Rocks of ages: The Channel Islands
A craggy archipelago is proudly preserving its timeless — and quirky — way of life
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.
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.
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.