Today, I’m taking a break from my regular Japanese-themed posts to talk about another island. We went on a trip this past weekend to Guernsey!
Guernsey was great! Not much of a slogan I admit but our day there truly was wonderful! I have been wanting to visit the Channel Islands since we moved here–they always seemed so close yet a world away! While significantly closer to France then to the United Kingdom, the islands have been officially associated with the British crown since the 13th century. The Channel Islands are made up of two distinct political entities–the Bailiwick of Jersey and the Bailiwick of Guernsey (including Herm, Sark and Alderney). Today, both bailiwicks are self-governing British Crown Dependencies with their own governments, post, and money. While Jersey is closer to us, we chose Guernsey for our first foray into the Channel!
If you don’t have your own boat, you can reach the islands by either plane or ferry. Condor Ferries operates routes to Jersey, Guernsey and the UK. We took advantage of their special Discover Guernsey day trip fare–two adults for only 39€! The girls were 4€ a piece bringing our total to 47€! (For anyone interested, Condor is offering the same deal again on December 10th.) It’s a 2-hour trip from Saint Malo to Saint Peter Port, Guernsey. The only catch–the ferry left at 5:30 am and we had to be there 45 minutes early! We chose not to take our car. It was the right decision for us. Guernsey has an excellent bus system with an easy fare system (all tickets are £1) as well as plenty of taxis.
We arrived in Guernsey at 6:30 am local time as the sun was just beginning to rise. Yes, the Channels Islands are on British time! As nothing was open, we wandered around St Peter Port getting our bearings and checking out every single café, coffee shop and restaurant opening time we could find. Costa, just off the High Street, opens at 7:30 am and we had breakfast there. I think it is safe to say that the entire coffee shop was full of French tourists from the ferry (and one poor local man who must have felt very much in the minority surrounded by so much French! LOL). Prices are in pounds. While you can change money on the ferry, we chose to withdraw money from an ATM in Guernsey. This is an easy option. The High Street is full of cash points and banks. Guernsey has its own money (pounds) which have the same value as British pounds. You can use British pounds on the island but Guernsey pounds are only accepted in the Bailiwick itself.
Our sightseeing day started at the Guernsey Information Center, a lovely stone building right on the waterfront. The information center is modern, full of helpful staff and, for the traveler with small children, has nice and clean bathroom facilities. The building also hosts small exhibits by the Guernsey Arts Commission. I wanted to see the “Post-Christmas” exhibit on Guernsey Christmas stamps through the years, however, when we returned later the center was closed (opening hours on Saturdays in the winter are from 9-13:00). The exhibit poster was well-done too–a Christmas tree in the form of postage cancellations. I wanted one to bring home to add to our Christmas decorations but couldn’t find one among the leaflets (and ripping one off the door wasn’t an option!).
My parents offered us a guided tour of Saint Peter Port for our present this year. We were very fortunate to have Gill Girard, an accredited tour guide, take us around the city. While it is easy to take group walks in the tourist season, private tours are the norm the rest of the year. We met Gill at the center and started off together. I found Gill by looking up tours on the official Guernsey Tourism Website, although I later found out she has her own website. She was great–enthusiastic, patient and a walking encyclopedia on her island and its history. I mention patient as the hardest part of the day was from 9:15-9:35 right when we met her. Laura and Elise were both a bit whiny and grumpy at the start of the tour. They had been good on the ferry, perfect at breakfast but they couldn’t decide what they wanted as the morning started–walk, stroller, whine, sleep? Luckily, Laura started walking with a smile after a few minutes and Elise settled in to being pushed around. Gill thoughtfully reworked her normal tour to be stroller friendly. St Peter Port is set on a hill overlooking the harbor so there are a lot of steps; not a big deal for an adult but a real pain with strollers.
She started with an overview of the island’s history and geographical location using her binder full of pictures and maps as the first of many visual aids. She then walked us over to the WWII Liberation Monument erected in 1995 for the 50th anniversary of the liberation of Guernsey. The Monument is deceptively simple at first glance but very rich once you look more closely. The first thing you see is the granite obelisk. It is made up of 50 layers (50th anniversary), the top 5 are sheared off and represent the 5-year German occupation. The obelisk works as a giant sundial. Every year on May 9th, liberation day, it tells the liberation story in real-time by highlighting the engraved timeline on the seating behind it. The islanders were gaunt by liberation. After D-Day, the islands were cut off from France (and the rest of the German forces) and Churchill chose to “starve” the Germans out. Eventually a Red Cross boat was allowed in with limited supplies destined only for the islanders but rations remained meager. The British soldiers in Gill’s liberation photos look almost “fat” in comparison to the smiling islanders next to them!
She also pointed out the town weighbridge (building with the clock) directly behind the Monument. Prior to occupying the island, the Luftwaffe bombed the harbor. They mistook a line of trucks carrying tomatoes for a military target; 34 people were killed in the air raid. Today, a Memorial stands in their honor as well as in honor of all Guernsey civilians killed during the war. Gill also talked about the evacuation of the island’s children in the days right before the German army’s arrival. Nearly half of the local population including 5,000 children (often without their parents) were sent to the UK for the war’s duration. The Nazi government deported over 1000 islanders to camps in France and Germany. Even the Holocaust touched the island and a memorial stands in memory of three Jewish women deported to Auschwitz where they were killed. Monuments in this area document all aspects of the war and Gill told us that Liberation Day remains an important island celebration today. Gill recommended The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society by Mary Anne Shaffer and Annie Barrows as an excellent fictional book on the island and the war. I plan to read it as soon as I can find a copy.
We then ventured further along the harbor. Gill talked about the tides and their impact on the city. Guernsey has the 4th largest tidal variations in the world. Put simply, the difference between high and low tide is phenomenal. It is part of the same phenomena that turns the Mont Saint Michel into an island on a regular basis. She showed us several storm photos where you can see the water at the same level as today’s shops. The waterfront stores and restaurants are actually housed in old merchant’s buildings. They were built for easy loading/off-loading merchandise from ships in the harbor. Certain were even used to stock and age wine due to the island’s favorable taxes. She pointed out the high steps in front of them–the doors were built a big step up to try to keep the tide out! Today the harbor is just across the road (but the waves are still close if you combine high tide and a storm). In the 19th century, islanders reclaimed land from the sea pushing the marina out further.
We continued into the city itself leaving the harbor behind us. Ancient markers show the boundary between the city and the rest of the island. Taxes and rules changed depending on whether you were in or out of the city. As conditions were better in the city, islanders built up. On a lighter note, Gill pointed out another of the island’s claims to fame. Guernsey is in the official Guinness Book of World Records for having the closest pub to a church! Someone took the time to measure the distance between the church gargoyle and the facing pub, don’t you love it? We continued up into the city to the old market square.
At one time Guernsey had a wealth of quarries and granite to spare (some of it ended up in Westminster Cathedral among other places). Wealthy merchants commissioned buildings; to show off their wealth, they had the granite cut and laid in patterns. (For comparison’s sake, look at the rough fieldstone on the church above and then look at the brickwork picture here.)
Guernsey had a knack for developing its own commerce. When local businessmen saw a potential for business, they created their own markets. For example, Guernsey imported lumber and artisans from the Continent and became an important ship-building center prior to the age of steam despite a lack of natural resources!
Gill continued to point out interesting antecedents as we made our way further up into the city. She described the local government and the island’s natural rivalry with neighboring Jersey! Victor Hugo lived on Guernsey during his exile from France. Hugo first went to Belgium before being asked to leave by the local authorities. He next turned to Jersey but was again asked to move on due to his outspoken views. Guernsey welcomed Hugo with open arms. He lived for 15 years on Guernsey and today his home, Hauteville House, is a museumopen to the public (but not during the winter). He came to the island with his wife, children and mistress. It was during his time in Guernsey that he wrote and/or published many of his most famous works including Les Misérables, Les chansons des rues et des bois (‘The Songs of the Streets and Woods’), Les Travailleurs de la mer (‘Toilers of the Sea’), etc. His love for the island is evident in the last work. Hugo dedicated it to “the rock of hospitality, to this corner of old Norman land where resides the noble little people of the sea, to the Island of Guernsey, severe and yet gentle…” It is also this quote which adorns the wonderful sculpture of Hugo in the Candie Gardens. Gill left us at the park armed with plenty of information and ideas for our afternoon. I highly recommend her to anyone interested in a tour of Guernsey! She was worth every penny! More on our trip in my next post!