From Surrey to the Channel Islands…
PUBLISHED: 11:06 26 June 2018 | UPDATED: 14:09 26 June 2018
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As The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Society continues to thrill cinemagoers, Rebecca Younger visited the small Channel Island and its ‘rival’ sister, Jersey, for a taste of island life
Based on the bestselling novel by Annie Burrows and Mary Ann Shafer, The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Society tells the story of London writer Juliet Ashton (played by Lily James) who forms life-changing relationships with island residents when she visits to write a book about life during the German occupation of Guernsey in the Second World War.
Burrows, Shafer and indeed the fictional Ashton were by no means the first to have been inspired by Guernsey, the island was also a muse for Les Misérables author Victor Hugo, who lived there between 1856 and 1870 after being exiled from his native France. Before he settled in Guernsey however, he first stopped in Jersey, and this is where our tour of the Channel Islands began.
At nine miles by five miles, Jersey is the biggest of the Channel Islands and, as the most southerly of the British Isles, has more daily hours of sun than anywhere else in the UK. Neither wholly French nor English, Jersey has a quirky history and some unique quasi-feudal customs. Termed the Peculiar of the Crown, collectively The Channel Islands pledge allegiance to the English Crown but not to the Parliament of the UK. Jersey thus has its own government, legal system, postage stamps and even prints its own currency (it still has the £1 note).
Our first stop after landing on the isle was to its capital of St Helier, the only real town on Jersey. We were staying at the famous Grand Hotel, on the main beach road which heads along to the harbour. The 123-room five star hotel has been a permanent fixture in Jersey’s hospitality trade since 1890 and the unimpeachable service it has become renowned for is no less different today.
The hotel overlooks St Aubin’s Bay (albeit with a road between it and the beach) and the attractive 16th-century Elizabeth Castle, which you can walk to at low tide, or otherwise get the duck boat.
Just five minutes’ walk away is Liberation Square, where crowds of islanders gathered on May 9 1945 to greet the British soldiers who would release them after five gruelling years of German occupation. The Channel Islands were the only German-occupied part of Britain and remained so for one day after VE Day. A sculpture sits in the middle of the square to mark Liberation Day – an event still celebrated in Jersey with an annual Bank Holiday.
Eager to learn more about this part of the island’s history, we decided to visit the underground war tunnels in St Lawrence, about 15 minutes’ drive from St Helier. While it’s easy enough to hire a car here, the buses are brilliant (much better than in England) they run regularly (even on Sundays) and are cheap – any journey costs just £2 – so we took advantage of that.
At the tunnels, you can find out all about Jersey during the Nazi occupation and what life was like for islanders after Winston Churchill announced he was withdrawing British military from the island.
Being a small island, Jersey is renowned for its fish and, back in St Helier, you can see and sample the local fishermen’s daily catch at Beresford Market.
In fact, Jersey is known generally for its gastronomy; there is a Michelin-Starred restaurant in St Helier (Bohemia), as well as a number of three and four AA rosette star restaurants, including Grand Hotel’s Tassili, where we sat down to one of head chef Nicolas Valmagna’s tasting menus.
The restaurant, which has direct views out to the castle, provides an intimate fine dining experience with just a handful of tables. The delicious food was complemented by a rather exquisite and thorough run-through of ingredients and their origins by the delightful Kirstie Thorpe-Jones. We enjoyed beautifully-refined dishes including crab bonbon with Kalamansi gel and Combava lime, torched scallops with Jersey Royal potato (celebrating its 140th anniversary this year) espuma and trout caviar and classic herd pork belly with sticky pig cheek, compressed apple, cider cracker and Perigord truffle. Each one showcased local ingredients, with much of the produce having been foraged by Kirstie and other members of the restaurant team themselves.
After experiencing the more bustling side of island life in St Helier, we headed west for some R&R. Cue the 106-room L’Horizon Hotel & Spa, which sits right on St Brelade’s Bay – one of Jersey’s most popular beaches, where clear blue waters play host to all manner of watersports in the summer months, while out of season, the sprawling southern-facing sands provide the perfect backdrop for a leisurely stroll and a bit of rock pooling.
The hotel’s afternoon teas are usually served on the terrace. It was going through a refurb when we visited but will be ready for the summer season. The teas are popular with a sweet and savoury version. The spa, with views of the sea, is a great place to take cover if the weather turns.
There aren’t a lot of restaurants in St Brelade’s but a couple to mention – and to which people travel from across the island to dine – are the Crab Shack for laid back sea food lunches and its sister restaurant The Oyster Box, which while relaxed has a more upmarket feel.
With just two days on the island, we had only just begun to scratch the surface but it was time to whip across to Guernsey for the last night of our Channel Island mini-break.
Despite their similarities, Guernsey and Jersey run their affairs separately and there has been rivalry ever since they took opposing sides in the English Civil War. There are some stark differences between the islands too. While Guernsey is the most densely populated of the Channel Islands, its harbour ‘town’ St Peter Port, is far less developed than St Helier and across the island in general, the landscape is much more rural. That doesn’t however mean that there aren’t plenty of fabulous places to eat, drink, shop and stay.
Our base was St Pierre Park Hotel, about 25 minutes’ (uphill) walk from the port. If you stay here, ask for one of the recently-refurbished rooms on the upper floor – they come with an outdoor terrace and hot tub with lovely views of the grounds. But not to worry if they’re not available, there’s a lovely spa (named the best on the Channel Islands last year) as well as a golf course.
The buses here work on a similar basis to those in Jersey – each journey, however long, is the same price (£1). Buses 91 and 92 circle the island so, short on time, we decided to take advantage of the ‘any journey for £1’ fare and do an entire loop to help us pick which places to stop off and explore in more detail.
We opted to spend time on the west of the island, first disembarking at Cobo Bay – one of Guernsey’s popular bathing spots – and then heading south to Fort Grey, which was built in 1804 as part of Sir John Doyle’s grand scheme for defending the island against potential attack from Napoleon’s army.
We had been told about one of the island’s prettiest beaches, Fermain Bay, and decided to head there next. With the sun out, we expected the beach to be packed but, with no vehicle access to the beach apart from permit holders, there were just a handful of people soaking up this glorious spot at the beachside café. We joined them, ordering a couple of very reasonably-priced lobster salads to devour as we basked in the sunshine.
You can walk from here back to St Peter Port, along a shady cliff-top path through pretty bluebell woods. Parts of the walk are quite steep but it’s well worth it for the various viewpoints along the way, offering spectacular vistas back to Fermain Bay and across to Herm and Sark – two smaller traffic-free islands you can reach by boat from Guernsey.
Back at St Peter Port and we couldn’t end our journey without visiting Hauteville House, the home where Victor Hugo wrote Les Misérables and Les Travailleurs de la Mer. Unfortunately, the house is currently undergoing major refurbishment work and so we couldn’t go inside. However, it was worth the steep climb up Cornet Street, even just for a glimpse of the building. Plus, it provides good reason to return when the works are complete in 2019. Not that we need another reason – while they may be small, there’s plenty enough on these beautiful islands to ensure we will most definitely visit again.