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.

Happy Rocks

10 June 2015 – Years ago, an articulate, educated — & apparently sane — woman told me why she paid a clandestine second visit to a cottage property she was thinking of buying. It was on very rocky land, part of the rugged Canadian Shield country north of Toronto. “I snuck back at dawn, did yoga & listened to the rocks,” she told me. “I had to know if the rocks were happy, because otherwise, obviously, I wouldn’t buy the property.”

I roll my eyes.

But I also feel an uneasy, slightly alarming, affinity with this woman. I too love rocks, & want them around, & respond to them. They have never told me whether or not they are happy — but they make me happy.

This cluster of stones in my back yard, for example, brought home decades ago from a holiday on Haida Gwaii (formerly Queen Charlotte Islands), off the British Columbia coastline.

Haida Gwaii stones, by Inuit soapstone carving

They’ve been grouped in assorted places over the years; currently they sit with this little soapstone Inuit bird on a chunk of log, halfway down the garden.

I have time to think about rocks these days, for not-so-happy reasons. My back is being annoying at the moment, curtailing my usual walks & expanding time spent close to home.

Also giving me time to scroll through old photos, revisit rocks that have made me happy at different times in different places around the world.

Most of which I couldn’t possibly bring home with me! Case in point: Uluru in Australia’s Northern Territory. Admire it, preferably at dawn; respect it by keeping your feet off it; bring home the memory.

Uluru at dawn, Northern Territory, Australia

No issues about putting our feet on the rocks & trails of King’s Canyon in Watarrka National Park, also in the Northern Territory — so we did. Down in the gorge or up on the rim, all glorious.

King's Canyon, Watarkka National Park, Australia

More red rock, very different location — my first hike in Iceland after all those months of training. It’s a half-day trek up the Red Bowl crater (Rauðaskál) before carrying on to Hellisfjall, our first campsite.

 rim of crater

How happy we were! For the sheer beauty; for the excitement of finally being in Iceland, and starting our great adventure.

Six trekking days, some on high ridges, also one memorable slog through the black volcanic sands of the Mælifellssaudur inland desert. I confess I was getting tired of the sand. The inuksuk cheered me up.

 inukshuk in the sands

Final campsite at Langidalur, & a farewell morning hike in the area that brought us past the Steinboginn arch of rock. I did not climb it. I watched in awe, as others did. Watching made me quite sufficiently happy, thank you.

ISteinboginn rock arch at the height of the walk

Another craggy arch, but this one far from Iceland. I’m on a trail in Topes de Collantes Nature Park, within Cuba’s Escambray mountain range.

a trail in Topes de Collantes Nature Park, Cuba

We’re just 20-odd km from the World Heritage Site city of Trinidad; such contrast. And such joy, to experience both.

Same hemisphere, different country, and this time rock as reworked by human beings back in, oh, 500 B.C. give or take. I’m at Monte Albán, one of the earliest cities of Mesoamerica, located near the present-day city of Oaxaca in Mexico, and the centre of the Zapotec world for almost 1,000 years.

Monte Alban, Oaxaca, Mexico

Look what they accomplished. We wonder at it still.

More wonder during my trip to Guernsey, where sites speak to us of even earlier times. (Did you catch that? I just wrote that “sites speak to us.” Perhaps I have to stop rolling my eyes at that woman who listened to the rocks.)

Back to Guernsey. To Le Creux ès Faïes passage tomb on Lihou Headland just north of L’Erée Bay. It is neolithic or megalithic, reputable sources differ, but created somewhere around 3000-2500 B.C. In Guernsey folklore, this spot is considered the entrance to the fairy kingdom, hence the name.

Le Creux es Faies, Lihou Headland, interior

There are standing stones / menhir as well as caves and tombs, including the Castel Church Statue Menhir. It is thought to be late neolithic, dating from 2500-1800 B.C., and is considered one of the world’s finest examples of a statue-menhir from that era.

Castel statue-menhir, Castel Parish church

Pulled down & buried at some point when Christianity triumphed over the earlier gods and churches claimed the old sacred sites; rediscovered in the 19th c. when some repair work was being done to the Castel Parish Church, and erected once again — with astonishing tolerance, for the Victorian era — within the church yard. She keeps peaceful company with all those tombstones, and receives frequent tributes from visitors. (See her head-wreath? Real flowers, only slightly past prime.)

Now I’m circling you back to Canada, to rock that has moved me & made me happy, here at home.

This cliff edge overlooking Strathcona Sound, for example, at the north-west tip of Baffin Island.

cliff on Strathcona Sound, at Nanisivik

I was on assignment in Nanisivik, Canada’s last company mining town, established in 1975 and housing miners & their families until the mine finally closed in 2002. After each day of interviews & exploration, I’d climb a little trail on the edge of the community, and sit up there breathing the air and looking out over the Sound, revelling in the hard-edged beauty of the world above the tree line. It is summer and, yes, that is a tiny last bit of iceberg, still bobbing in the water below.

Right here in Ontario, I love the Bruce Peninsula, the rocky finger of land jutting up into Lake Huron that divides the main body of the lake from its Georgia Bay remnant on the eastern side. The land lies a-slant, rising to escarpment cliffs of dolomite sandstone on the east and falling away in great sandy stretches into Lake Huron proper on the west.

“The Bruce” is home to the northern portion of the Bruce Trail. Little Cove is on the trail, near its northern tip. It offers a moment back down at water’s edge, between long stretches up on the escarpment.

Bruce Peninsula , Little Cove on the Bruce Trail

These undulating formations, I read, are “karst pavement” — limestone surfaces with potholes & twists formed by natural acidic erosion. Spring wildlowers tuck into their crevices …

Little Cove

This is old rock, very old rock, emerging from an area that, some 400 million years ago, was covered by a shallow tropical sea.

But all these great formations are like that, aren’t they — Uluru formed some 550 million years ago; King’s Canyon slightly younger at 450 million years or so.

Then there’s the Canadian Shield, once called the Precambrian Shield, since it was formed in the mid to late Precambrian Age. It is considered among the oldest known rock in the world, emerging somewhere between 2.5 & 3.5 billion years ago.

I cannot comprehend numbers like that. (And I don’t guarantee them, either. I look for reputable sources, but I am no geologist.)

Ahhh, but, once you get to thousands & millions & billions of years, it is simply — for everyday me —  very, very old. Beyond-imagining old. Beginning-of-time old. I am just happy that these great formations are so very old, that they connect us with the beginnings of our planet, and that earlier human civilizations have worked with rock and left us such wondrous evidence of their beliefs and their achievements.

And I am happy to have a little piece of that Canadian Shield, that impossibly ancient rock, now sitting quietly in my own back garden.

a rock from Muskoka, from the Canadian Shield

It was brought here for me by my partner from property he once owned up on the Shield. So I am happy on many levels — for his patient generosity (this is not the only rock he lugged south), for our memories of that property, and finally for the astounding fact of that little rock itself.

Like any ancient rock, it is memory made solid, the story of our planet.



Mes Bons Amis

19 May 2014 – Two lots of good friends to celebrate, one set of much longer standing than the other, but both contributing to my pleasure here on Guernsey.

Old Good Friends

First, Guernsey Chris and his wife Susan, dear friends of ours in Toronto, but Chris with ancient roots (and family) here on the island. It’s my great good luck that my stay here overlaps with their own. We spend Sunday together, and of course it features a walk.

Not any old walk. A section, perhaps the most celebrated section, of The Cliff Walk. I think of it like that, in capital letters, because everyone I’ve met here asks eagerly, “Have you walked the cliffs yet?”

stone marker, Cliff Walk between Mont Herault & Portelet Harbour

The Cliff Walk stretches from St. Peter Port on the south coast westward to hook north around the Pleinmont headland into Portelet Harbour on the south-west coast. We walk from the Mont Hérault Watch House to Portelet, gorging on the sunshine, surf-rumble, fields & cliffs & long views, and — given the location, and long centuries of European history — the inevitable fortifications, Napoleonic era on up.

“Elsewhere, people walk from pub to pub,” says Chris. “Here, it’s tower to tower.”

We leave the car at the Watch House. Chris is disappointed to learn it is now locked up. “I wanted to show you all the paintings inside.” Not by sentries in the late 18th c., but by bored German soldiers in World War II, endlessly watching for the attack that never came.

We set out, already eyeing a fortification purpose-built by those Germans (or their slave labour).

It’s the MP4 L’Angle Tower, a direction-finding tower that was part of the Batterie Dollmann complex here on the Pleinmont headland — guns, mortars, machine gun, searchlight positions, personnel shelters, ammunition bunkers, minefields, & concrete lined trenches.

MP4 L’Angle Tower

I find this tower quite surreal. From the safety of 70 years after the event, we can see it with other eyes. Chris quips that it is a Henry Moore sculpture; I insist it is Hercule Poirot’s art deco apartment building as we know it from the TV series. Any moment now, I say, the Little Grey Cells & the Moustache might emerge.

The other surreal element: what’s happening behind those red flags. Some gun enthusiasts are in the field, blasting clay pigeons out of the sky. All well & good, but it is a very strange feeling, to have explosions punctuate the air as we pick our way toward L’Angle Tower.

I look around, and immediately know why everyone pushed me to take this walk. It’s one stunning view after another. We get used to those clay pigeon pop-pop-pops, and give ourselves over to our surroundings.

a gorge on the Guernsey Cliff Walk

You can enter L’Angle Tower and, of course, we do. It is on 5 levels, 2 of them submerged. We climb to the accessible viewing slits, and peer eastward along the coast, just as military personnel used to do.

view east from L'Angle Tower

Fold on fold of coastline, another tower shimmering in the distance.

Nearby, a restored gun mount and section of trench. We thread our way under the camouflaged entrance, into one of the tunnels …

trench encircling Batterie Dollmann gun pit

… and then with joy take again to the open path, with air and sun and breeze and free-flying birds.

And families with picnic baskets, whose children and dogs tumble about on the fields.

seacoast coastline nearing La Table des Pions, Cliff Walk

We reach the point, the very western point of land. Our path is now at near-water level, we’re about to turn the corner to Portelet Harbour, and we stop to admire La Table des Pions. It dates probably from the late 18th c., one of the resting points for the pions (footmen) of the mounted officials taking part in the triannual Chevauchée, or inspection of roadways.

However, locally it has another name: the Fairy Ring.

La Table des Pions (Fairy Ring)

A young couple watch their little girl hop about the ring of stones. “Is she choosing her husband?” asks Susan, and yes, the parents know the legend. They nod, smiling. It is said that witches & fairies come out to dance here — and also that a young woman may attract her chosen husband by hopping over the stones with his face in mind.

We round the point, passing — of course! — another fort. This time the ruins of Fort Pézeries, another relic of the long French-English dance of suspicion and warfare.

But that’s not what Chris wants us to see. “Look,” he says, pointing into Portelet Harbour.

submerged 16th c breakwater (?), Portelet Harbour

See that submerged, white L-shaped structure, between the rocks and the boats? It is a breakwater, and it is always submerged, says Chris, who from boyhood knows this location well.

An underwater breakwater? How … interesting. Not to say… pointless.  Chris has a theory. “There was a mini-ice age in the 16th century,” he says. “Perhaps it was built then, when water levels were lower. When water levels rose again, new breakwaters had to be built.”

He is the first to say it’s only a theory, but I’ve yet to find an online source that even mentions this structure let alone accounts for it — so there you are. It’s a working hypothesis, open to more data and better ideas.

One last Portelet Harbour shot, just for the charm of it.

Portelet Harbour

And then into the Imperial Hotel, for a slap-up lunch (roast beef, Yorkshire pudding, the works) with Chris’ sister and her family. We’ve earned it!

New Good Friends

Literally “Good Friends,” in fact Le Club des Bons Amis, an Island institution whose members organize twice-weekly walks, along with lunches, speakers and other get-togethers. Thanks to Guernsey Chris, who spotted the ad for their Monday walk in the local paper — and the fact it welcomes non-members — I turn up at the Beau Séjour Leisure Centre at 10 a.m. to join the outing.

It is such a good idea, and such fun. There were at least 20 of us in today’s group, weaving up & down St. Peter Port streets for an hour of chatter and deceptively serious exercise. Just walking at an easy pace… but up, and down, and up again, and down again, and up

I am made very welcome, and when we round it off with coffee in the Guernsey Museum café, I ask if I may take a photo of the members clustered around our couple of tables. So here they are, my homage to a great group.

members of Le Club des Bons Amis

They were also, at my request, my travel advisers.

My idea was to take a bus as far as The Bridge, poke about and start walking south again along the coast toward St. Peter Port. “Go beyond that to Bordeaux Harbour, and then walk,” they suggest. “It’s very pretty, and you can see Vale Castle from there.”

So I do.

I remember that the first dolmen I visited on Thursday, Le Déhus, was near Bordeaux Harbour (see my post, Time Travel in Guernsey) and sure enough, the bus passes a pointer for the site as we loop our way to the harbour.

Bordeaux Harbour is very pretty. Various people are walking nearby or resting on the benches, taking in the view of the islands of Herm and Jethou and the Channel beyond.

Bordeaux Harbour

I admire the view myself, but cock an eye at the sky. We’d been warned the glorious weather would start breaking down as of today, with rising winds and rain expected by evening. I’m in short sleeves. Silly me! Never mind. There are short-sleeved islanders all around me, including toddlers. I will not be a wimp. I will be tough.

The oceanfront path leads me past Castle Vale, high on its hilltop, a silhouette against the darkening sky. It only (only!) dates from the late 14th c., but there is archaeological evidence to suggest the hill was first fortified in the Iron Age, around about 500 BC.

Castle Vale

On to The Bridge. In fact, to the town of St. Sampson, on St. Sampson Harbour, but generally referred to as “The Bridge” (including on bus schedules) because of La Braye du Valle. This was the tidal channel that bisected the island at this level and, at high tide, separated it into two. In 1806 the channel was filled in, and the bridge that used to link the two sections disappeared — but lives on in name and memory.

I approach from the north side, looking into the harbour, toward the one-time Braye.

St. Sampson Harbour

My plan to walk on, walk on, is foiled. The evening rain decides to be afternoon rain instead. I tuck my camera into its waterproof sac, pull my Tilley hat more firmly over my ears… and head for the bus shelter, where I am soon scooped up and brought back to town.

Oh dear. It seems I am a wimp after all.

Follow-up: those contrasting white walls

In my War & Wildflowers post, I showed you, and praised, what seems to be a local custom: highlight the handsome granite stone walls of your home by painting one (or two) of the walls a blinding white. Guernsey Chris sets me straight. It may be aesthetically pleasing, but practicality is the point, not beauty. “People used the high-grade Guernsey granite for the main walls — and then saved money by using any old rubble for the other walls, and hiding them behind white paint.” I crow with delight. How canny! Hats off…


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.



War & Wildflowers

15 May 2014 — I’d thought they’d be in two separate compartments, but no, war & wildflowers are completely interwoven in these islands. Probably North American naïveté to have thought otherwise: age & location & history make the mixture inevitable.

I set off Tuesday morning for what I still expect will be my neatly compartmentalized “military day.” I will walk south from St. Peter Port along Havelet Bay to the La Valette Underground Military Museum & to the Clarence Battery, then take the bus on around the south coast to Forest for a loop that will take in the German Occupation Museum as well as leafy, flower-bright “ruettes tranquilles” (lanes).

A backward glace at St. Peter Port as I set off, marvelling yet again at the way the town rises, tier upon tier, from the ocean.

Havelet Bay & St. Peter Port

Mind you, I know those tiers! What with all the steps I’m climbing each day, my legs will soon be ready for another round in Iceland…

I start at the Clarence Battery, in place by 1815 as one of the outworks of the new Fort George. Its role then — and for almost its entire active history — was to stand guard for England, against France. When the Germans arrived in 1940, they added some gun mountings of their own, and redefined the enemy.

German gun mounting, Clarence Battery

Layer on layer of military history. That bulk in the background is Castle Cornet, built almost 8 centuries ago, also for defence purposes.

I find a few of the structures architecturally beautiful. Forget their purpose (artillery stores, principle magazine) and admire the lines & planes.

artillery store & principle magazine, Clarence Batery

Next, the La Valette Underground Military Museum, installed in a series of German tunnels in this same section of coast. My visit is relatively short, but I recognize that serious military buffs could, and surely do, spend many, many hours here. It is packed with the minutiae of military history.

Not just the Occupation, though that looms large, but back to 19th c. British campaigns and wars as well. Buttons & medals & war materials; more poignantly, a lot of documentation of the Occupation and its impact.

I am particularly struck by a series of newspaper front pages:

  • The Star, 29 June 1940: “London: It was officially announced tonight that the Channel Islands have been demilitarized…”
  • The News, 1 July 1940: “Orders of the Commandant of the German Forces in Occupation of the Island of Guernsey”
  • The News, May 8 1945: “The War Is Over for Germany”
  • Guernsey Evening Press, 10 May 1945: “Island Day of Rejoicing”

In the afternoon I’m off to Forest with my booklet of self-guiding walks. The adventure proves as memorable for the people involved as for the places. It all starts with the driver for the bus I catch from St. Peter Port, who cocks an ear at my accent, verifies his guess, and spends much of the ride recalling the Toronto woman he almost married.

The Forest Parish church is my first stop. It is relatively small and modest, but rich with the patina of its age (earliest sections, 13th c.) and woodland setting. Also admirable for its combination of old and new: the notice board offers classes in the ancient art of bell-ringing, and details the comprehensive nature of its 24/7 electronic surveillance. Just in case your fingers wanted to grasp some church silver, instead of a bell rope.

Forest Church cemetery

A parish lady is cutting some spent blooms. We chat. I explain I’m doing this walk, but wonder if the route will be well sign-posted. She laughs — very gently, of course — and says, “Oh no, not on Guernsey! But we’re all very friendly. Just ask. Knock on a door…”

So I start down the Ruette Tranquille, which indeed is sign-posted, though by criteria rather than by name: no motor vehicles; priority for horses, cyclists & feet; maximum speed 15 MPH.

I am walking along, safely within the speed limit, when I hear, coming toward me around a bend in the lane… “Bloody weather!” The unseen speaker is bellowing. “Bloody weather! Never know what to expect! Can’t dress for it!” We’re finally within sight-lines, though he has to peer up turtle fashion, because he is bent C-shape with age. “Who are you, then?” he shouts. “Why are you dressed like that?”

I beat my feet up & down, and shout back: “I’m walking!” He roars, “No good talking to me! I’m deaf as a post!”

ruette tranquille near Forest Parish Church

It’s all taking place ’round about here. There’s no malice or aggression in his comments, just bright-eyed interest. We’re both having a good time — though I realize my role is mime, his is commentary.

After telling me I look “very conspicuous” (I couldn’t be more trekker-generic if I tried), he demands:”Know what ‘variouf’ means?” I nod energetically, because I’ve read my tourist pamphlet, and I know. It’s Guernsey French for ‘werewolf.’ He ignores me. “Wolves!” he yells. “Wolves down there! You be careful!” Then he roars with laughter and walks on.

There are a number of things I’m supposed to see on the walk, and Les Varioufs even make the list — as a folklore vignette, you understand. I fail to see almost everything on the list & decide to skip the one item I do see, the Occupation Museum. (One museum a day is enough.) Doesn’t matter. I see a great deal not on the list, and love it all.

path sign in the Forest ruette tranquille

Look how it is wreathed in blossoms. I later learn this is Wild Garlic, and briefly wish it had a prettier name, and then realize that’s… that’s silly, that’s what that is. Shakepere got it right, a rose by any other name, and all that.

I follow the side path for a while. Wouldn’t you, if it beckoned you like this?

side path from the ruette tranquille

Looping back, I photograph this example of something I’ve been noticing. People here often paint one end of their stone buildings blinding white, creating beautiful contrast with the textured stone on the other walls.

typical stone building with one white end wall

And then it’s back to town, with a bus driver who keeps his romantic history to himself, and relatively early to bed because …

… because Wednesday morning, the sun is shining and the ocean is calm and I take the one-hour boat ride to the Island of Sark.

The Island of Sark

More war, more wildflowers. My timing is dictated not only by the weather, but also by the promise of a guided Wildflower Walk that afternoon.

First, though, more rock. Sark’s soft, bucolic beauty is set in great dramatic slashes of rock. We see it as we approach the island,  we tunnel through it as we leave the boat.

ferry dock at La Greve de la Ville

And, immediately the other side, we see evidence that this island has no motorized vehicles. Not even for official business. The postmen are on bicycles, and anything heavier than mail is carried by wagon, pulled by either a horse or a tractor.

wagons awaiting loads, at Sark ferry dock

Some passengers take the offered ride up the first incline toward the village — in a wagon pulled by a tractor, though a classy wagon with seats. It has an official name I now forget; I only remember the nickname — The Toast Rack. Perhaps because passengers are lined up in neat rows on their benches.

I take the Village Path instead.

Village Path to village from dock

My tour isn’t until early afternoon, so I treat myself to a morning walk on my own. It takes me, according to my illustrated map, past The Windmill.

The Windmill (with bicycle), Sark

Which doesn’t look a lot like a windmill, does it? No blades. Later, I learn why not. It had blades but, since it offers the highest vantage point on the island, the Germans lopped off the blades, took down the mechanism, and installed a machine gun on top instead. They also built a small ammunitions shed right up against the windmill. “So we can’t put back the blades,” my tour guide says, “because that shed is now part of the house, and the blades would smack into it.”

Oh the other thing to notice in that photo: the bicycle (ghostly white glimmer) resting against the hedgerow. There are bikes propped up like this, all over the island. No, I don’t think it’s take-one-leave-one; I think it’s the owner leaving the bike until next needed, knowing it will still be there.

We have a good afternoon guided walk. The fields & woods make me think a bit of Manitoulin Island at home (off the tip of the Bruce Peninsula), starred with buttercups, tiny daisies, the last bluebells, more wild garlic, flax, campion …

The route takes us south, we’ll end on Little Sark, and our guide leads us there along the Cliff Path. It involves several stiles…

a stile on the Cliff Path, Sark

Great dramatic scenes along the cliffs, with bays gouged into the rock, plunging far below the fields all around us.

Most dramatic of all, La Coupée. This is the extremely narrow isthmus connecting Sark to Little Sark, with the land shearing away either side and the open sea giving the wind lots of room to get up speed before blasting its way across the path.

La Coupee between Sark & Little Sark

Well,  you say; just clutch the railings. Yes, fine, but there were no railings, or hard surface, until after WWII. Prior to that, on windy days school children crossed on their hands and knees. On very windy days, they were excused from school. The improvements were added post-Liberation, thanks to British army supervision and German prisoners of war.

I read the plaque noting all this, and think again about my lunch-time conversation with a Sark woman, back in the village. No Occupation memories of her own — “I was born just before Liberation, the last baby delivered by a German!” — but rich in island stories and the memories of others. Including the story of the German who didn’t leave. “He married a local girl, they’re still alive, 94 & 91 they are. Happy, happy marriage.” Another sip of her beer. “He’s a real gentleman, that one. A real gentleman.”

I have time to revisit earlier conversations, because, though our tour finishes down in Little Sark, I still have to get back north for my ferry, don’t I? No bus service here, remember? Another hour’s walk, and I’m back where I need to be.

coastal Sark, looking toward Guernsey

Along the way, I see Guernsey, a smudge on the horizon. A few more hours and I’m back in St. Peter Port, back up the steps, back home.

Thinking about Thursday. Thinking about dolmens and menhirs — and that’s your clue for my next post.



    "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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