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.

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.



    "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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