The speed limit in Guernsey is 35mph and as I relaxed into the easy calm that hangs over the island, I discovered there’s no need to go any faster. The labyrinths of windy country roads are reminisce of the Aran Islands while the charm of the small towns and cobbled streets remind me of Cornwall. The second largest of the Bailiwick Islands after Jersey, this Channel Island is laced with centuries old stories that will fascinate the first time visitor.
I’m travelling with my partner, Terry, and after picking up the hire car at the tiny but efficient airport we turned on Bailiwick Radio just in time to hear the news. The headline tells about the lady who stole three pairs of sunglasses on neighbouring island, Jersey – after a good talking to in court the judge told her she wasn’t to do that again. While chatting to locals later on that evening in the charming Ship and Crown bar, they tell us that theft is something that doesn’t happen in Guernsey. Indeed as we parked up at St Peter’s Port for a meander around the island’s largest town, many cars had left their windows open.
Guernsey has had more than its fair share of aggressors in its fascinating history, especially when it was occupied by the Third Reich during World War Two. It is now quintessentially English, albeit independent and self-governing, with an amuse bouche of French flavouring – most notably in the excellent cuisine. This we discovered when we dined at Roc Salt, a Guernsey Steak and Seafood Restaurant located on the beautiful Chouet Coast with stunning views of the northwest headland. We felt compelled to try the surf and turf, a dining choice for two and only the start of the taste-bud-tickling that continued during the rest of our stay.
Our accommodation in a shepherds hut, is one of four perched high above the horseshoe bay of Beaucette Marina. Inside the hut is loaded with local goodies including tea, cake, bread and cheese and with a fire burning hot tub on the decking not without its luxuries. The roads to the north are a maze and not wide enough for two cars in many spots but we quickly adjusted to this as we embraced the joys of polite and genteel drivers. It’s no wonder the Germans numbered the streets to try and figure out how to get around.
The 2008 novel, The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society, might have put Guernsey into many readers’ minds as an interesting destination to visit with a deep history and many stories but the island has its own literary legacy. I met with Claire Allen the organiser of the Annual Guernsey Literary Festival which happens each May. She assured me that life really is as safe here as it appears at first glance. Since the first event in 2011 the festival has grown and become a highlight in the arts calendar. This year saw David Dimbleby and Dan Walker as guest speakers. It’s no wonder that such an inspiring island is a draw for writers – the most iconic of these being Victor Hugo. He spent 15 happy years in exile on the island from 1855, totaling the majority of the 19 he lived outside of France.
In 1927 Hugo’s home on the island, Hauteville House, was left to the people of France and is now maintained by a foundation that ensures it is kept exactly the same way as it was when Hugo lived in it. Decorations include a charming selection of Ink paintings by the artist. Victor Hugo wrote standing up with a view looking over to France, only 27 miles away. The sofas and tables in the glass loft at the top of the house are where he left his pages of words to dry.
The eclectic mix of fabrics, furnishing and tiles leaves the visitor with no doubt that the artist has left his stamp firmly on the island. The gardens are a feature with stunning views over to Herm and Sark, other islands included in the Bailiwick. Victor Hugo wrote Les Miserables and Toilers of the Sea while on the island. As well as constantly decorating his house he found time to have a mistress who lived only down the road. Hauteville House and Gardens are open to visitors and pre booking on line is recommended. www.maisonsvictorhugo.paris.fr/
Another great French artist who has left a permanent mark on Guernsey is the impressionist painter Pierre-Auguste Renoir. He fell in love with the island when he visited in 1883 and spent six weeks there painting a total of 15 canvases depicting views of the coast and pretty bay at Moulin Huet. In 2019 the charity Art For Guernsey created a walk highlighting many of the locations where Renoir painted. A series of empty ornate frames cleverly show the views that were transformed through the eye of the artist, giving a fresh view of the colours and shapes that he captured in paint. We took a walk with tour guide Korinne La Page, whose surname is common on the island. Her family go back generations to Sark and Guernsey and own the enviable stone cottage in Moulin Huet that features in Renoirs work. Her brother is currently restoring it to its original form and even Victor Hugo has passed through the front door during his time on the island.
Korinne has many relatives who played a part in the war – her grandfather was part of the resistance known as Guns, The Guernsey Underground News Services. He would pick up news on a forbidden wireless and place it in a library book and direct people to the book to learn what was happening in the war. A local man who was in trouble with the Germans betrayed her grandfather to save his own skin – but her grandfather was also the baker. He managed to convince the Germans that they needed his bread so they reduced his six month sentence and sent him back to work.
In the Old Quarter of St Peter’s Port we met with founder of Art For Guernsey, David Ummels for insight into the curation of the gallery, and to hear about an upcoming exhibition taking place this September 30th 2023. In celebration of the 140th anniversary of Pierre-Auguste Renoir’s important stay the original works will go on exhibition until December. This art space hosts classes for local school children and regular exhibitions for local and visiting artists. Even the toilets are decorated with creative quotes painted in collage technique. I particularly liked the addition from Victor Hugo which sums up the creative space that I found in Guernsey.
“Nothing else in the world…not all the armies…is so powerful as an idea whose time has come.”–Victor Hugo,
A sculpture of Victor Hugo, created by Mark Cook in 2021, sits on a bench in St Peter’s Port, looking out at Castle Cornet. The Castle has guarded the harbour for 800 years. We explored the battlements while taking in the stunning views towards the other islands. With four Museums, four period gardens and the refectory it took us most of the afternoon to get around but a must visit on the island. When we returned to the car we discovered we’d left it unlocked – but everything was intact of course. It seems we’d been in the Bailiwicks to hear the tale of the stolen sunglasses and possibly the greatest robbery of the year.
Experience this extensive collection of original Occupation items and documents, including many extremely rare pieces, all housed in a purpose-built extension to the small farming cottage. See what life was like for the islands population during the war and the oppression they endured. Visit the transport corridor and tearoom, and the superb Occupation Street replica. More recently in 2001, a further small extension was added, housing a thought-provoking prison with information about the island’s deportees and the tragic story of the Jewess taken away to Auschwitz concentration camp. Open 7 days a week from 10am to 1pm. www.germanoccupationmuseum.co.uk
Guernsey is a great island to enjoy the great outdoors. Explore the 27 miles of coastline with Outdoor Guernsey. Paddle-boarding and sea-kayaking are popular activities and even coasteering is on offer for the more adventurous. www.outdoorguernsey.gg
The Bathing Pools at La Valette have been recently rejuvenated, providing a welcoming venue to support health and wellbeing. Hot showers are provided and there’s a lovely tearoom to enjoy the views after a refreshing seawater swim.
Michelle was a guest of Visit Guernsey for all information about the island see www.visitguernsey.com
Operate 3 flights a week from Dublin to Guernsey until the 29th October, Lead one way fare without bags is EUR84.00, flights can be found on www.Aurigny.com
Stay at Shepherds Huts The prices start from £175 (winter months) to £245 (peak summer season).
Huts 2-berth (suitable for two adults) and 4-berth huts (suitable for two adults and two children under twelve) – https://beaucettemarina.com/shepherd-huts/