May 7. 2013
The signs looked familiar, “Welcome to Jersey”, “Grand Jersey”. “Jersey Shores,” even some of the names clicked with recognition, Carteret for instance. But this Jersey is the real thing and an anomaly, as is nearby Guernsey. Suzi and I met up with our college friends Dave and Carol Lam, who live in Brussels, for a few days to explore the Channel Islands. Dave and Carol brought their car over from the mainland so we had wheels to explore. We did a little ferry hopping as well.
Both of these “Channel Islands” are under the British Crown but are not part of the United Kingdom and they are not in the European Union. Both are bailiwicks, which means governed by a bailiff, although that position is more honorary than functional. Both have legislatures that make their own laws, “The States of Jersey” is Jersey’s. And their codes are quite different from each other. They are under the crown by right of Elizabeth’s title “Duke of Normandy.” These islands are her Norman possessions, as a vassal of the king of France, a legacy from William the Conqueror. In the 1200s France drove England and King John off the Norman mainland but John maintained the islands, free of his vassalage. When Islanders give the “Loyal Toast” it is not to “Her Majesty the Queen” but “Our Queen and Duke.” These islands are duty free havens outside both the EU and UK and weekend shopping meccas for French and English alike. (The islands are much closer to France than England.) They also have their own banking laws. This makes the Channel Islands a thorn for both the EU and UK. The main industry of Jersey is probably not tomatoes or potatoes (They grow ‘em both), cows (each island has its own breed), minting money (both bailiwicks mint their own coins, on par with the British Pound, Guernsey has a nice cow on one of its), duty free shopping, or beach holidays. The main island industry seems to be facilitating tax avoidance, or to put it politely, “off shore banking.”
For a thousand years these islands have been making the transition from being French to being English. French and English are both official languages. A Local Patois of (Jèrriais on Jersey) is an ancient language, a patois of French with Norman (Norse) influences. Parliamentary debate was exclusively in French in Jersey until 1900 and French is still the language used to open the legislatures of both bailiwicks. It is also used in law courts, although testimony is often given in English. The swing in languages started in earnest after the Napoleonic wars when a large number of English veterans settled in the islands. Most rural roads still have French names. In the cities there are two sets of signposts giving English and French names. The names do not correspond to each other. For instance “King Street” is named, in French, “Rue de Derriere.” I don’t know if this is a political commentary on the monarchy. Public buildings, schools, libraries, and courts, are labeled in French although the language of instruction is now English. Guernsey has the familiar Royal Mail boxes and the Gilbert Scott designed phone booths, but they are not red but yellow and blue.
The islands are particularly beautiful this time of year, with flower gardens and heath and moor in full yellow windswept blossom. The rugged coastline sets off the Scotch Broom. Jersey is more “modern” looking and Guernsey more “quaint” or traditional in architecture. The islands have a hug tidal range. Driving the same area at different times gives you a very different view. Our ferry got back to Jersey from Guernsey and found that the tide was half a meter (19 and a half inches) too low for it to land. Within 15 minutes the tide had risen enough to allow us to dock. By the time we got back to the hotel (15 minutes later) the causeway to Elizabeth Fort was under water. Sitting on the dock of the bay watching the tide rolling away is a pleasant pastime. The currents and rips provide a water show as the water ebbs and flows. Elizabeth Fort has a causeway with dire warnings to foot traffic about carefully watching timing.
The Causeway from West Park to Elizabeth Castle is approximately 1000 meters long. It remains dry for approximately two hours either side of low tide, however this period can be affected by the wind and barometric pressure. On the high spring tide there can be over 7 meters of water covering the causeway; even on a neap tide there will be over 3 meters cover.
It is, therefore, foolhardy to risk crossing once the rising tide reaches the raised pathway.
With the causeway being a 15 minute walk and the tide coming in at more than an inch a minute, it doesn’t take very long for you to get wet, or worse, caught up in the currents. To get to Elizabeth Fort you can walk or you can ride an amphibious vehicle named “Charmin’ Betty”. It’s called a “Duck” but it’s not the DUKW amphibian of World War II fame but a more modern variant of the vehicle.
Military buffs and those interested in castles will love these islands. There are old castles and forts that have been added onto for a thousand years. Being so close to the French Mainland these islands were constantly contested. Different levels of fortifications were built on top of each other. Both islands were occupied by the Germans in World War II and islanders seem preoccupied with the war. Monuments to the occupation, memorials to the occupation, and museums about the occupation pop up everywhere. Bookstores have occupation sections. It seems to be top of mind more than a half century later. The Germans employed slave labor from occupied Europe to build reinforced bunkers under and watch towers sprouting up from older castles. In places Jersey seems to rival Albania as the world bunker capital. They were a key part of Hitler’s “Atlantic Wall.” Islanders point out the savage way laborers from other countries were treated. Perhaps they question if they did enough to try to ease the situation.
Four sites particularly intrigued me. Elizabeth Fort guarding St. Helier (Jersey’s capital) was built mostly in the 17th century. It’s a great wander and a tremendous place to watch the tide turn. (St. Helier itself is not much interest to a non-shopper, but the Victorian cast iron and glass market, which still has a red post box from Victoria, is worth the visit. Peter Port in Guernsey is the more interesting town.) The Northwest Coast with its stone pinnacles, blooming heath, dramatic rock fissures where the tide surges, German gun emplacements and the ruins of a 13th century castle is worth a wind burned walk. Gory has a beautiful castle, with a holograph of her Majesty (The Duke) and an exhibit dealing with witches which was closed by 4 PM, when I got there. But what makes Gory interesting is the harbor that empties out of water, but not boats, every 12 hours and then refills. I am amazed seeing the tangle of lines and chains when the tide is out. As it comes in they all sort themselves out. The tidy gardens along the harbor are gems.
The most interesting place to me was La Hogue Bie. It started as a ring with monoliths of stone weighing 20 tons. Neolithic folk covered the ring with dirt making it a huge mound with a chamber inside. At the base of the mound is the entrance to a passage grave where the sunlight enters twice a year, on each equinox. On the other side of the mound the Germans dug and reinforced a bunker. They also built another underground passage that is now a memorial to the forced laborers who died fortifying the islands, many of them Spanish Republicans from the Civil War. The mound itself is a high point where the Germans mounted an observation tower (now gone). But in the 1200s Christians, knowing this to be a sacred site built a church on top of the mound. In the 1500s it became a place of pilgrimage where the patron of the church dug a crypt under the church but above the passage grave. There he faked miracles get pilgrims to contribute money. One such miracle involved a statue waving. There were wires obscured by incense smoke so it looked, through the haze, like a “living” statue. Then candles around it started to “float,” a fine thread moving them through the incense smoke. The locals were hooked. This site has layers of history, passage grave, German bunker, miracle crypt, and 800 year old church, plus a great view from a mound man made five or six thousand years ago. This ain’t my father’s Jersey.
So what has this place got to do with the Jersey I know? George Carteret (“A man of the sea and great affairs” say a plaque in St. Helier.) sheltered Charles Stewart (who became Charles II) from Cromwell during the English Civil War even though the Channel Islands were Calvinist and not Church of England. Jersey held out against Cromwell until Jersey was captured, but it gave Charles time to escape to France. After the Stewart restoration, and after Britain grabbed New Amsterdam from the Dutch, in return for services rendered Charles II granted George Carteret, Bailiff of Jersey, a grant of land in the former New Netherlands west of the Hudson. Carteret named his land grant after his home island.