Time Travel in Guernsey

17 May 2014 — So far, my time references in these Guernsey posts have gone back to the 19th c. or so. Now I’m going to take you on a much deeper sweep through time. This lady, for example, dates to 2500-1800 BC …

Castel statue-menhir, Castel Parish church

… and she is not the oldest figure you are about to meet.

More about her later, I promise, but let’s start at the beginning. On Thursday I took a guided tour of six of the many dolmens and standing stones now catalogued on Guernsey. Given my love for rock in general, it was inevitable that I’d become fascinated by standing stones as well — a fascination I first indulged on Orkney a decade or so ago.

Fascination yes, but expertise no, so fair warning: my comments are deliberately brief and far from definitive. Here are two much better information sources for you: Andrew Fothergill’s website to promote his book, Megalithic Guernsey (apparently now out of print, so hurray for the website), and the archaeology page maintained by Guernsey Museums & Galleries. Both (electronic) sites talk about each (stone) site mentioned here, plus many more.

Our first stop is the Le Déhus passage grave, tucked among residential streets near Bordeaux Harbour in the island’s Vale Parish. On the exterior, a domed mound, its grass starry with tiny daisies, circled by large upright stones (some of them original to the site).

Le Dehus passage grave

You crouch to enter. The grave is quite remarkable, 10 metres long, with several side chambers. There is an incised capstone overhead, considered by far the most significant feature of Le Déhus. I conscientiously tell you that because, for me personally, the detailing is so faint that the capstone has little impact. I feel the power of the site instead in the size, the physicality, the commanding enigmatic presence of the walls.

interior, Le Dehus passage grave

Our next two stops are still in Vale Parish but farther north, up on the immense L’Ancresse Common (aka Vale Common), which — along with its ancient stone sites — also contains 2 golf courses plus room for horseback riding, dog walking and general human enjoyment.

We go first to the La Varde passage grave, toward the northern end of the Common, with Pembroke Bay visible to the east and Grand Havre Bay to the west. The site itself is near the 17th hole of one of those golf courses, but my amusement at that juxtaposition is overtaken by two others.

To one side of La Varde, down by Pembroke Bay, stand two of the island’s remaining Martello towers, built for defence purposes in the Napoleonic wars …

Martello towers, Pembroke Bay, from L’Ancresse Common

… and on the other side stands a German bunker. Built later.

German bunker, L’Ancresse Common

In between, La Varde, built in Neolithic times (4000-2500 BC) and, like Le Déhus, some 10 m. long.

La Varde passage grave

That tiny white object in the entranceway is a lot newer! It is a 21st c. sneaker, on a tourist foot about to join its mate inside the grave.

You see what I mean, about “time travel”? We are ricocheting all over the continuum.

Les Fouillages is the next site we visit, also on L’Ancresse Common, but older — in fact, one of the oldest in Europe. (Fothergill says it was built some 8000 yrs ago, Guernsey Museums & Galleries says 6500, but they agree it is among the continent’s oldest.) The site’s name, “Furze Break” in Guernsey French,  reflects its discovery. In 1977, observant members of La Société Guernésiaise spotted a granite slab, uncovered by a massive gorse (furze) fire on the Common.

Les Fouillages long mound

From the near-eastern end of the island’s north coast to the west-end L’Erée Headland, with Lihou Island just off the tip.

Lihou is a favourite tourist destination because accessible at low tide — but woe betide you (deliberate pun) if you don’t check the tide timetables.  We are not here for Lihou. We are about to cross millennia of time, not 750 metres of low-tide causeway.

Le Creux ès Faïes dates to Neolithic times, 4000-2500 BC, but its power has resonated onward though the ages. The name means Fairy Cavern, and Guernsey folklore held that this site was a gateway to the fairy world, that fairies came out to dance on moonlit nights at midnight. The site still — like many others —  receives offerings.

interior, Le Creux es Faies, Lihou Headland, with an offering

Our guide does a double-take. This little clay figure has been added since her most recent visit. She smiles, shakes her head, talks about regular sweeps by site custodians to remove such objects.

I wonder about the power of these places, which we so imperfectly understand.

Le Creux es Faies, Lihou Headland, interior

Something in them transcends time, transcends abuse & misuse across the centuries.

At one point, apparently, this convenient cave was used to shelter cattle, and early in the 18th c., soldiers barracked on L’Erée found it a convenient place to sleep off a bout of heavy drinking. Officers put a stop to that by filling in the cave mouth with rubble, leading to its rediscovery in 1840, when F.C. Lukis — the self-taught archeologist whose obsession led to so many discoveries — became curious about all that rubble, and started to dig.

About 100 years later, more abuse. Well… through geographic proximity only, thank goodness.

remnants of German searchlight track, L'Ancresse Common

Why am I looking at this? you mutter to yourself. What is it, a muddy bit of ground… Boring.

It is not. (Not muddy, not boring.) It is the still-visible bit of the tracks laid by the occupying Germans in World War II, so they could wheel out the big searchlight hidden in the bunker now completely covered by all that shrubbery. The mound is immediately next to the sign & entrance for Le Creux ès Faïes.

Here’s the long view. You can pick out the track in the lower left corner of the shot. To the right, mid-distance, the dolmen’s signboard, and in the upper right of the image …

searchlight track, Le Creux signpost, German observation tower; L'Eree Headland

Yes. A German observation tower.

Today’s tour confirms my “War & Wildflowers” post heading. These apparently separate categories are constantly intermingled.

And on we go. Now into Castel Parish, in fact to the Castel Parish Church. And to the lady with the wreath, who welcomed you to this post.

Castel statue-menhir, Castel Parish church

She is the Castel Statue-Menhir, 2 m. high in total though only 1.65 m. above ground, created some time in the Late Neolithic period (2500-1800 BC). She was discovered in 1878, buried under the church’s chancel steps. The location is not such a surprise: early Christians often claimed existing religious sites for their own purposes. An early form of rebranding, if you like.

The surprise — for me anyway — is that she was erected once again, and within church grounds to boot, in the cemetery. At certain times of day, she is perhaps literally in the shadow of the parish church itself.

Castel Parish church

Sp there she stands, often — as here — with a wreath upon her head, or some other token of respect. Apparently wedding parties often make some form of offering.

As they do for another statue-mehir, La Gran’mère du Chimquière. She is the same height and from the same era as her Castel sister (though with Roman-era remodelling to the head), and she too is identified with a church — in this case, St.  Martin’s Parish Church.

However, there is one big difference.

Despite her name, the “Grandmother of the Cemetery” stands just outside the parish gates, and by some accounts is lucky to exist at all. According to Fothergill, she was earlier located within church grounds, but in 1860 the horrified churchwarden called her a continuing temptation to idolatry & ordered her destroyed. She was broken in two, as a preparatory step, but parishioners objected so vehemently that he had to back down. She was put back together, and again placed on view.

Outside the gates.

La Gran’mere du Chimquiere statue-menhir

Where she still receives wreaths & coins upon her head, especially as wedding offerings — and is frequently included in wedding-party photographs.

I left no garlands. This post, I suppose, is my offering. If not specifically to pagan deities, then at least to the power of human purpose, artistry & determination, a message still speaking to us across the millennia.

 

 

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15 Comments

  1. Reblogged this on FXHQ.

    Reply
  2. Thanks for a really interesting tour through the ages. Reading your account of these ancient places made me try and imagine the ancestors who constructed them – you actually being there though must really have connected you to that past!

    Reply
    • Yes, it can be so moving to touch a rock that I know was placed in that position by human hands millennia ago.

      Reply
  3. What a wonderful trip through time, and a timeless landscape Penny. I love the atmosphere which seems to gather around ancient and powerful sites like these. What a shame the Grandmother stone was broken, such disrespect for the people who came before us, but lovely it was re-erected.

    Reply
    • What’s interesting now is to see how — at least, I think this is what I am seeing, but I must always remember I am an outsider — to see how the German ocupation is also being integrated into history. As one islander commented, “Seventy years ago, they wanted every reminder torn down, obliterated. Now we are looking for replacement parts, so we can restore some of these structures.” Presumably with time, it becomes safe, maybe even important, to incorporate the hard times into our story. I’m not sure how all that connect to Grand’mere! Perhaps just the idea of time passing, events over time, loss and restoration…

      Reply
  4. What an interesting blog – it is so fascinating to go back in time

    Reply
  5. Wow – so many of these photos reminded me of our time in Newfoundland and other east coast visits. Thanks, as always, for taking us along on your wonderful walks.

    Reply
    • I hadn’t thought of it in terms of Newfoundland, but just today, I was thinking that a return visit to Newfoundland is overdue. So perhaps subconsciously I have been making a connection. I’m so glad you’re enjoying my Guernsey travels. Thanks for saying so!

      Reply
      • When you return, make sure you get to L’Anse aux Meadows, unless you’ve already been. I loved that place – we stayed at a B & B nearby and I went for a run one morning and it was so quiet, I could hear my shoelaces hit my shoes.

        Our east coast is one of the best places in the world.

      • I completely agree about the beauty of our east coast. L’Anse aux Meadows had not been developed when I was on the island (you can see how long it has been), and the site is indeed on my list. Love your imagery: I can just imagine you hearing your shoelaes hit your shoes!

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