Posted 8th Apr 2013
Nestled in the bay of St Malo just 70 miles from the coast of Britain in the English Channel, Guernsey - officially the Bailiwick of Guernsey - is a British Crown dependency. As a bailiwick, Guernsey embraces not only all ten parishes on the Island of Guernsey, but also the islands of Alderney and Sark - each with their own parliament - and the smaller islands of Herm, Jethou and Lihou. Although its defence is the responsibility of the United Kingdom, the Bailiwick is not part of the United Kingdom, but, as its description suggests, a possession of the British monarchy. Consequently, though it lies within the Common Travel Area of the European Union, it is not part of the European Union. Together, the Bailiwick of Guernsey and Bailiwick of Jersey form the geographical grouping which we know as the Channel Islands.
Guernsey is a delightful mix of English and French cultures with a personality all of its own. The pace of life here is much slower than on the mainland and feels much more in tune with the rhythms of nature. Covering an area of just 24 square miles you will be amazed how much there is to see and do on this bijou island. Guernsey has a long and varied coastline that includes sandy bays, pebbly beaches and dramatic cliffs making it perfect for holidaymakers in summer. But head inland and you'll be treated to stunning scenery and a fascinating history that dates back to Neolithic times.
The jewel in Guernsey's crown is its quaint capital St Peter Port. Here you can wander cobbled streets, meander into the Old Quarter to visit the craft and antique shops or head down to the harbour for a bite to eat in one of the town's fantastic restaurants, such as Mora Restaurant and Grill housed in former wine cellars overlooking the quay. A little exploration of St Peter Port will ensure fascinating discoveries at every turn, such as the barriére stones that mark the limits of the medieval town, the alleyways down which livestock were driven to waiting ships and the 19th-century store houses on the seafront, which now house shops, bars and restaurants.
The town has been the centre for activity on the island for many centuries. From Roman shipwrecks to medieval artefacts, a rich array of archaeological discoveries offer a compelling narrative of the town's past. A visit to Castle Cornet overlooking the harbour is a must for history buffs. Here you'll find five excellent museums within this ancient fort's walls that tell the story of the castle, the island and its people. Make time to visit Hauteville House, the home of exiled writer Victor Hugo too. This well-preserved museum reflects the eccentricities of the great author and is still full of the furniture, figurines and bric-a-brac that he so avidly collected.
If you want to breathe in the fresh sea air, head south to where you will find 28 miles of cliff top paths to explore boasting spectacular views. Head to Moulin Huet bay and discover why it inspired artist Renoir to produce more than 15 paintings in just over a month here. The sandy beach at Petit Bôt and the pebbly shores of Fermain Bay are well worth exploring too. The landscape in this part of the island becomes more open and rural. For many, this is the heart of Guernsey where you'll discover small-scale agriculture, fields full of the island's famous Guernsey cows and tiny hamlets of quaint granite cottages dripping with floral colour. The south coast also boasts a number of heritage sites including watchtowers dating back centuries as well as a number of bunkers and gun emplacements built during World War Two by the German occupying forces. Half-buried in the cliff faces, the stark angles of their architecture are a grim reminder of the region's tumultuous past. Along this part of the coast you'll find Batterie Dollmann, one of the first World War Two installations built on the island. Close by, the Channel Island Occupation Society has restored a gunpit and trenches along with a 22cm gun.
Guernsey doesn't shy away from its occupied past and those with an interest in the Second World War can also visit the German Occupation Museum, where you'll find everything from a recreation of an authentic occupation-era street as well as ephemera, weapons, uniforms and rooms recreating what life was like during the period of occupation between 1940-1945. They also have a lovely Liberation tearoom which serves delicious homemade cakes. La Valette, the underground military museum in St Peter Port is also worth exploring. Housed in a WW2 German tunnel complex the museum covers all aspects of Guernsey's military history. And don't forget a visit to the similarly subterranean German Underground Military Hospital in the parish of St Andrew too.
Travelling west around the coast, the rugged cliffs and coves of the south give way to wide open expanses of beach backed by swathes of seagrass-fringed dunes and angular granite rock formations that reach out into the sea. The coast here is particularly great for kids. They can go paddling at Port Soif bay, swimming in the shallow waters at Cobo or even learn to surf at Vazon Bay with its old wooden sea defences which guard the bay against the rushing tide. This bay is the watersport centre of the island and when conditions are right, you'll find surfers, windsurfers and kayakers here. For the less adventurous an afternoon exploring the rock pools at nearby Grandes Roques Bay is the perfect way to occupy adults and kids alike.
At the southernmost part of this western coast you'll find La Table des Pions, affectionately known as the Fairy Ring, a mysterious-looking circle of stones surrounding a sunken ‘table'. Local legend has it that if you walk around this three times and make a wish, then your wish will come true. Despite the stories of fairies, elves and witches surrounding it, sadly in reality the Fairy Ring was used by island officials when inspecting roads and coastal defences from Norman times up until 1837. However, overlooking Perelle Bay you can find Le Trépied Megalithic Burial Chamber. This chamber tomb features in accounts of 17th-century witch trials as a Friday night meeting place for witches' covens where the Devil, disguised as a black goat, sat enthroned on the capstone. While just along the coast near the nature-rich habitats of the Fort Hommet Headland you'll find the Creux des Fées, known in local folklore as the entrance to Fairyland! If you're more into pirates than fairies, pop into the fascinating Fort Grey shipwreck museum at Rocqaine Bay.
Just off the coast in this area you'll see Lihou Island, a rocky islet which is separated from Guernsey at high tide and on which stands the ruins of a priory established in the 12th century by Benedictine monks. Lihou forms part of Guernsey's Ramsar conservation area due to its wealth of bird and marine life.
Continuing north around the coast the sweeping bays of the west are replaced by smaller, rocky inlets where you'll find plenty of brightly coloured fishing boats. A great place for walking; you'll pass numerous loop-holed towers, watch-houses and forts, built to defend the island from invaders over the centuries. This part of the island carries the echoes of many key events from Guernsey's past. On L'Ancresse Common you will discover La Varde, the largest Megalithic tomb on the island and Les Fouaillages, an extraordinary Neolithic burial mound, thought to date back 7,000 years. Over 35,000 artefacts have been unearthed here including flints, pottery, ornaments and tools. Hidden away along a lane further around the coast is yet another burial chamber, Le Déhus, which has a ghostly face carved into the stones.
Away from the beaches and cliff top paths, why not hire a bike for the day and explore Guernsey's flower-filled, winding lanes? Flanked by hedgerows and granite walls every twist and turn brings a new delight. Keep your eyes peeled for the fabulous hedge veg stalls by the front gates of many homes. Here you'll find all sorts of marvellous home-grown fruit, veg, flowers and preserves. Simply take your pick and pop your money in the honesty box.
Ditch the car for a day and explore the island's Ruettes Tranquilles, a network of country lanes that provide a link with a bygone Guernsey. These lanes have a recommended speed limit of just 15mph and priority is given to walkers, cyclists and horse riders. They are a great opportunity to soak up the facets of Guernsey available only to those who veer away from the main thoroughfares and head off the beaten track. Walking is very much encouraged on the island and you'll find walks on offer to suit all abilities. There's a wonderful range of self-guided walks too, including a map with five trails which you can pick up at the Tourist Information Centre in St Peter Port.
To discover more about the wonderful Island of Guernsey visit www.visitguernsey.com
Read the rest of this feature on p.116 of the May/June 2013 issue...
By Anna-Lisa De'Ath