) A man named Sibs struck up a con­ver­sa­tion, shout­ing over the loud en­gine. He told me that he was rent­ing a place on Herm with friends and had hopped over to the big is­land to buy news­pa­pers and other sup­plies. When we passed the pri­vate is­land of Jethou, a rocky mound topped with a plump cherry of a man­sion, he yelled into my ear that a very wealthy man owns the prop­erty. But no one knows his iden­tity. (Not quite: The whole World Wide Web does, and his name is Sir Peter Og­den.)

Af­ter a swift 20 min­utes, we dis­em­barked and scram­bled up steep steps to a pair of idling trac­tors. Sibs in­structed me to toss my bag into the cart so the driver could trans­port my lug­gage to the White House Ho­tel. It was the only full-ser­vice prop­erty on the is­land, so the risk of the driver los­ingmy lug­gage was nonex­is­tent.

Sibs in­vited me to theMer­maid Tav­ern (the only pub — see a pat­tern?) and found us a pic­nic ta­ble out­side. We sat amid jet-skiers in half-peeled wet suits, hik­ers with alu­minum trekking pole­sand­vis­i­tors with twin sets of dogs. A cou­ple who had spent sev­eral nights at the Seag­ull Camp­site joined us. The trio traded gos­sip about the lo­cal char­ac­ters while I in­spected the Guernsey cur­rency. Daniel de Lisle Brock, a for­mer bailiff, stared back at me from a one-pound note.

The last ferry of the day pulled up, emp­ty­ing out the gath­er­ing spot. Sibs and I walked into the cen­ter of the is­land, pass­ing chin­high stone walls and graz­ing cows also vis­it­ing from Guernsey. I slipped into St. Tugual’s Chapel while Sibs fin­ished his cig­a­rette. The sim­ple one-room struc­ture dates from the 11th cen­tury and the ar­rival of Nor­man monks. How­ever, the hands of time point even far­ther back, to the Celtic Chris­tian mis­sion­ar­ies of the Mid­dle Ages. Au­gus­tinian canons, Fran­cis­can fri­ars and un­washed clothes also filled the sa­cred space. (In the 1800s, the church was a laun­dry fa­cil­ity.) To­day, the church hosts non-de­nom­i­na­tional ser­vices and a Na­tiv­ity show byHerm’s school­child­ren. With only six stu­dents, each child is guar­an­teed a part.

Af­ter split­ting with Sibs, I bee­lined for Belvoir Bay and fol­lowed a gen­tle coastal trail fes­tooned with English blue­bells and pur­ple fox­glove. Birds bobbed on air cur­rents like lib­er­ated bal­loons. Soft sandy beaches squeezed be­tween soar­ing cliffs. When I reached Puf­fin Bay, I hoped for a lit­tle truth in advertising. But all I heard were the jeer­ing laughs of gulls.

The next day, the is­land felt very proper English, with steelgray clouds, spit­ting rain and whip­ping winds. I in­su­lated my­self for one more try.

I had been trekking for about an hour when I spot­ted a bolt of or­ange up ahead. I tip­toed up the slop­ing path in soggy sneak­ers. I heard a rus­tle around the bend and out popped . . . a pair of hik­ers.

“Didn’t think you’d run into any­one, did you?” asked the gen­tle­man in the puf­fin-beak-col­ored jacket.

I was about to ask whether he had seen any puffins but quickly re­al­ized the spe­cial dis­cov­ery be­fore me: other peo­ple.

Stead­fast Sark

At Clos Princess on Sark, my innkeeper is­sued a mora­to­rium on the af­ter-din­ner topic of con­ver­sa­tion.

“We can’t talk about them all night,” Linda said with­mock­ex­as­per­a­tion. “Let’s talk about some­thing else.”

The un­in­vited guests at the ta­ble were the Bar­clay broth­ers, two Bri­tish bil­lion­aires who over the past decade have been buy­ing up the is­land’s ho­tels, pubs and land (in feu­dal law lan­guage, ten­e­ments), much to the res­i­dents’ dis­may. They cur­rently own four of the largest prop­er­ties, which they have not opened this sea­son. Nearly 70 rooms re­main dark and empty.

Is­lan­ders all over the English Chan­nel dis­cuss the drama with the fer­vor of lat­ter-day sans-cu­lottes. I heard about the con­flict from Guernsey ferry work­ers, the ho­tel staff on Herm and a Sark bar­tender who, af­ter serv­ing me a pizza and a beer, apol­o­gized for work­ing at the Bar­clays’ bar.

Many lo­cals ad­mit that they don’t fully un­der­stand the broth­ers’ mo­tives. Are they try­ing to boost eco­nomic growth or usurp the is­land? Linda flicked away the the­o­ries to fo­cus on one cer­tainty: The bat­tle over the is­land has em­bold­ened and uni­fied the com­mu­nity.

“The peo­ple here don’t kow­tow to the peo­ple with money. They only care about the qual­ity of life,” she said. “They’d rather turn up their toes and die than ask them for help. They are ris­ing up and open­ing guest­houses.”

With­out ques­tion, re­silience and moxie are key Sar­kee traits. The is­land has nei­ther cars nor paved roads, so res­i­dents too­dle around on bikes or by foot. There are also no street lamps or light pol­lu­tion; af­ter dusk, most peo­ple tote flash­lights. (In 2011, Sark earned the des­ig­na­tion as the world’s first dark-sky is­land.) Trac­tors are the only mo­tor­ized ve­hi­cles al­lowed. The big wheels, with some mod­i­fi­ca­tions, help fight fires and trans­port the in­firm. They also carry visi­tors from the ferry land­ing, up­the huff-and­puff hill and into town, where horse-drawn car­riages wait for pas­sen­gers.

The Sar­kees’ un­flap­pable char­ac­ter is part of is­land lore and plays a prom­i­nent role in aWorld War II ex­hibit at the visi­tors and her­itage cen­ter. On June 28, 1940, the Ger­mans bombed Guernsey’s port. The domi­noes fell fast. In re­sponse to the at­tack, Dame Sibyl Mary Hath­away, who ruled Sark with her Amer­i­can-born hus­band, an­nounced her de­ci­sion to stay. She urged res­i­dents to fol­low her lead; the ma­jor­ity did.

On July 3, three Ger­man of­fi­cers ar­rived on Sark. The next day, more sol­diers landed. They moved into the Bel-Air Ho­tel (now a bank), hoisted a Nazi flag and im­posed sev­eral re­stric­tions, such as an evening cur­few, al­co­hol ban and fish­ing re­straints. The is­lan­ders ac­cepted their plight with aplomb. When they ran low on sup­plies, they im­pro­vised: dried sugar beet, parsnips and bar­ley as a cof­fee sub­sti­tute, for in­stance, and pack­ag­ing on toma­toes for toi­let pa­per.

Over the five years of oc­cu­pa­tion, the Ger­mans de­ported 62 Sark res­i­dents, in­clud­ing Hath­away’s hus­band. The di­ary of Adelina Gal­li­enne, a mother of two, de­scribed the ex­pe­ri­ence from the “list­ing and rolling on the rough and ter­rific sea” to the train ride to the in­tern­ment­camp­inFrance. She wrote of the fields that were “just like Sark” and the black-and­white cows that were “quite dif­fer­ent than ours.” The hand­writ­ten en­try ends with men­tion of a con­cert at the in­tern­ment camp and spend­ing “quite an en­joy­able evening, all.”

As part of the dis­play, yel­low in­dex cards cover a wall, each one rep­re­sent­ing a de­por­tee. The typed in­for­ma­tion pro­vides a brief bio of the in­di­vid­ual and his or her fate dur­ing and af­ter the war. For Adelina, I learned that she was trans­ferred to Bib­er­ach and later Liebe­nau and that she re­turned to Sark in Oc­to­ber 1945. She died in Guernsey 35 years later. The en­try for her daugh­ter, Nel­lie Anne, be­gins with “Born 01.05.1927 on Sark” and ends with “Still liv­ing on Sark.” On May 10, Nel­lie, the last liv­ing de­por­tee on the is­land, com­mem­o­rated the 70th an­niver­sary of Lib­er­a­tion Day with her neigh­bors and friends.

I was just get­ting to know and un­der­stand Sark — and its peo­ple and yoga sched­ule — when I had to leave. On the ferry ride back to Guernsey, pas­sen­gers tossed clumps of wild­flow­ers into the sea. A woman ex­plained the tra­di­tion. If the bou­quet washes up on shore, you will re­turn to Sark. I must have look dis­tressed be­cause she as­sured me that I could re­turn even with­out the flow­ers.

Elu­sive an­i­mals of Alder­ney

I stood on a busy side­walk in Guernsey beg­ging and plead­ing with the man on the phone. But he wouldn’t budge. The ferry to Alder­ney, he said, was not go­ing to run to­day or to­mor­row. The next ves­sel would leave on Fri­day. And no, he didn’t have a pri­vate boat that I could bor­row.

I had as­sem­bled my Chan­nel Is­lands itin­er­ary around a sin­gu­lar event: the bat-and-hedge­hog tour. The Alder­ney Wildlife Trust cen­ter sched­ules the ex­pe­di­tion for Thurs­day evenings. If I missed the date, my chances of ever see­ing the rare blond hedge­hog were as slim as spot­ting a uni­corn on the Buck­ing­ham Palace lawn.

The agent at the ferry kiosk jumped to my res­cue, sug­gest­ing that I fly over. I booked a seat on the last flight to Alder­ney, raced to the air­port and landed on the is­land with a 24-hour cush­ion. Now, I just had to avoid stout beers and steep ter­rain.

Af­ter teeny Herm and weeny Sark, Alder­ney felt like ametropo­lis. I took taxis, ate din­ner af­ter 8 p.m. and stood in line for a beer. I was even di­rec­tion­ally chal­lenged.

The most northerly Chan­nel Is­land is a mul­ti­lay­ered cake of history. On an af­ter­noon bike tour, my guide, Martin, took­meto theNun­nery, a fourth-cen­tury Ro­man fort with views of Fort Es­sex, a more “con­tem­po­rary” struc­ture that was built dur­ing the Tu­dor pe­riod and touched up dur­ing the Vic­to­rian era. Be­low, in a Ger­man bunker, a wooden ma­chine-gun stand rested be­neath a nar­row open­ing over­look­ing the beach and chan­nel. I could clearly en­vi­sion the scene: Ready, aim . . .

Our ride started in the tight squeeze of St. Anne, the cob­ble­stone cap­i­tal and com­mer­cial cen­ter that re­sem­bles a Ge­or­gian set from “Mas­ter­piece Theatre.” Martin would of­ten say that suc­hand-such struc­ture was “only” built in the mid-1800s. Based on this logic, the 18 Vic­to­rian forts and bat­ter­ies that had pro­tected the coast­line from the French were young­sters.

I asked Martin for Alder­ney’s his­tor­i­cal timeline. ( You can also find a com­pre­hen­sive over­view at the Alder­ney So­ci­etyMu­seum.)

“We have Ne­olithic, Me­dieval, Napoleonic, Vic­to­rian and World War II,” he rat­tled off. Then we ped­aled off into another cen­tury.

On June 23, 1940, about 1,500 is­lan­ders re­ceived 12 hours’ no­tice to pack one bag each and evac­u­ate the is­land. TheGer­mans took over on July 2; the res­i­dents didn’t start re­turn­ing home un­til De­cem­ber 1945.

The Ger­mans turned the is­land into one of the strong­est for­ti­fi­ca­tions in the At­lanticWall. They rav­aged homes and farm­land with heavy ar­tillery in­stal­la­tions, la­bor camps and 37,000 land mines. A small plaque on a gate post at Lager Sylt, a con­cen­tra­tion camp, com­mem­o­rates the 400 pris­on­ers who died dur­ing oc­cu­pa­tion.

It took awhile for the flora and fauna to re­vive, but they did. Martin calls Alder­ney “our Serengeti.” The is­land mas­cot is most likely the blond hedge­hog, whose im­age ap­pears on postage stamps and sou­venirs. In ad­di­tion, the pos­si­bil­ity of spot­ting the crit­ter in the wild draws crowds to the weekly bat and hedge­hog walk.

The tour starts af­ter dusk, when the night­time denizens rouse from their slum­ber for din­ner (or tech­ni­cally break­fast). Our guide, Roland, handed out Bat De­tec­tors, black boxes stamped with an im­age of the night flyer. Like NSA snoops, we could now eaves­drop on the mam­mals’ echolo­ca­tion chat­ter.

Roland led us through the gates of St. Anne’s Church and into the Nos­fer­at­uesque grave­yard— avam­pire-movie trope but also un­de­ni­ably spooky. Bats eat bugs and, based on the midges gnaw­ing on my arms, the ceme­tery was a gi­ant pantry. Af­ter sev­eral min­utes of static, one of the ra­dios emit­ted a star­tling noise that sounded like swiftly beat­ing wings. I looked up to see a com­mon pip­istrelle the size of a bowtie fly­ing over­head. It traced crazy-eights against the sky be­fore dis­ap­pear­ing.

We left the grave­yard for a lamp­post on Lady Smith Cor­ner. In­sects formed a halo around the yel­low glow. Our ra­dios blasted heavy me­tal echolo­ca­tion.

“Ooh, look down in the front of us,” Roland said ex­cit­edly as a bat swooped inches from our faces. “That doesn’t hap­pen of­ten.”

To search for the reclu­sive hedge­hog, we had to stay as quiet as par­ents around a sleep­ing baby. Among Bri­tish hedge­hogs, about 1 in 10,000 are blond, a col­oration caused by a re­ces­sive gene. How­ever, about 60 per­cent of Alder­ney’s hedge­hogs are flaxen-haired. Roland said the an­i­mals orig­i­nally ar­rived on the is­land as gar­den pets and were rein­tro­duced to the is­land af­ter the Sec­ond World War. He es­ti­mated the pop­u­la­tion at 400 to 600. I only needed one.

Hedge­hogs for­age in tall grasses and gar­dens, and they of­ten travel along the road­side to reach their feed­ing grounds. (The golf course is a pop­u­lar din­ing spot.) For about 20 min­utes, we scoured the ver­dant edges of sev­eral dark roads and peered over the stone walls of pri­vate homes. We didn’t even see a rab­bit.

On La Brecque road, Roland’s ex­pres­sion bright­ened. He no­ticed a brown hedge­hog snuf­fling around a garage door. He picked up the an­i­mal, which im­me­di­ately curled up into a tight ball. It stayed in rolled for­ma­tion un­til we moved away.

On the op­po­site side of the street, his face lit up another kilo­watt. We gath­ered around an an­i­mal that re­sem­bled a sea urchin bleached by the sun. The blond was not as shy as the brunet and al­lowed us to take a peek at its long pink nose, shovel-like claws and beady black eyes. I pet its coat, ex­fo­li­at­ing my skin in the process.

I had ac­com­plishedmy goal on Alder­ney and, for my fi­nal night, could have kicked back with a pint. In­stead, I grabbed my flash­light, by­pass­ing the pub for a gar­den in the dark­ness.


On Alder­ney, the rare blond hedge­hog (yes, it’s nat­u­ral!) emerges at night to for­age for food, and bloom­ing wild­flow­ers, top, add a sweep of color to the is­land’s rolling mead­ows, Vic­to­rian forts and cliffs over­look­ing the English Chan­nel. The Chan­nel Is­lands, off the coast of France, have an un­usual po­lit­i­cal sta­tus.


Above, the nar­row track La Coupee on the Chan­nel Is­land of Sark, which has nei­ther cars nor paved roads. Top, af­ter a quick 20-minute trip from the is­land of Guernsey, a ferry ar­rives at Herm, which has puffins, beaches and few peo­ple. Dur­ing low tide at that is­land, pas­sen­gers dis­em­bark at the (oth­er­wise sub­merged) Ro­saire Steps.


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