Gorse, of Course

11 May 2017 – We don’t have gorse in mind as we board the Sark Belle for our day trip to this historic, enchanting little (5 1/2 sq km.) island member of the Bailiwick of Guernsey.

We’re thinking wildflowers, walks, sweeping views, and narrow roads & lanes free of cars but alive with tractors & tractor-drawn carts (tractors being the legal car substitute), bicycles, horses, and “shank’s mare” (leg power).

It all makes me think of my childhood summers on Dorval Island near Montreal, and my year as an adult living on Algonquin Island, one of the two residential islands in Toronto Harbour.

But, back there, we haven’t the old, old stone homes and out-buildings …

or the fingerboards.

Sally & I study this one, and follow the fingers for La Coupée and Little Sark. The former — a 91-m. narrow track with 100-m. drops either side — leads to the latter, the nearly-separate southern section of the island.

Our goal is simply to walk — to breathe the fresh air, listen to the cascades of bird song, enjoy the hedgerows, the sweeps of fields & cliffs, the wildflowers.

We walk pretty steadily through Greater Sark, heading for Little Sark, and then abruptly pull up — like everybody else — at the sight of La Coupée.

We’ve been told that for most of its history, the track had no railings at all, that in those days small children crossed on hands & knees on days of high wind, and that — as a plaque now notes — German POWs build the present railing under British supervision immediately after World War II.

You peer over the edge down into La Grande Grève, you appreciate the sturdy protection.

Another 15-20 minutes down-island, and we stop for lunch in a tea garden. (No latte, not this time: good food, sparkling water, shrubs, flowers & bird song instead.)

We know we have to walk all the way back up-island again, we’ll have a ferry to catch, but we can’t resist a side-trip while here. It’s a 15-minute walk to either Venus Pool or the Silver Mines, promises a brochure. We ask directions, and we’re on our way down the appropriate lane.

And through the appropriate farm gate.

That’s a ventilation shaft for the one-time silver mines straight ahead, one of several that still dot the area. They are a handsome, craggy sight in a sweeping, craggy area …

softened by great rolling swaths of gorse.

It is everywhere.

Ulex europaeus, if you want to get scientific about it, an evergreen shrub with brilliant yellow flowers that provides shelter for insects and birds. Tough & tenacious, say the descriptions — potentially invasive, in fact. Yes, that adjective does come to mind.

We go not quite all the way down to the water, then head back to the main road and continue up-island.

We really do want to get ourselves prudently back onto Greater Sark, within striking range of the ferry dock, but another diversion looms.

Well, more for Sally than for me.

She is a horsewoman, I am not. I watch from slightly afar as she horse-whispers the animal from a skittish distance right up to the gate. I watch him relax toward her hand, bend his head, make contact.

It’s a lovely moment.

Then, hip-hop, we’re back across La Coupée — and, yes! with time to spare for another diversion. This one westward toward the Gouliot Headland. Down more lanes, past the Duck Pond (with Mallards paddling about, to justify the name), a sideways slide past a cart heaped with tree trimmings, through another cattle gate (opened & carefully closed behind us) …

and we’re positioned for more sweeping views to the cliffs and water edge.

With lots more gorse!

Gorse lines the hedgerows as we return to the main village, walk past its shops; I point out the café where, during my visit three years ago, I shared a table with an aging lady who informed me that she was the last baby delivered by the German doctor on that island before the surrender of the occupying forces. (“One year, at the Liberation Day celebrations, I was introduced to Prince Charles!”)

We take the pretty little woodland path from the village down to the harbour, and then the tunnel through the rock to the harbour now in use.

Back on Guernsey, back up the Constitution Steps — all 3,037 of them (OK,I made that up) — to our self-catering apartment in La Madeleine, and we collapse.

I check the pedometer app on my iPhone. Congratulations! it cries: you’ve walked 17.2 km today.



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.


Island Bound

9 May 2014 – Well, it took long enough, but the Tuesday Walking Society finally made it to the Toronto Islands. Blame the endless winter. Each time we said “This is the week” during March & April, Mother Nature giggled and threw another snowstorm at us.

Never mind. This week, it all worked out.

Sam McBride: the 9:45 a.m. to the Islands

So here we are, about to board the Sam McBride — one of the three Island ferry boats, all of them wooden-tubby-vintage (this one, 1939), and all stoutly meeting passenger needs three seasons of the year. (Winter-time, Island residents and the few seasonal tourists ride the much smaller & newer Ongiara.) We’re on the 9:45 a.m. sailing, still early enough in the morning that Islanders are pouring off for their assorted mainland destinations, with us visitors waiting our turn to board.

I do love being on the Islands! As I explained in earlier posts, Enchantment on the Toronto Islands and Art & Architecture on the Toronto Islands, I have history here — and  an ongoing fascination with islands in general. (Those earlier posts will also show you more images of Island streets, so it’s worth clicking on them.)

Phyllis & I hop off at Ward’s Island, the dock for the two residential islands (Ward’s & Algonquin), planning to weave through their magic laneways before walking on to Centre Island (public parkland & amusement area). The word “laneways” isn’t quite accurate, in that we are walking on official, named Island streets — but with no private vehicles allowed, these streets are more to a laneway scale. Perfect for bicycle and foot traffic. And cat and dog traffic.

As usual, there are artistic embellishments everywhere.  Once threatened with expropriation for further parkland, now secure with home ownership (and long leases on the land), Islanders just plain exult in their surroundings, and show it. With a woven willow front fence, for example …

willow fence, Ward's Island street

…  or a funny-face mailbox, next to a sign for the current protest against jet traffic at the Island airport …

mail & activism, Ward's Island

…  or a Habs (Montreal Canadiens hockey team) sweater in a window, to cheer on the team as it battles for the Stanley Cup …

Hab jersey, Ward's Island window

… or a mini-treehouse.

tree art, Ward's Island

We walk a narrow pathway along the edge of the Eastern Gap, making our way from the Toronto Harbour side to the Lake Ontario side, then double around the corner through parkland to the Ward’s Island beach. It’s not off-limits to visitors, but known to very few of them, so it remains largely the preserve of residents.

ward's Island beach, lake-side

Imagine living in one of these homes, looking across these dunes to Lake Ontario, with sailboats heeling by in season and Leslie Spit on the southern horizon! Now turn your head — and there’s the city on the northern horizon behind you. (I swear, the CN Tower muscles into every skyline shot of this city, no matter where you are. No wonder it’s an icon. Or just the world’s best photo-bomber.)

We criss-cross a few more Ward’s Island streets, making our way back toward the ferry dock where we’ll pick up the road for Algonquin Island and eventually Centre Island as well. This takes us past the Ward’s Island Recreation Association facilities, and yes, look, tennis players already.

But that’s not what really catches our attention. Would you focus on tennis players when you could be checking out a dragon instead?

fire-breathing dragon, Ward's Island Recreation Assn facility

Especially if it’s a dragon that really, truly can breathe fire. (Well, so it seems. All the tubing is in place on the other side.)

Respectful nod to both dragons — yes, a pair — and we walk around the other side of the building. There we see a plaque explaining this is Willow Square, heart of the community for Ward’s and Algonquin, complete with a 12-ft diameter mosaic that celebrates the islands’ history, people and natural world.

It was created and installed in fall 2011 by a group of Islanders & friends, who had been inspired by British pebble mosaic artist Maggy Howarth, learned her techniques in workshops held the previous winter, and carried out their project with the support of their Recreation Association and the City of Toronto.

detail, Willow Sq. pebble mosaic, Ward's Island

A big, branching willow tree at the centre, with dancing waves at the rim, along with fish, birds, Island homes, bikes and bicycle carts. I especially like the carts. Mainlanders have SUVs. Islanders have bike carts.

Some more tree ornamentation as we head toward Algonguin Island …

tree art, toward Centre Island

…  and a stop at the Rectory Café for lunch.

It’s crowded, we think, for a Tuesday in what is still early spring — hardly tourist season yet, this must be (except for us) local patronage.

Not entirely right! A family and an older couple are sharing the table behind, we don’t exactly eavesdrop, but we do hear the conversation … Enough to learn that the older couple are visiting from Vancouver, and the young family, from the Netherlands.

The Vancouverites explain it is a Canadian ritual to hate Toronto (once a book bore that very title, Let’s All Hate Toronto), but they decided to come see for themselves — and yes, there are good things to be said about this city after all. The Dutch family pick up on the word “good,” say they are having a very good time here. “Toronto the Good,” somebody adds.

As adopted Torontonians (neither of us born here), Phyllis & I share a quick little smirk of vindication.

Next, over the footbridge to Algonquin Island. I point out the house where I lived, all those years ago. It rates a glance, but we spend more time with this kiosk next to the footbridge.

take-one, leave-one kiosk, Algonquin Is.

The custom began after I left the island, but must now be at least a decade old. Take something, leave something, or both. We take: Phyllis a warm, wavy-edged neck scarf, perfect for next winter; me a book, slightly water-damaged but intact. We vow to bring contributions, next time we’re here.

There are other offerings, more casually placed. We later see several boxes of books set out by someone’s front walk, with a hand-printed “They’re free!” sign to encourage passers-by. We don’t pick any up here, but do admire the range — from How To Buy a Used Boat, to a lavish coffee-table art book titled simply Brueghel.

We’d noticed people carrying fishing rods & nets among our fellow passengers on the Sam McBride. As we follow a lagoon-side path toward Centre Island, we come on one of them. Isn’t he the picture of patience? Aren’t they always?

fishing the Toronto Islands lagoons

We don’t interrupt him to ask what’s down there, but apparently bass and other sport fish populations are on the rise — result of, demonstration of, markedly improved environmental conditions. Fish that thrive in poor-quality water, like the white sucker, are now on the decline.

Through the Centre Island parkland, to the dock, onto the ferry, city-bound. We head for the upper deck.

ferry, with N.S.Duck Tolling dog

Please admire the dog. Phyllis had spotted him on Ward’s Island earlier — being from Nova Scotia, she knows a Nova Scotia Duck Tolling Retriever when she sees one. Even if he is unusually sedate. They are usually the furry equivalent of Whirling Dervishes, but this guy is pretty old and a bit stiff-legged. We had watched him cavort in the shoreline water on Ward’s, almost puppy-ish again for one happy moment, but he’s tired now.

Back on the mainland, walking east on Queen’s Quay along the waterfront, I cross the foot of Yonge St., smack dab at the water’s edge. This image is just the punch-line segment of a long engraved banner listing communities on Yonge St, and their distance from this O-km starting point. “The World’s Longest Street” says the banner.

Yonge St. & Lake Ontario: start of the world's longest street

Impressive, yes? Mind, there is some nit-picky argument about whether Yonge can truly be called the World’s Longest Street. It is indeed continuous from here to the municipality of Rainy River, 1896 km distant — but it changes name along the way.

So… is it one street, or several?

I say it is one street. So there.

Speaking of  “Island Bound” …

“Iceland Penny” is my heritage nickname, left over from the original days & purpose of this blog, but now I’m claiming a new nickname. Albeit temporary.

“Guernsey Girl.”

Yes! I’m off to the Channel Islands for two weeks, based in St. Peter Port, and beyond excited at the thought. Gods of technology willing, I’ll be blogging to you from there. Any tips & suggestions you’d like to offer me for my visit? Hit “comment” & send them to me right now. Please.

(And now you know why snappy new hiking boots were suddenly on the agenda.)


    "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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