HOLIDAYS on the CHANNEL ISLANDS

By ‘Holidays on the Channel Islands’ I mean holidays on Guernsey. Although I have spent days on Sark, Alderney, Herm and even on Jethou (which has been closed to the public for almost 50 years), I always slept on Guernsey. I have never been to that other Channel Island, Jersey, except for one time when my plane back to England landed briefly there. I did not get out. Guerney was a regular destination for me from 1963, when my sister landed a teaching position at the island’s Public School, Elizabeth College. Teaching the bottom form of the Prep School she was the sole female member of staff and she kept this job for seventeen years.

Sarnia

Sarnia

I went there both by the Mail Boat from Weymouth and by BEA Vickers Viscount from Gatwick Airport. BEA (British European Airways) preceded the creation of BA. The other component was BOAC, the long distance carrier. The Viscount was a Turbo-prop aircraft; the jets of the 1960s require too long a runway to use Guernsey Airfield.

In those distant days every armrest in the aircraft’s cabin had an ash-tray at the end. Shops, restaurants and even doctors’ surgeries had provision for stubbing out cigarettes. You weren’t supposed to smoke during take-off, but as soon as the plane was airborne nearly everybody lit up; not me of course, I was too young! Flying was an experience for a young teenager, but going by ferry was an even more exiting proposition; the sea could be rough though. There were two ferries owned by British Railways (this was before the creation of the now forgotten ferry company Sealink), Sarnia and Caesarea. These were the names of Guernsey and Jersey respectively, bestowed by the Romans. You could sit out on the quarter-deck if the weather was fine, and there was even a balcony for’ards where you could stand and watch the spray as the ship plunged into the waves. The Channel can be quite choppy, though the huge swell of the North Atlantic is moderated by the Cornish peninsular.

Guernsey is the first of the islands you came to on the ferry, and it continued on to Jersey after discharging its Guernsey passengers. That is one reason why I have never been to Jersey. As you approached the harbour at St Peter Port your first view of the Channel Islands was the island of Herm. Castle Cornet, the fortification built on a rocky peninsular, guards the entrance to Guernsey’s harbour. As the vessel tied up you could see little green or maroon painted single-decker buses scurrying along the coast road, and the cliff of St Peter Port rose steeply beyond.

The feel of the islands is foreign; that is to say it isn’t English. The French call the islands Les Îles Normande, and they look as if  they should still belong to Normandy. William the Conqueror brought the Duchy of Normandy when he became King of England, and the Channel Islands were but an insignificant part of that. The last part of mainland France to belong to the English monarch was Calais, which was lost by Queen Mary Tudor in 1558. She famously said that the word Calais would be found etched on her heart; but the Channel Islands remained in English hands, the last part of Normandy. They have been a possession of the English Crown since 1066, but they are not part of the United Kingdom. The Queen of the UK is still popularly known as the Duke of Normandy in the Channel Islands.

Until about a hundred years ago Patois or Guernésais was the language of the common folk on Guernsey, with elements of Old Norse going back to the 9th century. Patois was a Norman French dialect and until 1948 French was the official language of the island. I doubt many people spoke French on a day-to-day basis, although for Patois it was a different matter. French is no long the legal language, but currently (2016) all Guernsey lawyers have to spend 3 months at Caen University studying Norman law. When my sister arrived in the mid 20th century she found that the older local people had been brought up to speak Patois as their natural first language. The increasing prevalence of British newspapers, wireless programmes and tourists have conspired to banish this age-old language, and now less than 2% of the people can speak it fluently.

The population of the island had risen continuously from 2500 in 1831 (the date of the first census) to just under 63,000 in 2014. Recently this number has shown a small decline; the limited employment opportunities for the increasingly highly educated youngsters has led to a small but steady drift away from the island. The restrictive residential requirements mean the island is not a retirement destination for incomers, except for the very rich.

It is ideal for a summer holiday, but in 1968 I spent the winter and spring there. The weather can be fresh to say the least, but the maritime climate means that snow is almost unknown; when it does fall it never stays more than a few hours. In the 1960s agriculture on the Island of Guernsey revolved around milk produced by Guernsey cows (the only breed allowed on the island) and the growing of tomatoes under glass – Guernsey Toms. From the air the whole island appeared a sea of glass. Since then the market for tomatoes has disappeared and the glasshouses are used mainly for flowers.

On the Channel Islands one can never forget that from 1940 until 1945 this part of British territory was occupied by Nazi Germany. Lookout towers, gun emplacements and bunkers dot the landscape. Unlike the equivalent buildings in the UK, they were constructed with a flair. It was however a dark and ominous stylishness; they were built by slave labourers, Poles and Russians, whose lives were treated as worthless. Most Jews were simply gassed and never reached the slave camps of the islands; the Untermenschen who were brought there were starved and worked to death. These islands were defended with massive concrete constructions, defences that was never tested in battle. In spite of the slave labour all this building was an enormous drain on resources, which would otherwise have been directed to offensive operations towards the Allies, so it was consequently not all negative from a British point of view. The islands were wisely not attacked by Allied Forces and were left to surrender when the Germans were defeated. Although this policy led to severe food shortages for the islanders it created less suffering than an armed attack would have resulted in.

JOSEPH MASON

joemasonspage@gmail.com

THE STORY OF THE CHANNEL ISLANDS

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One response

  1. What a delightful post. I became fascinated with the Channel Islands after reading The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society. It’s a delightful story set in part during the German occupation. (Here’s some info – https://www.cliffsnotes.com/literature/g/the-guernsey-literary-and-potato-peel-pie-society/book-summary) I’d love to visit one day.

    Like

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