Donkey Island

8 May 2017 – The taxi driver cries, “Oh, I’m a donkey!” and then, via the rear-view mirror, checks out my reaction with amused eyes. I have just asked if he is native to Guernsey, or an in-comer. Will I know that he has just answered my question?

Yes. Got it. He is local.

Jersey islanders (boo, hiss!) first hung the tag on Guernsey residents, no compliment intended. Guernseymen decided it fit them to a tee: tough, stubborn, strong, and, even so, sweet. No wonder there is this sculpture of mother & foal opposite the Town Church in St. Peter Port, and donkey images on every tourist item you can imagine.

My friend Sally & I are starting a UK holiday here on the Channel Island of Guernsey — but we quickly discover that, in fact, our UK holiday won’t start until we return to the English mainland. Guernsey gives its name to the Bailiwick of Guernsey (which also includes Alderney, Sark and other smaller islands); Jersey comprises the Bailiwick of Jersey; they are both Crown dependencies, remnants of the Duchy of Normandy, and not part of the UK.

The history, you will now rightly conclude, is complicated, and rife with political take-overs, from pre-historic eras to the Romans, and on from there. The most recent take-over was in living memory and, thankfully, cut short: Nazi forces occupied the Channel islands during World War II.

As it happens, we will be here for Liberation Day celebrations (9 May, tomorrow), but there is much else to celebrate, at all times.

The sea, of course, the busy ports (here, a section of St. Peter Port Harbour at low tide) …

harbour walkways accessible only at low tide …

and the homes, walls and steps that seem to erupt from the very ground beneath them.

As indeed they do: the island is rich in granite. Charmingly, wildflowers erupt as well, filling minute crannies & softening the rock face.

Sally leans in for a closer look, as we walk down Rue Berthelot.

“Down” is literally true, by the way! The capital St. Peter Port steps vertically up from the sea. Whether you choose a narrow road or one of the pedestrian staircases, you & your leg muscles are in for a work-out.

An early visit to the Tourist Information Centre pays off: we snag the last few seats on the next day’s “Old Number Eleven” tour — the last in a series on offer during the month-long Heritage events, due to culminate on Liberation Day.

The Number Eleven was a bus route, and we join a lot of nostalgic “Donkeys” on the 1954 Albion Victor bus that will follow the old route out to Portelet at the south-west corner of the island.

It’s a great stopping-point for visitors as well, because from here we can also visit the Star Fort at Pezeries Point and the Table des Pions. We enjoy both, but are most touched by something else: a rusted, badly eroded and deformed airplane propeller propped against the fence overlooking the bay.

On 11 June 1944, the German occupiers shot down a B17 Flying Fortress that was presumably returning to England from a bombing raid on France. Eleven men lost their lives. Much, much later, a fisherman hauled up this airplane remnant with his catch. The paper in front of it, sheathed in protective plastic, reads: “… You sacrificed your young lives for our freedom. The people of Guernsey thank you. Rest in Peace.”

That’s not litter, to the right of the propeller; it is just the latest in an intermittent, but continuing, series of floral tributes, offered anonymously.

Old Number Eleven now shakes free of her one-time route, and we are treated to a near-circumnavigation of the island. Next stopping point: L’Ancresse Bay in the Parish of Vale, toward the north-west. More military history — this time scattered throughout a golf course, and of much earlier vintage.

This is L’Ancresse Tower No. 7, one of 15 loophole towers built 1778-1779 as part of the island defence system against a possible French invasion. Why a possible invasion? The Americans declared independence in 1776, the French allied themselves with the rebel cause, and the British Crown not unreasonably thought it might lead to an attempt to retake the Channel islands.

As it happens, it didn’t. Today pigeons inhabit the towers, and golfers do their best to shoot around them. (Still … would a shot in one loophole and out another qualify as a hole-in-one?)

All that was yesterday. Today Sally & I follow up with another bus ride, and another dip into the history of the German occupation. This time it is a regular modern bus on its current route, depositing us in Forest, where we walk past the ancient parish church, Ste Marguerite de la Foret (its earliest parts dating from the 13th c.), to attend a lecture in the German Occupation Museum on Guernsey’s resistance heroes.

 

Pre-lecture, we wander country lanes (“ruettes”), admiring the riotous abundance of wildflowers & woodland, and the simple elegance of the buildings.

Then into the Museum.

It is an informed, personal & touching talk, given by the man who created and runs the museum. It is not the history of the war, or even the history of the Occupation on Guernsey; it is the human story of three individuals, and why they mattered. But through these three stories, we feel the larger history.

Even the little Tea Room contains memorabilia.

Tomorrow is 9 May, 2017.

The island will celebrate, and Sally & I will be there.

  • WALKING… & SEEING

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

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