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A slow tour of the Channel Islands

Follow a new 110-mile walking route, the Channel Islands Way, to discover the secrets of a surprisingly wild and varied archipelago that’s not quite French, not quite English but completely charming.

A slow tour of the Channel Islands
Image: Getty

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The weekend: A short stay within easy reach of the UK

Requirements: Active mini-break for a couple, group of friends or family

Fits the bill: The Channel Islands

Budget: From around £400 per person, including flights, ferry and hotels for three nights

 
“I came for a summer 15 years ago and never left.” These are the words of Julie Barker, my guide on the little Channel Island of Sark. It’s a phrase I heard countless times while exploring this eccentric archipelago; so much so, I began to see it as the unofficial tourist board slogan. Except, of course, this group of islands and islets spread across 77sq miles of the English Channel, just off the coast of France, are synonymous with exclusivity. Not just anyone can move here. For a start, the island of Brecqhou, whose monstrously monolithic castle I clamber up to photograph from a cliff-top on Sark’s north-western tip, is the private preserve of the Barclay Brothers. Sark itself is barely less elitist; its scant property leased under a feudal system that adheres to strict laws of inheritance.

Money and bloodlines rule the Channel Islands. And while it’s not strictly true you have to be a millionaire to move here — a ‘fact’ commonly trotted out by mainland Brits — wealth restrictions govern immigration across the six inhabited islands. Today, a cool million doesn’t get would-be residents very far at all. Yet these moneyed matters seemed somehow distant as I freewheeled along the dirt tracks that pass for roads on Sark. With no cars and barely a building over two storeys, Sark was declared a Dark Skies Preserve in 2011 — the world’s first ‘Dark Sky island’, in fact, where the Milky Way and shooting stars form a nightly canopy.

Sark feels the most olde worlde and perhaps least developed segment of the Channel Islands Way (CIW): a 110-mile walking route that also takes in the islands of Jersey, Guernsey, Herm and Alderney. I did the island’s 10-mile circular walk by bike, partly to save time and partly because, well, that’s just what you do on Sark. The fact I was half-cut from a boozy lunch appeared to be equally fitting too; Sark islanders, it quickly became apparent, know how to have fun.

Being tipsy and in charge of a bicycle, I suppose, isn’t that risky when the only other vehicles on the road are horse and cart and the occasional unhurried tractor.

I got into this happy state after lunch at La Sablonnerie, a hotel whose time-warp-English charm is as Enid Blyton-esque as the clipped vowels and tweed skirts of its owner, Élizabeth Perree. Set on Little Sark, a razor-edged isthmus home to hidden rock pools and tumbledown 19-century silver mines, the hotel does a great Sark crab cake. After this, some freshly caught fish plus one-too-many glasses of fizz, I managed a wobbly walk along a clifftop path, to be rewarded with cracking views of craggy, elliptical bays. Then back on the bike for a hair-raising ride across La Coupée. With plunging 300-foot drops, this switchback coastal path put Little Sark behind me and I pedalled onwards to Sark’s northern tip for a snooze on a mossy hillside, surrounded by fragrant yellow gorse and views of Brecqhou’s incongruous castle.

The Barclay’s turrets were a fantastical sight to wake up to. I took a while to recall where I was. With sections of the CIW behind me, it was becoming clear how very different life and landscape is, not only from one Channel Island to the next but from one side of an island to another. You can’t complete the five island-route in a weekend, but good air and ferry links mean pairing walks on a couple of islands is easy — Jersey with Guernsey, say, or Guernsey with satellites Herm or Sark, or the more remote Alderney with Jersey or Guernsey.

I’d begun my tour in Jersey, under the direction of Blue Badge guide Arthur Lamy, who helped develop the CIW. As with the other islands, Arthur devised each segment of the 48-mile Jersey route to average three miles, accessed by a bus stop and punctuated by a cafe or pub. We walked short sections, each utterly distinct — from the capital of St Helier, piled up against the harbour, to the broad sandy beaches of the east and west, and the rugged north with its sheer rocky inlets. “Jersey is like a big solar panel; it slopes to the south,” says Arthur, tipping his trademark Tilley hat to gaze up at a steep cotil, the raked fields where the prized Jersey Royal spuds are traditionally grown.

With Norman and Breton forefathers but English-speaking and Jersey born and bred, Arthur is the perfect example of the Channel Islanders’ complex cultural make-up. Just seven miles from France and 70 from England, with a strategic mid-Channel location, these islands were the only part of the UK that was occupied by German forces during WWII. The remains of concrete bunkers, machine gun nests and watchtowers form Bauhaus-like sculptures on clifftops and shorelines — some of which can be rented out to visitors as ‘stone tent’ accommodation from the National Trust.

It’s on the untamed island of Alderney that this military detritus comes into its own as a surreal sculpture, almost brutalist without Jersey’s near-tropical beaches or Guernsey’s quaint country lanes to soften it. Alderney’s 11.5-mile section of the CIW takes walkers along dramatic cliff paths, a habitat for 270 different species of bird, including, during my spring visit, nesting northern gannets, puffins and petrels. This wild, natural wonder is peppered with old German fence posts, artillery emplacements and bunkers, some of which have lately been crowned by Andy Goldsworthy’s Alderney Stones. The artist’s collection of five foot-diameter clay spheres make up part of an archipelago-wide Art and Islands Foundation project, that includes an Antony Gormley standing figure on the teeny, beach-beautiful island of Herm.

Alderney’s post-war wasteland has lately been reborn as something of a naturalist’s paradise, with 17 identifiable habitats, including marine heathland, freshwater ponds and an internationally recognised ‘Ramsar’ area of coastal wetland. Alderney’s walks are less signposted than on other islands and its cliffs are rich with floral rarities like the bee orchid and sand crocus, two of the many species that give the island more flowers per square mile than anywhere else in the UK. Since 2002, the island’s rich biodiversity has been protected by Alderney Wildlife Trust, whose Interpretation Centre is housed in a former Luftwaffe radio station. I meet Trust head Roland Gauvin for a ride out to Burhou Island’s bird sanctuary.

The water is calm, revealing gorgeous layers of blue on blue — almost tropical tones created by yellow sandbanks and inter-tidal rocks. Yet amid these idyllic-looking waters, 40-knot waves are common and shipwrecks dating back to Elizabethan times scatter the coastline. North of Alderney, the underwater Hurd Deep gorge sees warm Bay of Biscay water meet that of the Irish Channel. Tides here reach 30ft, creating the strongest currents in Europe; good potential for hydro-power, says Roland. Given the velocity of water that funnels past Alderney, I’m pretty glad I’m bound for Guernsey by plane, and since the 15-seater twin-prop Trislander is full, I am asked, in true informal Channel Islands style, to ride shotgun with the pilot.

Guernsey provides my walk with real spring weather: howling rain, fog and then glorious sunshine, after which the air blooms with the earthy scent of wild garlic and sea salt. I follow parts of the island’s 30-mile CIW stretch, along maze-like lanes, flanked by hedgerows and find woodland paths winding through almost iridescent patches of bluebells, to blond sand beaches where I’m alone with the crash and drag of the waves. I’ve often wondered where the summers of my childhood went — those seasons so perfect I’d begun to imagine I’d made them up. But with Guernsey’s landscape, complete with honesty ‘hedge boxes’ filled with locally grown veg for sale, I felt transported back to innocent summers befitting if not my childhood then my grandparents’.

I picnic on doorstop sandwiches of local crab, brought from beach kiosks and watch families sea kayaking out to secluded coves. I scamper down cliff paths thick with pink thrift and white-flowering sea campion to play chicken with the tide — one of the fiercest ranges in the world — and almost get stuck on the tiny causeway-linked island of Lihou. Like much of the Channel Islands, Guernsey’s little-island charm feels like something from a Boy’s Own adventure — or in
this case, a grown-up girl’s. And what more could you want from a long weekend?

 

Channel Islands Tradition: Seaweed has been collected on the Channel Islands’ beaches for centuries. Known as vraic, it’s used as fertiliser and can still be seen laid out to dry in dark curtains across the archipelago’s beaches.

 

The Perfect Day: Guernsey & Herm
■ 10am: Walk Guernsey’s undulating cliff path from Jerbourg Point to Fermain Bay.
■ 11.30: Pit stop at Fermain’s beach cafe, before walking on to pretty St Peter Port.
■ 12.30: Catch the ferry to Herm for lunch on the patio of the White House Hotel. www.herm.com
■ 2pm: Do Herm’s round-island walk, stopping to enjoy the Antony Gormley sculpture and the glorious white sands wrapping themselves around the island’s northern half.
■ 5pm: Back to St Peter Port to explore the grand harbour-front, dominated by the Napoleonic Fort George and beautifully-preserved Castle Cornet.
■ 7pm+: Have a sundowner and slap-up seafood dinner at Pier 17, in St Peter Port’s marina. www.pier17restaurant.com

Must do: If you fly into Jersey, try and spot the rather alien, aerial sight that is the 25-hectare oyster farm in the Royal Bay of Grouville. Then take a guided walk out to the oyster beds to shuck and savour a few. www.jerseyoyster.com

ESSENTIALS

Channel Islands

Getting there
Flybe flies from the UK to Jersey. Other airlines flying from the UK to Jersey, Guernsey and Alderney include Aurigny Air Services, BA and EasyJet.
www.aurigny.com
www.ba.com
www.easyjet.com
www.flybe.com
Average flight time: 45m.
A ferry links Sark and Herm with Guernsey.
2h-4h by ferry from Poole or Weymouth to Guernsey and Jersey. 7h-10h by ferry from Portsmouth to Guernsey and Jersey.
www.condorferries.co.uk

 

Getting around
The five main Channel Islands are located a few miles from France’s Cotentin Peninsula.
Aurigny Air Services flies several times daily between Guernsey, Jersey and Alderney. Condor Ferries links St Helier (Jersey) and St Peter Port (Guernsey) in around an hour.
The Herm Trident sails several times daily between Guernsey and Herm. www.traveltrident.com
Sark Shipping sails several times daily between Guernsey and Sark. www.sarkshippingcompany.com
www.manche-iles-express.com and www.hdferries.co.uk also offer sailings between the islands.

 

When to go
The Channel Islands have warmer summers and winters than the UK, making them a year-round destination. Spring is great for walkers, bringing blankets of wildflowers. Spring Walking Weeks (free; guided) occur in Guernsey (7-15 May) and in Jersey (12-19 May).

 

Places mentioned
La Sablonnerie. www.sablonneriesark.com
The National Trust, Jersey. www.nationaltrustjersey.org
Alderney Wildlife Trust. www.alderneywildlife.org
Art and Islands Foundation. www.artandislands.com

 

More info
www.jersey.com
www.visitguernsey.com
www.herm-island.com
www.sark.info
www.visitalderney.com
The Channel Islands Way (Coast Media). RRP: £9.95

 

How to do it
Guided walks, cycle rides and other tours with Blue Badge guide Arthur Lamy cost from £105 for four hours. www.arthurthebluebadgeguide.com

In Jersey:
Longueville Manor. www.longuevillemanor.com
Atlantic Hotel. www.theatlantichotel.com

In Guernsey:
Bella Luce Hotel & Restaurant. www.bellalucehotel.com

In Alderney:
Braye Beach Hotel. www.brayebeach.com

In Sark:
Aval du Creux. www.avalducreux.co.uk

Published in the Mar/Apr 2012 issue of National Geographic Traveller (UK)