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.



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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