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.



Last Steps in Guernsey

22 May 2014 — There have been quite a few steps, since my first post from this island (First Steps in Guernsey)! A last wonderful walk yesterday and now I am virtually all packed, I have checked in electronically for my flights, and it is raining. Time to go home.

With such gratitude and delight, for my time here.

A “last wonderful walk” I just said, and here’s the route.

N/E tip, Guernsey

This is the northern tip of Guernsey, north-eastern really, and I walked the curve clockwise from Baie des Pêqueries (far left on that red major road where it touches the coastline) to Bordeaux Harbour on the right.

The bus driver drops me at the closest stop, La Passée, points to the spot where I can cut in to join the coastal path, wishes me happy walking, and goes on his way. So do I, with a backward glance at the homes lining the curve of the bay…

along Baie de Pequeries

… and a smile for man and dogs, out among the rocks.

man, dogs, rocks on Baie des Pequeries

How happy dogs are, racing around with tongues and ears both flapping! How happy they can make us. (But, mind, so does the sleek grey cat I meet on a path later on, who stands very tall on his paws to accept my stroking hand and then glides on his way.)

I have my self-guiding walk map with me, it tells me to pay attention to Poulias Pond as I pass by. Charming, but… special?

Poulias Pond

Yes, is the answer.

A common enough sight at home, but here it is “one of Guernsey’s rare and valuable wetland habitats,” I read. So I give the duck an extra moment’s attention before walking on, and looking out over the next scallop in the shoreline, Baie de Port Grat.

view toward Rousse Tower from Baie de Port Grat

The beached boats first catch my attention, but then I look to the headland beyond — Rousse Headland, with its tower. Heaven knows there are plenty of them on the island, but I chose to make that tower the focal point of this walk, the reason to walk this part of the island, rather than another stretch.

So I keep watching Rousse Tower grow larger, as I follow the path north & east.

Rousse Tower from west

This is a loop-hole tower, I learn, pre-Martello in era — number 11 of the 15 erected around the coast in the late 18th c. to defend Guernsey against potential French attack. (France sided with those pesky American colonists, remember, and then there were the Napoleonic Wars…) Unlike its fellow towers, many of which still dot the landscape, Rousse combines tower with a battery of guns, which radiate in a comprehensive arc from their strategic position on the headland.

Rousse Tower & Battery

It’s locked. I climb up to circle the tower, view the battery, then rejoin the coastal path and scoop my way around Le Grand Havre.

Le Grand Havre & Vale Church

Another walk target in the background, this time the spire of Vale Church.  I find I respond to very old churches the way I do to dolmens and menhirs — not for their specific religious intent, but for the calm strength that radiates from the ancient stones housing that intent.

I’m also curious about Vale Pond, and I will pass the pond just before arriving at the church. It is the western remnant of La Braye du Valle — the saltwater channel that divided Guernsey into two islands at high tide until 1808, when it was filled in. I’ve seen the eastern remnant at St. Sampson (and shown it to you in my Mes Bons Amis post); now I will connect the dots, coast to coast.

Vale Pond is extremely pretty! I take a few pictures by clambering down one side of an overgrown slope, and am properly thankful to discover that I can view it better — and in much greater comfort — from the blinds in the adjacent Colin McCathie Nature Reserve.

Which I do.

Vale Pond & Vale Church tower, from Colin McCathie Nature Reserve

Now across a pretty busy road — with my usual North-American paranoia about which way to look — and into the church yard. To my disappointment, and unlike sister churches with their electronically-protected open-doors policy, Vale Church is locked.

c. 8th c. Vale Parish Church

Built in the 8th or 9th c., I read. The earlier the structure, the simpler it is, the more I respond to it. For me, this is magnificent.

And on!

Small confession: having walked much of L’Ancresse Common during my tour of megalithic/neolithic sites (see Time Travel), I decide to leave the coast path and instead cut behind Vale Church to head north on Route de l’Ancresse across the Common, and on up to Pembroke Bay.

It takes me into the heart of the mix on that extraordinary Common: horses & dogs & toddlers & adults & golfers & loop-hole towers. There is a whole line of homes on the east side of the road, facing the Common across the way. As elsewhere on the island, almost all have names, and almost all those names are in French, with traditional references.

Then there’s the bungalow with its neat signboard: ” Vue du Neuvième.” Yessir. The ninth hole is dead opposite.

The road turns sharply east, I continue north, now with the Common on both sides. And golfers. Who play ’round the usual designed golf-course obstacles, and a few others as well.

loop-hole tower, Pembroke Bay

If you slice your ball into one of those loop-holes, what happens? Do you take a penalty stroke and put down another ball? I’m still new enough at these juxtapositions to find this hilarious. Good grief, the changes wrought by history. Once Frenchmen were the threat, then Germans … and now golfers.

pre-Martello loophole tower No. 6, with pigeon

And pigeons.

With a wary eye out for golfers, I have walked close to Tower No. 6. Three pigeons flutter wildly out of various loop-holes at my approach; this guy stands guard in the doorway. Yes?? State your business.

I back off, take to the costal path again, segue out of Pembroke Bay into L’Ancresse Bay, heading for the Le Marchant Headland.

Which of course is marked by another fort — and are you surprised? Records show fortifications on this point since 1680, considerably expanded and strengthened to confront the French threat, commandeered by the Germans … and now a military target practice site.

No, no, not the fort itself. (My eyebrows waggled a bit, when I considered that possibility.) The firing range is to the east of the fort,  flanking Fontenelle Bay — but it does mean that, when the fort flies its special Red Flag, you follow the detour signs that take you well inland.

No red flag today, so I get to pass the firing range close up, and safely.

Fort Le Merchant firing range

The final stretch of the walk takes me to small rural roadways south of Beaucette Marina, on the east-facing coast. (Story is, the owner of an exhausted quarry invited the army to use it for target practice. They did, and in the process created a marina for him …)

Right. Enough cliffs & crags & ancient churches & dolmens & military adornment.

Let us pay tribute to to that great Guernsey institution…

the Guernsey Breed

the Guernsey breed of dairy cattle, which first became popular in the late 1700s.

Let us also acknowledge another Guernsey institution, which took root rather later. It is to be found throughout the island, not just on the residential streets of Bordeaux Harbour.

I refer, my friends, to the “Compton Mackenzie.”

“Compton McKenzies” (Giant Echium)

Pshaw! you say. Or words to that effect. He’s a writer, not a great spikey plant.

So he is. But Sir Compton Mackenzie, OBE (1883-1972), author of Whisky Galore and many other books, one-time tenant of  the islands of Herm & Jethou, is probably best known here for — it is alleged — introducing the plant Echium pininana to the islands. And creating a local nickname for the plant, in the process.

We never learn, do we? What fits its native eco-system peacefully may well go on a rampage elsewhere.

“Compton Mackenzies” last only three years: a small, tidy rosette of leaves in year 1, a rather taller rosette of leaves in year 2, and a gi-normous spike (up to 12 feet) of tiny blue flowers in year 3. Having flowered, and scattered all those seeds to the wind, the plant dies. Leaving its babies to carry on. One online author calls this Echium “a giant cottage garden nightmare,” but gardeners here live with it, and find ways to make the most of it.

As they have done — come to think of it — with all sorts of invaders over the millennia.

More Maps

Why have I been so remiss? A few maps along the way might have put my walks into better context.

The Mes Bons Amis post featured my cliff walk with Guernseyman Chris and his wife Susan; here is our route around the south-west tip of the island. Just follow my scribbles clockwise, from “Mont Hérault (start)” inked into the map’s bottom centre, to the “(finish)” written in Rocquaine Bay, with a line down to the circled Imperial Hotel where we had that post-walk lunch.

south-west tip of Guernsey, famous for its cliff walks

One more map, which by sheer geography explains everything from Guernsey’s linguistic evolution to its layers of fortifications.

The Channel Islands, France & England

Look where England is. Look where France is. Look where the Channel Islands are.



    "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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