|The Channel Islands|
"Britishness" is a concept that Britain seems to do best in isolation - and generally far away from London. There is no-one as God-save-the-queen British as those few remnants of the Raj in India or the scattered British residents of Africa. If you are aiming for the quintessential Britain of hedges and villages, cosy pubs and genial farmers then skip England and aim your sights towards the coast of France. For it is here that you will find the quirky communities that make up the Channel Islands. There are four main islands: Jersey, Guernsey, Alderney and Sark, plus the recently settled small island of Herm, near Guernsey.
"To see how different each of the Channel Islands is, you don't have to go past Southampton airport," the man in the Alderney pub declared. "The bloke in the suit will be going home to his jag and manor in Jersey; the people in designer casual clothes will be bound for Guernsey and the ones in the track suits will be on their way to Alderney. That's not to say there's not money here - there is but we don't feel a need to show it."
The Channel Islands are part of the British Isles but not part of England, the UK or the EEU. Alderney is the closest to both England and France: it is just 12 km off the French coast and about 80 km from England. The islands' independence comes about because when William, the Duke of Normandy, conquered England in 1066 he kept them as his private possessions. In 1204 King John lost most of Normandy but retained the Channel Islands as Royal Peculiars. So today they are tax free islands independent of Westminster. Each of the islands has views to the others and the French coast.
While Jersey is the largest and the most obviously affluent of these island tax havens it is also one of the prettiest. There's a huge beach along the western coast and the roads and lanes of the island reveal an endless panorama of green fields and the most appealing Jersey cows that are almost deerlike in appearance. Jersey Royal potatoes are the island's other contribution to culinary culture. The French influence is evident in the names of every street and road and also, mercifully, in the island cuisine that has a strong emphasis on seafood. The main tourist attraction is the Jersey Zoo, created by the late Gerald Durrell and even now a world leader in breeding primates for return to the wild. It's home to a large population of lemurs, orang-utans and gorillas plus nuerous lesser species.
The beaches, cliffs and crags of Jersey appear perfect for sailing. However, the island has one of the largest tidal ranges in the world (about 13 metres) and a lot of offshore reefs so you need considerable expertise and local knowledge. Actually, driving on Jersey is not much easier than sailing offshore as the island has too many cars for its narrow roads.
Gorey Harbour is the most picturesque town - the waterfront pubs and restaurants are dominated by the castle atop Mont Orgueil. The island capital is St Helier, a quaint city of twisting streets and upmarket shops. The Maritime Museum down by the ferry dock is one of the most engaging little museums in Europe. Jersey was the locale of the television detective series "Bergerac" and fans will recognise many locations throughout the island.
Guernsey is the second largest of the Channel Islands and measures about 13km by 5 km. The historic town of St Peter Port is built up the side of a hill and it's irregular and charming. Unlike Jersey, it seems as if houses and hedges line every road on the island so an inland drive reveals surprisingly little. However, the coast is wide open and littered with forts and fishing villages.
For many, the highlight of Guernsey will be a tour of Victor Hugo's house, still owned and maintained by Paris. The renowned author lived here in exile for many years and largely built the remarkably ornate and rococo interior with his own hands. He was a skilled craftsman but one can't fail to be impressed by the overwhelming ego that incorporated his initials into every available surface.
Of all the Channel Islands, Alderney is my personal favourite. It's only five kilometres long by three kilometres wide and has a population of about 2,400 residents most of whom seemed eccentric in an appealing British way. Unlike the largely-benign German wartime occupation of the other islands, Alderney was run as a concentration camp so it may seem surprising that one of the island's most popular pubs is run by a German who has a big sign above the bar stating "don't mention the war". It was there I met a local bird enthusiast who delighted in showing me the puffins tattooed over much of his body. No doubt there were similarly unusual scenes taking place at the island's seven other pubs.
Just off the coast of Alderney is a tiny islet where one can observe Atlantic puffins. With their large colourful beaks, puffins are one of the world's most unlikely creatures. We saw them at nearby Burhou Island with a local boatsman and his joking offsider. Only afterwards did we discover that the offsider used to produce "The Goon Show". "No one boasts about their past here - and it's traditional that one doesn't ask," I was told.
The capital, St Anne is more a village than a bustling town but the only thing missing is a five-star hotel. It wouldn't fit the laid-back mood of the island in any case so one simply finds a pub or guesthouse and settles in. Indeed, here tourists are called "visitors" and invited to join in with whatever is happening. Alderney also features a rarity among the Channel Islands - a camping beach and it's small enough to be easily explored by bicycle or on foot. Many of the attractions are natural and include rare blonde hedgehogs known inevitably as the "Alderney Spike Girls".
Of all the Channel Islands, Sark is the most distinctive. Firstly, it doesn't have cars and one must get around on horse carts or by bicycle - or on the tractor-drawn bus that lugs people from the ferry wharf to the tiny village on the crest of the island. And Sark is the last fiefdom in Europe. Michael Beaumont is the current Seigneur of Sark who followed his grandmother, Dame Sybil Hathaway into the position. He must pay the British government one pound 87 pence annually for this privilege and in return he's the only person on the island allowed to keep pigeons or a bitch. He also gets a percentage from any land sale.
Sark is getting good value out of its Seigneur: the deliberate lack of development makes it one of the most charming places in Europe. The whole rugged island and its 600 residents appear to dwell in a pre-industrial age. Sark is a narrow strip just five kilometres long - in fact it's almost two islands joined by a spectacular single-lane path called La Coupee, 80 metres above the beaches on either side. Crime is so irrelevant that the local magistrate works for the electricity company.
There are flights to Jersey and Guernsey from London and to Alderney as well from Southhampton. There are regular high speed car ferries from several ports in England and France (Normandy). There's also a discounted Island Hop ticket that includes flights between Guernsey and Alderney and the ferry from Guernsey to Sark and Herm.
It is very easy to use the Channel Islands as stepping stones between England and the Continent.
For information about all the Channel Islands, contact Jersey-Guernsey Travel in Brisbane: PO Box 359 Ashgrove, QLD 4060 or phone (1300) 655 848, fax (07) 3366 1599.
David McGonigal © David McGonigal Pty Ltd