DROIT de Seigneur? Taking tea and gache (Guernsey fruit loaf) with a real-life Seigneur, Peter de Sausmarez in his weathered granite manor house, the temptation is to ask: “Is it in your remit, sir?”
But then the right of a lord to spend the first night with any bride from his demesne was probably never enforced on Guernsey. They do things differently down here on this mellow Channel Island – from the blue postboxes and street signs mostly in French to the national delicacy called the ormer.
The latter is an abalone-like shellfish collected from under rocks at low tide only at certain specified times of the year (so I never got to sample it).
On the evidence of my recent trip I imagine it’s just as difficult these days to locate Guernsiais. The island’s half English, half French patois was dealt a critical blow when many of the island’s children were evacuated to England during the Second World War. Six years fostered in Oldham would knock the patois out of anyone – and among today’s islanders I didn’t hear the hint of a French accent.
The German Occupation ended nigh on 60 years ago and, yes, they are planning a big celebration. If it’s to trump the annual Liberation Day, which took place the day we arrived, it’s going to be some shindig. It was utterly surreal to find our hotel, the 4-star St Pierre Park mobbed with Liberation Day guests of honour Chelsea Pensioners and Ghurkas.
It was equally surreal to find German fortifications en masse all around the island’s breathtaking coastline, stark concrete gun emplacements rubbing shoulders with prehistoric dolmens. Follow any of the 30 miles of spectacular coastal paths – this is great walking country – and they are there, their outlines often grassed over or softened with moss.
For the most sombre remnant, you can visit the privately-owned German Underground Military Hospital. I wish I hadn’t. This vast, dank labyrinth of cellars built into a hillside by Eastern European slave labour gave me the shivers. Designed as the epicentre of the bizarrely futile Nazi dream of Fortress Guernsey, it ended up as a transit hospital for 700 German soldiers wounded during D-Day. Tunnel wards with iron beds – and a vision of hell in the shadows. Never have spring flowers and bees seemed so welcoming as we stepped back out into sunlit St Andrew’s parish.
Local bookshops and museums are bursting with histories and personal memoirs coming to terms with the Occupation, but a more whimsical fiction set then, the best-selling Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society by American Mary Ann Shaffer, has put the island on the international map. And a movie still to come. For the moment, it’s on hold after director Kenneth Branagh couldn’t find a leading man with the right diary schedule to star alongside Kate Winslet.
Back then to 800-year-old Sausmarez Manor, in St Martin’s parish, which as far as I know doesn’t feature in “Potato Peel”. I’m sure much of the island does since it’s only 25 square miles in total.
There is no more delightful inland spot than Sausmarez (not to be confused with Saumarez Park further north, where he Folk Museum lives. It retains its quirky character while obviously trying everything to attract the tourist – an excellent farmer’s market, radio-controlled boats on the lake, pitch and putt, an Edwardian copper and tinsmith in the tea-rooms... and Thursday evening ghost tours.
The tours are led by Seigneur Peter himself, who 30 years ago inherited the title and the ghosts. These include the nanny to a past Seigneur’s 28 children who apparently grills any Lord of the Manor’s girlfriends and scares off the unsuitable. At the bottom of the stairs is a small painting of her.
Peter recalls: “I once came home from dropping off the babysitter to see all the lights on, but instead of charging around the house, my two boys were just sitting quietly in bed having just been read a bedtime story by a nice little old lady. The only explanation is that it was the nanny of the 28.”
The sub-tropical grounds and sculpture exhibition sourced from around the world are the manor’s biggest plus. They are a riot of bamboo and arum lilies, camellias, yuccas and magnificent rhododendrons pierced by twisting pathways and pools.
For a more typical taste of the island’s lush vegetation take to one of the Ruettes Tranquilles, a network of country lanes where priority is given to walkers, cyclists and horse riders, with 15mph speed limit. Buy fresh produce from one of the ubiquitous roadside hedge stalls, complete with “honesty box”.
Or, better still head for the coastal paths. The west coast is flattish with sweeping beaches, but offers the chance to walk out across the sands to little Lihou island. It’s easy to get trapped if you don’t follow the tide times, though. Essential re-fuel hereabouts is a crab sandwich or a rich Guernsey ice cream from the kiosks on every beach.
The steep cliffs of the south and south west offer more challenging treks with great views over to Herm and Sark (Alderney is the final island in the Guernsey archipelago) and some accessible coves such as the lovely Moulin Huet and Petit Bot. Good for a spot of kayaking. Highly recommended for a range of seabound pursuits is Outdoor Guernsey (www.outdoorguernsey.co.uk).
We took the 20-minute ferry ride over to privately-owned Herm island, famed for its mussels, and loved its glorious silver sands, particularly Shell Beach. This tiny island is definitely a place to chill and if you miss the ferry, there’s always the Mermaid tavern, with cask ale. Holiday cottages on Herm are much sought after, the main alternative the upmarket White House Hotel.
In complete contrast there’s Guernsey’s metropolis, St Peter Port with some 16,000 inhabitants, a busy harbour and a huge offshore financial services industry that’s evident from the brass nameplates on well-tended buildings on its hillsides.
The nameplate at 38 Hauteville, high above the harbour, tells a different story. Hauteville House is where exiled French writer Victor (Les Miserables) Hugo spent 15 years between 1856 and 1870. Run by the city of Paris as a museum to the great man, its white seaside villa exterior belies an interior showcasing his love of recycling and over the-top decoration. His wife was allowed a room of her own on the side of the house that overlooked the street where Hugo’s mistress lived. I like the walled garden and potager.
From here you can see out beyond the harbour the great battlemented bastion of 13th century Castle Cornet. Guernsey has never actually been a direct part of the UK and is indeed closer – some 40 miles – to France, but the self-governed island owes allegiance directly to the Queen of England in her role as Duke of Normandy. It’s a William the Conqueror link.
A museum inside the huge castle complex lucidly explains the tangled relationship between England, France and Guernsey and the island’s contemporary resilience, based on financial services and as a quietly appealing tourist destination.
Then comes the Big Bang, the noonday firing of a cannon from the castle ramparts – minus any cannonball, of course. Two red-coated castle guardians aim for full pomp, but it is a bit of a Ruritanian parade until the resounding crash of the gun. So much history in a puff of smoke. It makes you think.
For more information on Guernsey see www.VisitGuernsey.com or call the Guernsey Information Centre on 01481 723552. For those after a more guided ramble, Guernsey celebrates the outdoors during the Spring (May 5-13) and Autumn (September 8-16) Walking Weeks, with diverse programmes of themed walks.
Aurigny Air Services (01481 822886, www.aurigny.com) flies to Guernsey several times a day from Manchester, with one-way prices from as little as £41 plus taxes. Aurigny also offers flights from Bristol, East Midlands, Stansted and London-Gatwick.
Bed-and-breakfast accommodation at the 4-star St Pierre Park Hotel (01481 728282, www.stpierrepark.co.uk) starts at £57 per person, per night.
Herm Island: www.herm.com.
Victor Hugo’s home in St Peter Port, Hauteville House: www.victorhugo.gg.
Two highly recommended restaurants with excellent seafood specials:
Pier 17, Albert Pier, St Peter Port GY1 1AD 01481 722702 http://pier17restaurant.com
The Auberge Restaurant, Jerbourg Road, St Martins GY4 6BH (01481 238485 http://www.theauberge.gg/Guernsey_Restaurant.cfm
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