The best compliment which can be given to a destination is when the time comes to leave and it’s a wrench. Standing on the tarmac at Alderney’s airport was an emotional experience; quite simply I wanted to stay.
Arriving a couple of days earlier had been quite an experience too. Our tiny plane from Guernsey had taken just 12 minutes to whip across the 20 or so miles of sea which separate the two islands, but if Guernsey feels like stepping back in time, Alderney is another world entirely. There’s also a service direct from Southampton with Aurigny , which transports you to this tiny island, just 3 ½ miles long and 1 ½ miles wide at its widest point. And what a revelation it is to arrive and find beautiful beaches to rival any in the Caribbean, friendliness, hospitality and humour in abundance, wonderful food, endless wildlife, history and above all freedom, peace and quiet.
“This is definitely not Magaluf” our wonderful guide Annabel announced cheerfully as we climbed into her car for an excellent island tour (seatbelts are not mandatory and the maximum speed is just 35mph, well this is definitely not the M25 either). It’s a place to get away to, where grandparents can watch their grandchildren enjoy the kind of carefree holidays that they once had as children themselves. Annabel arrived on the island around ten years ago as a primary school teacher, along with her husband and two sons, in search of a quieter way of life. And although she has travelled around the world by boat, it’s Alderney that she now calls home.
The island is a patch of what feels a little bit like England but with none of the stress of modern life. The last reported crime was a joyrider a few months ago. In a place where people leave their keys in the ignition overnight, it was bound to happen, but of course the culprit brought the car back again. What else could he do? When driving around, it’s customary to wave to everyone, so presumably he just got spotted! There’s one police sergeant, a voluntary fire and ambulance service, and no one locks their houses. As Annabel remarked, your best currency is your friends.
History is in abundance and Alderney must be one the most heavily fortified islands in the world; Roman forts, Victorian fortresses, German bunkers are just some of the relics which can be seen at every turn. Entirely under German occupation for 5 years during World War 2, almost every resident was evacuated, and the German troops arrived along with slave labourers. The remains of the labour camps can be seen as well as the only concentration camp on British soil, Lager Sylt. A touching memorial in the centre of the island pays tribute to the men of many nationalities who lost their lives during this period with signs in Russian, Hebrew, French and Spanish.
The public transport system, if it can be called such, is a short train line built by the Victorians to carry the raw materials to build their forts, which runs on a Sunday in high season using an old underground train from London. But it’s hardly needed as the island is a walker’s heaven, with over 50 miles of trails both around the coast line and through the nature reserve. It is hilly though, which means that electric bikes are hugely popular and a lot easier on the legs to avoid that irksome uphill pedalling.
For waterlovers, boat tours around the island are a must and there are sailing courses and a range of watersports on the many beaches. And the beaches, ah the beaches, perfect golden white sand, safe coves for swimming. Braye Beach, Saye Bay, Longis Bay – they are all fabulous and there’s space for everyone. What amazed me was that the sea water was still warm enough to swim in early October.
The capital is St. Anne, essentially one perfect high street with one of everything (except banks of which there are three, presumably for all those businesses who pay no VAT or corporation tax, and whose executives enjoy the 9 hole golf course), there’s a very good museum, and quirky yellow phone boxes and blue post boxes. Foodies will love Alderney, and we tried “Gloria’s Food” for lunch – a great menu of local produce and more international cuisine including a delicious Bouillabaisse.
The island moves into another gear (well at least second gear) with Alderney Week each August when the population doubles and the island hosts a whole range of activities, events and competitions. And there’s a calendar of events all year long from angling competitions, to flying events, performing arts, literature and much more.
If Guernsey is a place for displays of wealth with multi-million pound properties and a highly visible financial sector, Alderney prefers to be seen as the back-office. It enjoys its share of celebrities (Julie Andrews, the late John Arlott, Ian Botham and Duncan Goodhew to name but a few), but this is a place where celebrities don’t want to be noticed. And I am assured that the locals don’t pay the slightest attention to them. Flying on the 14 seater plane, I was later told that there was a multi-millionaire on board, but I couldn’t have told you who he was. Was it the scruffy guy at the back who could have been an ageing rockstar, or the diminutive lady who looked like she knitted her own jumper?
An active Alderney Wildlife Trust works on conservation of the wildlife species. One example of this can be found in the stunning Alderney Community Woodland where a former German bunker at Les Rochers has been restored and is now a perfect spot to climb onto the viewing platform to observe 360 degrees of nature. A nice combination of heritage and natures Wildlife is in abundance with 2% of the world’s gannet population, as well as seals and a puffin sanctuary. And keen anglers can enjoy a “catch and release” reservoir, dedicated fishing weekends, and rare species.
Returning reluctantly to the airport with its tiny check-in desk, kiosk cafe, knitting box, manual X-ray machine (a quick look in my bag), and my most glorious moment of a glorious trip. The 12 of us on the tarmac waited for the boarding process to begin and a friendly official arrived in hi-vis jacket with a clipboard. He then read out just our Christian names for boarding. Imagine that at Heathrow!
“Janice, Bert and Christine” he began, and as the three passengers stepped forward, I noted that Bert was of somewhat diminutive stature. “Mind your head Bert” he called as Bert crossed under the wing of the plane, with a good 12 inches of clearance. The gentle humour and irony were perfect, the timing impeccable. It was a very special moment and we climbed up on the portable steps which had been shifted to our door. The pilot got on board, gave a friendly welcome, turned the key, revved up the plane and we were off pounding down the tarmac. But Alderney has got under our skin and we’ll be back.