Travel feature: Guernsey, Channel Islands
Soak up this Channel Island’s quirky charm
Charming and quirky are two words that spring to mind when I think about Guernsey – much like the book that inspired me to go, The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Society.
Rather than present the bestseller by the late Mary Ann Shaffer, I thought I’d get all references out of the way in one go; it has persuaded folk from all over the world to come to this small island and rumour has it people wander off cruise ships with a look of wonder in their eyes, clutching nothing but a translated copy.
It has not done the tourist trade any harm but, written as it is by an American, some things don’t ring true with the islanders, for example the surnames aren’t authentically French.
However, its influence is likely to spread further with a big-budget movie set to be filmed next year on Guernsey, starring Kate Winslet and directed by Kenneth Branagh.
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Our flight was on a lovely little propeller plane and despite my reservations, it was a smooth and comfortable journey.
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Coming in from above the Channel affords a spectacular view of rolling green hills that drop away into sharp cliffs straight into the sea.
One quirk is the name – the Balliwick of Guernsey, Herm, Sark and Alderney.
This means the “top boy” is called a bailiff, and they have many constitutional powers separate from the rest of the UK. This dates back to 1204 when they swore allegiance to the British monarch not the government.
Guernsey is part of the British Isles but has its own laws such as no VAT, and is not part of the EU, which is a bonus at the duty free counter.
Guernsey Airport takes no time to negotiate and we were soon picked up by our knowledgeable guide Sylvia and taken on a whistlestop tour.
There is nothing about Guernsey this woman didn’t know.
For example, it’s the home of Specsavers, and unless you have a relative in Guernsey it’s pretty tricky to move over.
The property market is divided into local (average price about �400,000) or open (average price �1.5 million). No wonder British motor racing driver Jenson Button lived here.
Our guide drove us around idyllic green countryside with narrow lanes and stone cottages. We noticed bunches of carrots stuck on fences.
It is “hedge veg”, we were told. Locally grown produce for people to pick up and leave some pennies in the honesty tin.
She showed us the amazing little chapel (possibly the world’s smallest consecrated space), as well as ancient burial chambers that dot the island. We also saw the legacy of the Nazi’s five-year occupation, including minefields, bunkers and enormous guns – incongruous to the picturesque surroundings.
Sylvia told us: “This was Hitler’s little piece of Britain and he didn’t want to give it up.”
After a fantastic crab meat sandwich at the Cobo Tea Room we checked into our lodgings.
The Duke of Richmond in St Peter Port is an exercise in black and white elegance.
Complete with suit of armour and free biscuits, it’s luxury accommodation a stone’s throw from the waterfront.
We ate at the excellent Petit Bistro, an example of the Islands’ French heritage, and enjoyed escargot, Sancerre, cheeses and the reasonably priced early bird menu.
The next day we tackled the roads. All hire cars have different number plates and a big H slapped on them, which tells you driving is a bit different here.
The main pitfall are the filters, which act instead of traffic lights, and drivers take it in turns to go.
I was the victim of many an annoyed drivers’ horn beep during my brief stay.
We took a pleasant drive around the south west of the island, taking in the market at Sausmarez Manor, before spending the afternoon in St Peter Port.
Despite being the biggest town on the island, to Londoners it seems a sleepy, agreeable hamlet.
The place was gearing up to welcome the Olympic Torch and the paved streets were covered in bunting and full of busy throngs popping in and out of the little shops.
For dinner, we had a truly excellent meal at the hotel’s Leopard Restaurant, with mussels in some of the finest sauce I have ever licked off my fingers, as well as juicy prawns, thick steak and Dover sole. Also very good were the South African wines from the vineyard of the hotels’ Red Carnation owners.
We spent the night in the very cool Red bar – live saxophone, inventive cocktails and an outdoor terrace combined for a lovely evening.
For our final expedition, we took the ferry out to Herm, which is a very beautiful part of the world and really doesn’t seem like the British Isles.
It has deserted beaches with long green rushes and surprisingly azure coloured seas.
Some Guernsey residents spend the summer camping here and it’s easy to see why.
The tranquillity was akin to some islands in the Far East rather than the English Channel.
The whole Balliwick makes for a very relaxing weekend and with foreign trips at a premium it makes a very good but low cost trip away.