Travel: Tuning into the Channel Islands

MPMC View of the harbour St Peter Port Guernsey Channel Islands UK E737P7
MPMC View of the harbour St Peter Port Guernsey Channel Islands UK E737P7

I imagine children who have grown up by the sea have a natural ability to scramble over rocks like sure-footed crabs and leap across gullies with lightening ease. Unfortunately, I spent my formative years inland, and so I lag woefully behind the rest of our group on a coasteering expedition exploring Guernsey’s coastline, writesSarah Marshall, PA.Dressed head to toe in wetsuit gear, I slip and slide nervously along the base of cliffs, spending most of my time crawling on all fours. It’s a relief when I splash into the 16-degree Celsius glassy-clear water and swim into a cave, knowing that at least a liquid cushion will soften any accidental blows. But when we’re instructed to climb up a craggy verge and jump “because it will be fun”, it dawns on me that my fellow outdoor adventurers are almost half my age.

Guernsey has often been unfairly stereotyped as a holiday haunt for the blue rinse brigade, but given the wealth of action-packed activities on offer – including kayaking, cycle tours and jet ski safaris – its appeal extends to a much wider demographic. Not that you necessarily need to be under 20 to leap from vertiginous knife-edges – just game for anything and young at heart.

St Peter Port in Guernsey. Picture: PA Photo/Renato Granieri.

St Peter Port in Guernsey. Picture: PA Photo/Renato Granieri.

With 41 miles of coastline to discover and an average 1,950 hours of sunshine per year, this scenic Channel Island is ideally suited to al fresco pursuits. And with the government-owned Aurigny airline offering a new jet plane service to the UK, cutting journey time by 20 minutes, it’s wildlife-filled bays and soft, sandy beaches will be within even easier reach.

Back on dry, solid land, I follow the cliff path around Herm, one of the smaller outer lying islands easily reached by a ferry from Guernsey’s capital, St Peter Port. Puffins and cormorants nestle in rocky crags, and gulls squark with territorial ferocity when I venture too close to their nests.

It’s easy to see why families are attracted to the dune-lined beaches and sheltered coves, and I envy the 66 residents who get to enjoy the island’s natural beauty long after the last ferry has chugged home.

A number of smaller islands off the shore of Guernsey can be visited on day trips, although one of the most exclusive, Brecqhou, is generally out of bounds. It’s owned by the Barclay brothers, who have built a castle there, and can only be accessed by guests staying at their hotel on nearby Sark.

Given its favourable tax benefits, granted in exchange for pledging allegiance to the UK, Guernsey has attracted many millionaires. But a strict limit on housing means not everyone can build their dream home here.

Only 14 per cent of the island is developed, local guide and resident Elizabeth Gardener-Wheeler tells me, and of the 26,000 houses available, only 1,600 can be owned by non-islanders. The result is a tight-knit community, where crime is almost non-existent and farmers happily leave fruit and vegetables for sale on unmanned stalls outside their properties.

Driving along narrow country lanes bordered by hedgerows and wild flowers, we pass several of these honesty boxes - some with plants and even children’s toys. No one would dream of stealing something, Elizabeth tells me firmly. It strikes me the same wouldn’t be true of my street in South London, where this sort of thing might be referred to as fly-tipping.

But there’s an innocence and naivety about Guernsey that’s even a little bit utopian; a reminder of what village life in England might have been like before towns spiralled into cities and neighbours became strangers.

Much of the camaraderie here stems from the island’s well documented period of occupation during the Second World War. Liberation Day on May 9 is a major celebration and, next year, islanders will commemorate the 70th anniversary since German forces retreated after five years of invasion.

There are gentle reminders of the Nazi years in surprising places, such as symbols painted on bus shelters - only revealed when they were redecorated earlier this year - and rusted barbed wire twisting above garden walls.

German tourists often come to find out about their family history, visiting the German Occupation Museum in Les Houards, where historical artefacts are displayed alongside personal letters and photo albums. Some detail the relationships and later marriages between islanders and German soldiers; an indication that there was some love among the war during this period.

Elizabeth recalls the positive story of one woman who desperately needed medicine. A German soldier visiting her home was apparently touched by her plight and sent for medication from Berlin.

Many Germans fell in love not only with people but also the island, and some even committed suicide rather than face the prospect of being posted in much harsher places, such as Siberia.

Today, many of their relatives come searching for information about the past, with the Priaulx Library at Candie Gardens being a fruitful source of information. Set in landscaped Victorian gardens, the collection of books was donated to islanders by a wealthy businessman and editions as old as 150 years are available to loan.

It’s a short walk from my hotel, the Duke Of Richmond, a higgledy piggledy collection of rooms in a sparkling, renovated property decorated with vintage poster prints and leopard-print upholstery. It’s a signature design for the family-run Red Carnation franchise, who also have a sister hotel in the centre of St Peter Port. Almost verging on chintzy, The Old Government House is wonderful combination of slightly faded grandeur and opulent modern design. A grand banquet room with sea views is a showpiece, while TV screens disguised in fussy gilt picture frames are strangely endearing.

I sit in a red leather sofa in the art deco Crown Bar, a favourite haunt of owner Mr Tollman, and order a bottle of Wonkey Donkey, brewed by the local White Rock Brewery. It takes its name from the islanders’ affectionate nickname, the barman explains. “We’re quite stubborn,” he says, smiling. “That’s why they call us donkeys.”

If that adversity to change is what keeps this island ticking along at a such a wonderfully nostalgic pace, long may that stubbornness continue.


:: Sarah Marshall was a guest of Visit Guernsey ( She stayed at the Duke Of Richmond Hotel ( where doubles start from £145 with breakfast.

:: Aurigny ( now operate a jet plane on their Gatwick to Guernsey route from £39 one way.