Theodore W. Scull tells the story of the fascinating time-warp Channel Islands, which are likely to be one of this summer’s big cruise destination
The Channel Islands, located just off the coast of France, offer picturesque towns and villages, dramatic coastal seascapes, lush rolling pastures dotted with Jersey and Guernsey cows, wild flowers and an abundance of fresh seafood caught in the nearby waters.
They also feature mighty fortifications that date back centuries – and modern defenses built for more recent conflicts, stark evidence of the islands’ harsh Second World War past
But, most of all, they are a boon for the independent-minded cruise visitor, who can step ashore with ease when visiting the main port towns and get about with simplicity via the efficient local bus network.
Even better, Jersey, Guernsey and Sark are increasingly appearing on city-break, round-Britain and Atlantic Isles cruise itineraries between the months of May and October.
The islands’ long history begins in the 10th century at a time when they were tied to the French Duchy of Normandy. Following the Norman conquest of England in 1066, the chain became English territory and remained so after the restoration of the English monarchy.
The French attempted to take them back on several occasions but never succeeded. However, they left behind languages that date back to Middle Age Franco-Norman and, amazingly, some residents still speak these tongues today. You will see it on signs and even bus ticket stubs.
During WWII, the hapless Islands were the only British territory the Germans occupied, because Churchill announced they would not be defended from an invasion. The invading Germans, over 12,000 strong, had expected to stay only long enough to launch an attack on southern England.
Instead they remained five years, including almost a full agonising year after the Allies had landed on the nearby Normandy beaches. Today, there are many sites that still attest to the grim German occupation.
The Bailiwicks of Guernsey and Jersey enjoy a balance between independence from Britain and being looked after as Crown Dependencies. They have their own parliaments, legal and judicial systems, stamps and currency. While Guernsey looks after most of the other islands, including Sark, this royal fief, ruled by a seigneur, is responsible for some of its own laws and taxation.
This island mentality contributes to a strong sense of separation from the rest of the world, something you will notice when hobnobbing with the locals.
The Channel Islands became popular holiday destinations when the first steamships provided reliable passages, as they lay just an overnight boat ride from the south of England and enjoy more sunshine than the rest of Britain. Today’s visitors mainly arrive by air and fast catamarans from England and France – and, increasingly, aboard international cruise ships of more than a dozen lines.
Most ships anchor off St Helier, Jersey, or St Peter Port, Guernsey. A few call at Sark, and both Sark and Herm may be visited on a day excursion from Guernsey arranged by the cruise line or independently.
“Seyiz les beinv’nus a Jerri” translates to “Welcome to Jersey” in Jerrais, a sign you may see when landing at the well-protected stone harbour at St Helier.
The town presents both a traditional and more newly constructed seafront. If it’s early in the day, head directly inland through Liberation Square, along Conway Street and right past the shops on pedestrianised King Street to the main Beresford produce market and adjacent fish market.
The latter displays an almost infinite variety of the local catch – Dover sole, plaice, monkfish, mackerel and cod, plus crabs, crayfish, lobsters, mussels and king prawns. Several indoor/outdoor restaurants draw from the market, so consider stopping back for lunch later in the day.
On the harbour front, the Jersey Museum, marked by a clock mounted on its peaked tower, gives a good once over of island history from the first settlers to German occupation.
The Jersey cow exhibit reveals that in the two decades following 1860, the breed increased its value 25-fold as the world increasingly craved the rich milk. An adjoining 1818-built house reflects the life of a prosperous merchant with Georgian and Victorian period furnishings.
At the Maritime Museum, the keynote exhibit is the Occupation Tapestry illustrating life during WWII across 12 colourful panels, each stitched by an island parish. You might meet one of the locals, as I did, who recalled that her parents kept a radio hidden in her pram to receive news from the outside world and how they coped with an increasingly desperate food situation.
Elizabeth Castle , dominating a rocky islet near the harbour entrance, makes for an interesting half-day outing. At low tide, it is just a 20-minute hike over a stone path laid across the sand. At high tide, or for those who don’t want to walk, the Castle Ferry leaves from the harbour front for the main gate.
Built over many centuries, the castle and its fortifications, apartments, military barracks, abbey and priory served as the island’s main protector. By today’s standards, early living conditions for the army would have been woefully unsanitary, along with poor food and severe overcrowding. From 1600 to 1603, Sir Walter Raleigh, founder of the Virginia colony, lived in the castle as governor of Jersey.
Two short trips out of town are highly recommended. The Jersey War Tunnels, reached by the Route 8 bus in about 15 minutes, were built during the German occupation for military storage and repairs.
The long passages lead to exhibition rooms that reveal the increasingly harsh times as the war dragged on, severe food rationing which required brewing ersatz coffee from blackened roasted parsnips and tea from bramble leaves. When petrol ran out, auto tires were used to make shoes and sections of garden hoses served as bicycle tires.
A series of poignant interviews describes the dilemmas the local population faced when given the choice of evacuation or staying behind as the Germans advanced. Only half chose to leave in 1940, with those remaining having no idea what dire consequences lay ahead. Children sent for safekeeping in England experienced five years of separation.
A second outing begins with a scenic 25-minute coastal ride out to Gory Pier and its crescent-shaped harbour overlooked by the 15th century Mont Orgueil or Gorey Castle, built to protect the island against a French attack. Climb up to the entrance to inspect secret hiding rooms, turrets and towers and descend into the cellar for an exhibit on witchcraft.