Wednesday 25 April 2018

Guernsey: Nice as potato peel pie

Channel Islands

An observation tower perched on the distant hill is a visual reminder of the German occupation of Guernsey during World War II. Photo: VisitGuernsey
An observation tower perched on the distant hill is a visual reminder of the German occupation of Guernsey during World War II. Photo: VisitGuernsey
The Guernsey Literary & Potato Peel Pie Society

Gemma Fullam

Those of a certain vintage will be familiar with Jersey, the largest of the Channel Islands, because of the long-running hit show, Bergerac, but Guernsey may have gone under the radar of most.

That's set to change, however, with the imminent release of The Guernsey Literary & Potato Peel Pie Society, a Mike Newell-directed film based on the bestselling historical novel by Mary Ann Shaffer. The engrossing book, set in the aftermath of World War II, with flashbacks to wartime, centres on Juliet Ashton, a London-based writer, her involvement with the eponymous book club of the title, and her adventures on Guernsey with a host of singular characters.

I visited with a dual mission: to discover more about the island and the inspiration behind the movie. Having dropped off my bags at my lodgings, the picture-postcard La Fregate hotel, which has stupendous views of the capital, St Peter Port; 800-year-old Castle Cornet, and the islands beyond; my VisitGuernsey host, Gaby Betley, brought me on a whistle-stop tour to see some of the locations referenced in the film.

Today, Guernsey, a self-governed Crown dependency, is home to an affluent population, many of whom work in the financial services sector. Clues to the island's wartime history abound, not least in the visual reminder that is the many German-built Brutalist-style bunkers dotting the coastline - which incidentally, has the world's fourth highest tide. In 1940, following the retreat of French and British forces to northern France, Hitler decided to make the strategically important islands an 'impregnable fortress', and invaded on June 30. For the next five years, the islanders - some 17,000 women and children were evacuated before the Germans' arrival, an event movingly portrayed in the film - were forced to live alongside their invaders in a period that would change Guernsey's landscape and way of life forever (the children's departure resulted in a sharp decline in spoken Guernesiais; on their return, many had forgotten their native tongue).

The Guernsey Literary & Potato Peel Pie Society
The Guernsey Literary & Potato Peel Pie Society

The island is hilly, requiring a reasonable degree of fitness (perhaps explaining the high number of centenarians) but it's a walker's paradise, from the steep venelles (laneways connecting the quays to High Street) to the extensive network of cliff paths, thought to be old medieval paths - on one of which, in the film, is where we first encounter our curfew-breaking Potato Peel Pie-ers. The paths stretch for 42 miles along the stunning coastline, which is home to much birdlife, including oystercatchers and long-eared owls. At this time of year, the Bluebell Woods on the south-east coast are a heart-lifting joy of blooms, while, come autumn, the blackthorn-heavy hedges will be dense with sloes. Sloe gin-making is a long tradition in the area; Guernsey sloe gin (as made by Isola in the movie) is fuschia-coloured rather than ruby, as the sloes aren't generally exposed to frost. Our ramblings lead us on to Moulin Huet Bay, with its distinctive 'pea stacks' rock formations, a favourite of Renoir, who painted 15 works during a month-long stay in the summer of 1883, so captivated was he by Guernsey's beauty. Guernsey granite, visible along the coastline and in the many solidly built houses (and the steps of St Paul's in London), ranges in hue from pinky-yellow to stern grey (Gaby pointed out the 'witch stones' decorating many of the oldest houses' chimney stacks; protruding stones which were designed to prevent a tired witch from falling down the chimney).

Dinner that evening was back at La Fregate, with general manager Simon Dufty, who was a delightful dining companion. We enjoyed the best seafood the island had to offer - think oysters, scallops, skate, sea bass, brill; I had it all, not to mention a delicious Tokaji and cheese to conclude what had been a tremendous day. I retired to my sumptuous bed, and drifted off watching the faint lights blinking in the inky-blue bay.

Next morning, after a gorgeous breakfast in La Fregate's dreamy dining room, I met Gill Girard, a Gold-accredited Guernsey Tour Guide, for further exploration of the island and the places mentioned in the film. History abounds on Guernsey - you can visit Neolithic tombs from prehistory, Roman ruins; see Norman artefacts, not to mention evidence of 17th Century privateering. Privateers were essentially state-sanctioned pirates who plundered enemy ships; the vaulted wine-storage cellars along the quayside in St Peter Port are their legacy. Artists came, too; Victor Hugo wrote Les Miserables here, during his tenure as a political exile in the 19th Century; he is commemorated in the gorgeous Victorian Candie Gardens. Hugo kept his mistress in The Crown (now The Ship & Crown) at St Peter Port - his wife, Adele, lived with him at Hauteville House, now a captivating museum. It is at The Crown that a fresh-off-the-mailboat Juliet first meets pig farmer Dawsey Adams in TGLPPS, and is almost decapitated by a falling tile. (Interestingly, Hugo's mistress was also called Juliette.) The tavern served as the German harbour office during the occupation, and has stunning views, which I savoured while sampling my first potato peel pie - the Ship & Crown has delicious mini tapas-like versions on its menu.

Our next pit stop was the German Naval Signals HQ at St Jacques - a network of underground bunkers that handled all the radio-signals traffic for the German forces in the islands; Bletchley Park monitored the signals from here, such was its importance. It has been set up to resemble how it was in wartime, with a host of memorabilia and operators' accounts of daily life; the effect is most evocative and a must-see for WWII enthusiasts.

The German occupation presented an impossible situation for the islanders. While there were acts of defiance (islanders wore V(ictory) brooches under their clothing, and chalked Vs on to German bike seats, which then imprinted on unsuspecting soldiers' backsides), largely all they could do was wait it out and coexist alongside their invaders. As depicted in the film, food was very scarce, particularly towards the end of the war, when, after D-Day, Churchill ordered of the German troops, "Let 'em starve. No fighting. They can rot at their leisure", condemning the islanders to the same fate. Add a bitter winter, and by 1945 (Liberation Day was May 9), the entire island was starving to death. A Red Cross intervention ultimately saved many lives. The German Occupation Museum, owned and run by Richard Heaume, who began his incredible collection as a boy, when he came across bullets in a field, bears witness to the years of occupation, and contains many moving and fascinating exhibits relating to that time, including poignant accounts of islanders who were deported to, and died in, concentration camps. As with the film's Elizabeth, there were love stories, too, between some islanders and the Germans, and a number of children resulted from such unions.

Dinner that evening, on Simon's recommendation, was at Le Petit Bistro, just across from the Liberation monument in the harbour. It's an atmospheric Gallic-inspired spot, with Tiffany lamps, bentwood chairs and waiters sporting braces and flat caps. I had much to ponder as I waited for my food; Guernsey had enchanted and moved me, and left me wanting more. Just as it had the fictional Juliet Ashton - and TGLPPS author, Mary Ann Shaffer, who having travelled to Guernsey on a whim, was fogbound, and during her extended tenure became spellbound by the island's rich history. Sadly, she died before her novel was published; it was completed by her niece. Cue my dinner's arrival. With potatoes - unpeeled, naturally.

Get there

The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Society will be in cinemas on April 20. For information on travel to Guernsey and exploring the island that inspired the film, see VisitGuernsey.com.

Standard double rooms with a sea view at the four-star La Fregate Hotel & Restaurant in St Peter Port start from £205 per night, including breakfast and based on two people sharing.See lafregatehotel.com for details.

German Occupation Museum: germanoccupationmuseum.co.uk

Gill Girard tour guide: gillgirardtourguide.com/tours/the-guernsey-literary-and-potato-peel-pie-society/

Return flights to Guernsey from Dublin (via Southampton) are priced from £139 with Flybe (flybe.com).

Sunday Independent

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