How would you describe Guernsey in a single word: quaint; nice; relaxed; quiet; or even yesteryear. So, with these words jostling for position in our minds we set off for a three-night break courtesy of Guernsey Travel. Marching through the boarding gate doors at Birmingham airport, down the corridor, but this time down some steps and onto the airside tarmac and towards a small plane with funny egg whisks on the wings, where are the big fans you usually see pointing at you? Ah, but it is only a short flight to Guernsey, less than one hour in the air, so a smaller turbo-prop plane is all that is required. Our airline Flybe, as we found out later is also unflatteringly referred to as ‘Fly-maybe’ by some ‘seasoned’ local travellers, because of the nature of the service to the island. The same plane is often on a shuttle run that starts in Belfast, continues to Birmingham, then Guernsey and finally Jersey. A delay at any point tends to get magnified by the time the destination is reached, hence the unflattering epithet. But ours was on time, so I could not possibly comment.
The flight was quite pleasant and as we flew at less that 20,000 feet could make out a lot more detail than on normal ones. In no time at all we cleared the coast and headed out over the English Channel, and took part in a new game of identify the ship in what gave a fair representation of a war-time convoy passing serenely north east beneath us. Soon enough the usual landing drill began and we set down on the island with only one other plane for company on the apron and walked to the terminal building, collect bags and venture out into the Sunday afternoon sunshine to wait for a taxi to arrive to take us to our hotel, the Les Rocquettes.
The usual friendly driver scooped us up and we set off, soon loosing the wide main road of the airport approach and entering the narrow winding roads of the island’s interior, not unlike those you would expect to find in darkest west country. It was here that we encountered one of the quirks of driving on the island, for approaching a sharp right-hand bend our driver, without slowing down, promptly drove up onto the footpath saying that “you’re not supposed to do this, but sometimes it’s the only way to not hit anything coming the other way”. Yes, this is different.
The Les Rocquettes Hotel is nicely sized (50 room) situated above St Peter Port on the main road leading from the island’s central interior. An elegant hotel based on an 18th-century country house, it has an accommodation annex on the left and restaurant/bar to the right and a leisure centre and pool in the annex. Our room was good size in the annex 1st floor at the end near the main road, but it was not as noisy as we had feared. A quick freshen up and out for a brief explore of the locale, before returning for one of our treats, a complementary dinner in the restaurant. Restaurant was simply furnished with old local recipes sign-written on the walls to give a traditional vibe. The food was excellent, I had salmon and the wife had lamb, served by the head waiter to ensure a real treat.
Next morning, we gather at the reception to wait for our pickup for the pre-booked island tour, something we find is a good introduction to wherever we visit. As the bus made its way along narrow winding roads to the various pickup points in the area, we were refreshingly surprised to find ourselves in the unusual situation to be the youngest couple (65 & 61) on the bus. A few minutes after the last pick up we made our first stop of the tour, the Little Chapel at Les Vauxbelets. It certainly is an unusual sight, the labour of love of a monk, Brother Deodat, was begun in 1914 and not finished in its third incarnation until 1966 when another monk Brother Cephas, who took over the work, retired. Built into the side of a small hill, the outside is covered broken pottery, cups, saucers and plates donated from all over the world.
After a short stop of 45 mins, we were on our way to Pleinmont and the German WW2 defensive fortifications for a nearby 5-storey observation station on the island’s western most headland. Let loose I was a 10-year-old once again, exploring holes in the ground, ducking into buried rooms and gun emplacements. Snapping as I went, letting my interest be grabbed by a curious lump in the ground here or trench disappearing into the bracken there and venturing as close to the cliff edge as I dared to take in the glorious views. When I finally decided to return to the bus, I found that I was not actually the last, as I had feared, a couple ‘luckily’ had lost their way saving my blushes.
All aboard we make our way down to the coast where we can have our first retail opportunity of the tour at the Guernsey Pearl factory shop at La Rocquaine opposite Fort Grey and the Shipwreck Museum in the centre of Rocquaine Bay, and also have some lunch in the adjoining café. Next to the factory shop is the temporary home of the remnants of the hull timbers of a Gallo-Roman boat found in St Peter Port harbour in 1982.
Back on the bus and we head for Vazon Bay for a chance to walk off lunch along the long crescent shaped sand and have a look at the 16th century L’Ancresse Towers one of 15 loop-hole towers built by the British as defence against the French (who else). Then it is back on the bus and home via the north of the island and across the Braye du Valle a low tide causeway that split the island at high tide. It was dammed, drained and filled in by the British in the early 19th Century again as protection against attack by the pesky French.
The next day was a one dedicated to St Peter Port and its attractions. St Peter Port is the main town and port on the island built along narrow strip of land squeezed between the sea and the cliffs with its steep climbs and steps up to the remainder of the island. Shopping in Guernsey is much the same as at home, the currency is the Guernsey pound which is interchangeable here, but not back home where only banks will change them on an equivalent basis. Although there is no VAT on Guernsey, the costs of importing most goods means that the prices are much the same as home. As with most seaside towns, the businesses next to the sea and the main road are mainly restaurants and pubs, with the larger shops located on the parallel road behind. Smaller local businesses tend to be located in radial roads and streets leading away from the front and it was interesting to observe that like other towns, the further away from the centre you get, the fewer businesses you find and also the increasing occurrence of empty premises.
The German occupation of the island during WW2 has left numerous constructions which have been converted into museums and attractions for the tourists. As well as the emplacements we visited on the bus tour, there are the German Military Underground Hospital and German Occupation Museum at La Vassalerie near the airport and the La Villette Underground Military Museum in St Peter Port. Stretching further back there are other historical sites, like the house that Victor Hugo lived in for 15 years of his exile from France. A bit of culture was just what we needed, however after treking up some steep hills only to find that it was shut for renovation, still all was not lost as we were just in time to catch the opening of the National Trust shop nearby giving us an opportunity to purchase some quirky gifts for those left behind.
We venture up the southernmost pier of the harbour on our way to the historic Castle Cornet, some 800 years old, originally built on tidal island and was only connected to mainland in 1859 when the breakwater we are walking on was built to form part of St Peter Port harbour. Entering across a small bridge and through the foreboding Gatehouse and into a courtyard where the ticket office and giftshop reside. Here you can either join the 2 p.m. walking tour or set off at your own pace to explore the four buildings that house various museums: Story of Castle Cornet; Militia and Royal Guernsey Light Infantry; 201 Squadron and Maritime. Three recreated gardens from 16th, 17th and 18th century are dotted around the castle giving an idea of the styles of the times.
The castle has a long and colourful history, occupied at various times by English, French, Germans and at various points there are WW2 German gun emplacements intermingled with medieval canon, quite a juxtaposition. There are lots of steps, some quite steep, that interconnect the various levels of the castle. However, the lowest levels can be reached without using them, but the route can be a bit tortuous. The highest part of the castle is the Citadel, but it is not reachable if you find steps an issue. As you would expect this is perhaps the most strategic part and has defensive installations from 16th century, 19th century, First World War and German occupation. Taking the chance to look out to sea and the reason why this island has been so keenly fought over down the years, you get a clear view of the channel and the other islands: Herm; Jethou; Brecqhou & Sark; the Cherbourg Peninsula and Jersey. Alderney is discretely hidden behind Herm.
The Noon Day Gun is an event not to be missed, it is held every day on the level of the Maritime museum. The canon itself was built in 1799 and was moved to the castle in 1953 from the Parade ground at Les Beaucamps Arsenal. The gunner’s Red uniforms are replicas of those worn by gunners of the RGLI in 19th century. The full pomp and ceremony are retained and a very loud bang is guaranteed considering that only 25gm of charge are used in a so-called saluting charge. Reality is restored a little later when during our explorations we encounter the two ‘gunners’ going about their day jobs as handyman and gardener.
After a suitable amount of rambling and scrambling I am hauled in and reminded that play time was finished. Walking back to the town, we realise that it is the last day and we still have not had a Guernsey ice cream so with no further ado we roll up at a kiosk on the pier, buy some and sit in the sun to enjoy. Then it is off for a last look around the shops and to catch the service bus back to the hotel for our last meal of fish and chips in the pub, before retiring for the early morning flight home after a relaxing break where life has its own pace.