It may be just a touch larger than Limerick city, but the Channel Island of Guernsey is a world unto itself
A pair of gliding kestrels hunt for rabbits in the windswept hills at Robert’s C ross on the minuscule island of Herm.
“Most people think this part of the island is named after some great, important family that once lived here,” says Gill Girard. “But it’s not. Robert was a horse, and he’s buried about here somewhere, near enough those rocks, I think. Anyway, let’s crack on or we’ll miss the ferry back.”
There’s a charm and eccentricity to people on the Channel Islands, summed up by Gill, a veteran tour guide (gillgirardtourguide.com) with a soft Guernsey accent who has a story about every clump of rock, salt-crusted sign, and enthusiastic islander we bump into during my three-day visit.
By now, the pandemic is hopefully in our rear-view mirror, but there are some elements of it that I want to hold on to. Travel restrictions forced all of us to reassess what’s nearby, and now, thanks to restrictions easing and Guernsey’s airline, Aurigny, starting direct flights to and from Dublin, the Channel Islands feel like a natural extension of that.
Guernsey, and neighbouring Herm, are a real mash of cultures. With layers of French on top of English with a healthy smattering of German, the locals have a personality that doesn’t alter or change for visitors. Instead, you slip into their way of island life, planning your mornings around the tide, afternoons by the ferry schedule, and evenings by the catch of the day.
On Guernsey, which is just a touch larger than Limerick city, sandy trails run from exposed, rocky beaches along forested laneways and to cliff-top lookout points on walks measured in minutes instead of miles. After days of remote beachcombing, I return to towns and villages knowing plates of fresh, local food awaits.
The people of Guernsey have fishing in their blood, and teams of talented chefs to match. Think plates of sea bream in Copenhagen restaurant (restaurantcopenhagen.com), fish tacos in Búho (buho.gg), and the local favourite, crab sandwiches, at one of its kitsch beach kiosks. This feels like honest island living, where people make the most of, and in many ways master, what’s around them.
The landscapes surprise me. Flat in the east at St Peter Port, the island rises to the west like a wedge of cheese. There, the land abruptly ends and crumbles into wild cliffs standing over a sea of a million shimmering blues.
Cycling around the shore with Ru from Outdoor Guernsey (outdoorguernsey.gg), we pick our way along country laneways, stopping to stoop inside fairy caves and WWII bunkers. Pointing out a slab rock jutting out of a farmhouse chimney, Ru tells me about a local tradition where people built ‘witch steps’, so that any passing witches would rest outside, rather than come into the house.
During the war, Guernsey was occupied by Germany for five years. Children were shipped to the UK with their teachers, effectively killing the 1,000-year-old native Guernésiais language, while the island was turned into one of the most heavily fortressed in the world. Huge amounts of concrete were poured during the war in Guernsey, and the vast majority of its bunkers still stand today. One is a museum, many can be clambered into, and one even makes up part of a house that’s on the market for more than £1m (€1.17m).
Looking out from atop of one of these bunkers toward islands dotted off the coast, I hear more stories of Guernsey’s eccentric past and present. Tales of murdering Benedictine monks, rich from selling iodine, and the site of the world’s first underwater arrest — made when a poacher was illegally harvesting ormers, a local shellfish and sought-after delicacy.
After a few days on the islands, these stories don’t seem odd anymore; it’s just how people are.
The weather dictates so much when you live on an island, but on Guernsey, it changes plans rather than cancels them. If a westerly wind blows, there’s a sheltered cove on the east coast to swim in. If rain makes landfall, there are underground tapestries to visit and tours of Hugo Victor and Renoir’s homes to join. High tide means a dip at one beach, while low tide means swimming at another, or if you time it right, you can walk the causeway across to Lihou Island, (get it wrong, though, and you might have a wet walk back).
I feel at the mercy of the tide and weather, but in a freeing way, where nature dictates the day — a connection so often lost in my daily city life.
In fact, the first thing on the news every morning is the time that the papers and post arrived from the UK so that people can gauge how bad the fog has been.
Sitting on my hotel balcony with salt-whipped cheeks and a sun-kissed nose, I recall the stories of colourful characters and traditions from the past few days and try to figure out how to place Guernsey. It’s such a clash of cultures, but in a harmonious way — English first names and French surnames; stereotypical British post boxes painted blue instead of red; £1 Guernsey notes with the Bailiff on them instead of English pounds, and signs in Guernsey French, not ‘good French’.
But that’s the thing about this island; it’s not trying to be anything else. It’s an eccentric rock with 60,000 people scattered across it in the middle of the English Channel. It’s changed hands and rulers more times than most and, as the prominent flag-flying shows, the people are incredibly proud of who they are. And rightly so.
Pubs and restaurants serve up a host of Guernsey-made beers and gins. Ask for something local and enjoy. Liberation’s Wave Rider was my go-to. Download the Visit Guernsey app and discover self-guided walks across the islands.
Aurigny now operates direct flights from Dublin to Guernsey three days a week. Flight time is 1 hour 35 minutes (aurigny.com). The islands are at the mercy of the sea and weather. Best to pack sun cream and a rain jacket — just in case.
Cian stayed at The Fermain Valley Hotel, a short wander from Fermain Bay and Fermain Tower, where rooms start from £120 (€140) per night (fermainvalley.com). He was a guest of the hotel and Visit Guernsey. For more info, see visitguernsey.com.