I travelled by ferry across the Channel from St Malo – comfortable trip, and not very far. Great to see Di waiting when I emerged from Immigration.
September 14 2016: IMPRESSIONS OF JERSEY
It’s my last full day here in Jersey, staying with my friend from home, Diana, her sister Rosemary, twin brother Peter and his wife, another Rosemary. Di and all her siblings were born and grew up here and they have a huge extended family still living on the island – as well as others scattered around the world. It’s been a privilege to be a kind of surrogate member of the de Gruchy clan for a few days and to experience Jersey like a local. The weather’s been kind to us too .. mostly sunny and hot, with a few showers thrown in for good measure. Also a spectacular thunder and lightning display one night.
My impressions: Beaches, bays, boats, huge tides, rocky coastline, tiny winding roads and lanes, farms, churches, castles, and lots more houses than I thought possible on an island only 9 miles by 5 miles in size (approx 14 km X 7 km). Also history, history, history…. everywhere The regular population is 18,000 but it doubles in the summer months. It’s quite densely built up around the main town of St Helier, but you only have to go a few miles out on the narrow, leafy lanes to find green fields, woodlands and beautiful places to walk or cycle. Jersey is a very popular tourist destination for both the Brits and the French….it actually has a very French ‘feel’, even though it’s always been owned by Britain (apart from the Germans Occupation during WW2. .. more of that later..). France is only an hour away by boat and is clearly visible from many points on the south side of the island. All the streets, roads and little lanes have French names too
We’re staying in a lovely house overlooking a sweeping bay, close to Gorey Castle, one of the many fortifications dotted around the island, this one dating from about 1100, I think. My bedroom’s in the attic so I get a fabulous view. Many houses have front doors smack bang onto the busy roadway, ours included. Driving around here would be a nightmare if you had to do it every day….cars often have to back up on the narrow lanes to let others pass. Fortunately, Peter (Di’s twin brother) has been chauffering us around everywhere in the little hire car.
So, what have I seen?….
First visit was to a tapestry exhibition which tells the story of the war years and the liberation of Jersey from Nazi occupation. 1939-1945. To celebrate the 50th anniversary of the liberation, all the local parishes of Jersey stitched the most amazing tapestry pictures depicting all aspects of life during the war. The 12 panels were designed by an artist and everyone was trained in how to do the work. The end result is a fantastic display, accompanied by computer technology which provides an interactive source of additional information. An excellent documentary film shows real footage of the history, and interviews with people who lived through the Occupation. It explains clearly the process that Jersey went through over the past 60 years in coming to terms with their wartime experiences and why it’s taken until fairly recently for the people to take pride in celebrating and sharing this period of the island’s history. Jersey is now even “twinned” with a sister-city in Germany as part of the spirit of reconciliation.
A very much older historical monument is Elizabeth Castle which dominates the skyline at the entrance to the main harbour. Named by Sir Walter Raleigh after Elizabeth 1, the Castle has been a stronghold against potential invaders for the past 400 years. It sits high on a massive granite rock with turrets and cannons pointing out to sea. The display inside tells the story of numerous battles (mainly against the French) and of the changes of rule over the centuries. Bonnie Prince Charlie sheltered here at one time and the Castle also played a part during the Civil War (Oliver Cromwell etc). I never can remember all the details despite devouring them while I’m there….oh well, live in the moment. Conditions for the soldiers who lived in the barracks were horrendous…low pay, extreme discomfort, disease, poor food … though apparently a soldier’s lot was still better than many of his fellow-countrymen who lived in very bleak conditions on little farms or crowded towns. To get to Elizabeth Castle, you ride in an old army ‘duck’, an amphibious vehicle that rocks and rattles over the seabed when the tide is out, or floats across when the tide’s in.
Yet another period of history comes alive at Hamptonne Country Life museum. Jersey’s traditional rural life is on display at this lovely old farmhouse which dates back to the 15th century. I visited Hamptonne with Peter and Rosemary, while Di and her sister went out in the boat with other family members to look for dolphins. They found several big pods and were well entertained with lots of leaping, twisting and playing around. Sounded great, but I really enjoyed the rolling countryside, cows, pigs and thatched timber farmhouse, as well as the superb collection of stitched samplers on the wall of one of the cottages. Embroidered by girls as young as 6, and dating back to at least the1700s, they were truly works of art.
Yesterday (Tuesday 13th) we visited two sites that possibly even surpassed all of the above in terms of historical interest. Firstly, La Houghe Bie (don’t ask me what it means)…. a Neolithic burial site – and much, much more. It’s described as one of Europe’s finest passage graves dating way back to prehistoric times. You can scramble into the burial chamber, bent double, and see where ancient pagan rituals were carried out. Like other great prehistoric sites around the world, this one was built so that the sun’s rays at sunrise lit the inner chamber during the summer and winter equinox. It’s constructed with massive stones and upright pillars – like Stonehenge. But how they ever manoeuvred them into place is mind-boggling. To make this site even more amazing and spiritual, there’s also a little Christian chapel built on top of the burial mound, dating back to the 1500’s. And there’s a fantastic archaeological and geological museum on site which tells the story of Jersey’s formation and human civilisation from millions of years ago. Of most interest is the display of the huge hoard of Iron Age coins and gold jewellery discovered in a nearby potato field in 2012. Buried by someone around the time of Julius Caesar, 55BC, they lay undisturbed for over 2000 years. Archaeologists are working on them inside the museum ….and so far they’ve excavated over 55,000 individual coins and other items from the melded rocky hoard which weighed over a tonne. A truly fascinating display.
And if that wasn’t enough for one day, another superb, but harrowing, site awaited. We’d been to some of the old Germany army bunkers on one of the headlands earlier in the week, but today we visited the War Tunnels which have been opened up with displays telling the whole story of the Occupation years. These tunnels and all the bunkers were built by slave laborers brought from Russia, Poland and other Eastern European countries by the German army when they took over the Channel Islands. They worked in terrible conditions to tunnel these massive great underground passage-ways….miles and miles of them. During the war the tunnels were used for everything from ammunition stores, prisons and an underground hospital. Now there are excellent, chilling displays of what life was like for both the Germans and the Jersey Islanders for 5 years while the war raged around them in Britain and Europe. There were food shortages, lack of medical supplies, no radios allowed and very severe orders imposed on the locals by the Germans. A few people escaped, 21 died, and the rest survived until liberated by the Allies in 1945….almost a year after the Normandy landings and the end of the war in Britain. Di and her brother Peter were very young children during this whole period, so they don’t have strong memories, but of course they’ve heard all the family stories and lived through all the hardships.
This visit to Jersey certainly brought the impact of war home to me more strongly than any Anzac Day commemorations, and has strengthened my commitment to peace and human rights.
Phew….writing all this has made it feel as if we had an extremely busy time on this small island. But while we did do a lot, we also had plenty of time for leisurely coffees, walks and dinner one night with the extended de Gruchy family. We covered a lot of miles on the winding little roads and enjoyed the scenic beauty as well as the cultural history. I doubt if I’ll get back here, but am very glad I’ve been.
Thank you to the de Gruchys!