First Steps in Guernsey

12 May 2014 – And there’s a pun for you, because if there’s one thing St. Peter Port has in abundance — it is steps. The town rises near-vertically around its harbour, and while I’m wonderfully close to the town centre and the waterfront, getting there involves steps. Not a dozen steps or so, but serious, lengthy staircases that effectively double as streets — lengthy enough that on some staircases there are homes along the way.

The streets are almost as narrow and precipitous. I don’t care, it’s all steep and  I am charmed anyway. Three reasons, I think: (1) it’s a novelty; (2) it’s Good For Me; and (3) the glorious texture and colour and heft of the rock that mades up these stairs and buttressing walls.

steps up to Burnt Lane

I’ve learned you can’t (well, I can’t) take photos that show the steep incline of a staircase, so I no longer try. Just please take the steepness for granted — here, on a staircase up to Burnt Lane — and fall in love with the beauty.

Or, here again, near the top (puff, pant) of my more usual route, the Arcade Steps. This is where they connect to a lane, which in turn leads to Clifton St., and my temporary home.

top of Arcade Steps

Not only are the steps and walls themselves beautiful, they are filled with crevice plants, flowering & nodding in the spring breeze. (When they’re not whipping their little heads near off — “blustery” is the local adjective of choice for wind conditions.)
crevice plants in walls & staircases

I take a walk, my first afternoon here. It is about 7 p.m. Saturday and I badly need reviving after overnight from Toronto and hours of fiddling around at Gatwick before catching my connecting flight. I am giddy & stupid & crazed, and past being tired. So I take to the Arcade Steps for the very first time, and head down.

This particular staircase does some obliging twists and turns along the way, offering great views (as well as a chance to catch your breath). I pause, it’s my first look at the old heart of St. Peter Port below me.

Town church & St. Peter Port, from Arcade Steps

I bet your eye immediately went to the Town Church steeple. It looks old, it is old —  so old that it’s simply known as the Town Church, not by a particular saint’s name. The first reference to a church on this site dates from a legal document signed in 1046 by Duke William of Normandy (later & better known as William the Conqueror); the oldest stonework in the current church dates from the 13th century.

I don’t know any of that at the time; I just marvel at the whole scene, including Castle Cornet in the background (also very old), go all the way down the Steps, wander a bit, climb all the way back up… and fall into bed.

Sunday I do some more prowling. I decide to try a steps-free way to town, a route that starts out back on Clifton St., as if I were headed for a staircase after all.

More of that wonderful rock, it’s not confined to steps; there are retaining walls everywhere, including here on Clifton.

Clifton St. wall

Quiet architecture, quiet façades… and more stonework.

Clifton St.

Past the laneway leading to the Arcade Steps, & on to Berthelot Street. In two langauges.

Berthelot St., at Clifton St. end

French is part of life here, for many historical & geographic reasons, but the nature of that reality is changing.

Ruled by the Dukes of Normandy, the population spoke their French; after the Conquest, Norman French remained the official language; some 300 years later, English (albeit with heavy French influence) became the official language of England, a fact with little daily impact in these remote islands. Guernésias continued to be the language of the people, the Town Church and the newspapers.

English use began to grow, as administrators and military personnel settled here, but, it is suggested, the tipping point didn’t come until the mid-20th century. That brought the German occupation (evacuees in England speaking English, and the remaining population administered in German), and then post-War tourism and global business.

“My first language was Guernésias,” a middle-aged tour guide tells me, “but it’s no longer our daily language. You’ll hear a lot of French, but it’s ‘French-French’ — either tourists, or French citizens working here, because of the greater employment opportunities.”

Still, signs and slang and official titles persist, in a mélange I would not pretend to understand or presume to analyze for you. Even without understanding it, I enjoy it. I always enjoy diversity, and when it’s quirky diversity — all the better.

A door, halfway down Berthelot:

doorway in Berthelot St.

Double signage: a wooden relic of earlier times above the door, and, by the doorknob, a very current yellow sticky with the message, “The windows have been washed! cheers, C.”

I twist & turn my way downhill. See what I mean, about the streets being almost as narrow and steep as the staircases?

view down Berthelot St.

Sunday I take a short and very agreeable tour around town — part of the Walking Week festivities (ending that day), with tours led by official Guernsey guides. One especially interesting moment for me is our guide’s praise for Sir Isaac Brock, whom I hadn’t realized was a Guernsey native son. He’s known to Canadians for leading a successful defence against invading American soldiers in the Battle of Queenston Heights in 1812. He died in the battle, but that victory helped ensure final victory in 1814 — and a different future for the then-British colonies than the invaders had planned.

What I liked most of all was the guide’s praise for Tecumseh, the Shawnee chief who brought a large confederacy of warriors into battle on the side of the British, rather than the Americans. Knowing I was Canadian, she asked if I wanted to add anything. I added only that, without Tecumseh and his men, we would probably all be Americans today…

Later I wander about on slightly higher ground — above all those dread steps. It leaves me free to look up, instead of always at my feet. There is a lot to see, along roof lines. Here, some ornamentation on Upland Road, which I cut across on my way to visit the Candie [botanical] Gardens.


rooffop on Upland Rd

Monday I’m back on the waterfront. First destination, the Town Church.

Town Church, from harbour side

Keep the church in mind, but take a moment to notice Prince Albert up on his pedestal, and that huge, happy palm tree waving its fronds between church & prince. There are lots of palm trees around here.

The church very cleverly runs a daily welcome for visitors, offering them free coffee & gâche (a traditional dessert), plus an opportunity to buy local jams & books and make a donation on the way back out. I am not here for the goodies, though I do buy a tea-towel — I’ve come for a one-hour charity concert, pianist & soprano in a program ranging from Handel & Mozart through Schumann to Benjamin Britten.

It is a good concert, more than 100 people attending, almost entirely local (I’m guessing, by the chat among them). I like taking part in local activities when I travel. I’m not pretending that I’m not a tourist — I am, I cannot escape it – but I can at least seek moments of joining with my surroundings, instead of simply observing them.

I take one photo inside the church: the kneeler at my feet. Kneelers are dotted all along each row of pews, and every single one of them has a different hooked design.

hooked top, kneeler, St Peter Port Town Church (1225)

“Done by parish ladies?” I ask the woman sitting next to me. “Oh, yes,” she says.

Monday afternoon — another tour. Well, not officially. The Island bus company, along with its usual routes, now strongly promotes a round-the-island itinerary. The bus makes all the usual stops, and residents also take it for chosen segments of the run, but it’s a great option for tourists who’d like a quick orientation to the island as a whole. No running commentary, just a great drive-by.

And, oh, Guernsey is beautiful! (It is also sunny, at the moment. And not “blustery.”)

One photo before I hop on the bus.

Havelet Bay, St. Peter Port

Low tide in Havelet Bay, a little farther south along the South Esplanade than the bus terminal.

I plan to spend more time here tomorrow.


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  1. You know I love your stuff, and this was a real treat. Nice to see that others know about the War of 1812, and the role of the Indian tribes.

    • I thought of you while writing that post, Terry. The lady who explained the church kneelers to me is from Melbourne. Some 20 yrs ago she returned to care for her aging parents, since then has lived half the year in each place. (You can guess where she chooses to be, Nov through April!)

      • Truly a small world. Aussies are everywhere. It’s nice to hear about an Aussie abroad who wasn’t drunk or in a punch up!

      • not just a good church-going Aussie, but an enrtepreneurial one — those 20+ yrs ago, she and her husband got the permits and built the nifty holiday-apt place that I’m staying in! (no longer owns it, but laughed like hell when she heard where I was staying) so the coincidences just keep comin’

  2. What a charming, other worldly feel to this place…with your gift for describing a walk I thoroughly enjoyed this and look forward to other posts!

    • Of course I’m showing the more ‘other wordly’ bits, since sleek chrome & glass (also present) doesn’t interest me. But yes, there is great charm here, and I am enjoying myself very much. As you will see…

  3. Beautiful! It was like a 5 minute vacation!

  1. Last Steps in Guernsey | WALKING WOMAN

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    "Traveller, there is no path. Paths are made by walking" -- Antonio Machado (1875-1939)

    "The voyage of discovery is not in seeking new landscapes, but in having new eyes" -- Marcel Proust (1871-1922)

    "A city is a language, a repository of possibilities, and walking is the act of speaking that language, of selecting from those possibilities" -- Rebecca Solnit, "Wanderlust: A History of Walking"

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