The Channel Islands make an enticing walkers’ escape, offering charm, character and stunning coastal walks.
WORDS Paul Lamarra
The tide was ebbing when I rounded Vazon Bay on Guernsey’s north coast. The water receded across the beach as I walked barefoot in the surf, enjoying the cool, soft silver sand between my toes and picking my way carefully over seaweed smeared granite.
Walking in the soft sand was energy-sapping, and by the time I fi nally reached the Fort Hommet headland and saw Cobo Bay and Saline Bay stretching away to the north-east, I needed a rest. Right on cue, at the west end of Cobo Bay, I came across one of the beach kiosks that I had encountered at regular intervals around the island. There was a scrum at the counter as kids in wetsuits clamoured for a lunchtime treat. Yet it was me who drew the kiosk owner’s ire when, in a confused moment, I asked for a Jersey crab sandwich. ‘We don’t do Jersey crab sandwiches on Guernsey,’ she replied, tersely. I should have known better. Although many people commonly lump all the Channel Islands together, the character of each island is quite distinct. And in the four days I spent following part of the 185km/115-mile coastal trail that makes up the Channel Island Way, I learned much about what makes the three islands I visited – Guernsey, Sark and Herm – unique and so different from one another.
After arriving in Guernsey by ferry from the British mainland into St Peter Port, I was able to pick up the path as soon as I left the ferry terminal, striking out south in the recommended clockwise direction. Beyond the busy harbour, hardy swimmers in colourful caps were drying off at the outdoor Victorian bathing pools, and from there I passed through an archway and climbed some steps to reach the Clarence Battery. I was now on the coastal path proper.
I soon found that walking the Channel Island Way on Guernsey affords the opportunity to find your own rhythm. There was no need to worry about pace or timings, for all I needed to do was when I’d had enough was make my way to the nearest road and hop on a bus back to Saint Peter Port – a trip costing a single Guernsey pound. Along with the handily-spaced kiosks this made for wonderful, relaxing walking.
The Channel Island Way is a relatively new trail, which officially opened in early 2011. It is not fully waymarked, but I did have a detailed guidebook and after all, as long as I kept the sea on my left I couldn’t go far wrong! Access was not a problem – I was following old rights of way that had gradually been established along the boundary between private and public land. It was on these steep and rocky margins, perilously high above the crashing waves, that generations of sheep farmers had tended their flocks.
Heading south into a gentle south westerly breeze via Fermain Bay, I emerged from woodland into open country. Despite my proximity to the cliff edge I felt very safe, plunging along a trench through dense and pungent shrubs and flowers. From a distance the flowering white asphodel seemed to cap the cliffs like snow.
Traces of a darker past
Guernsey seemed tranquil and serene, and it was difficult to imagine that anything could upset the equilibrium of this small British dependency. However, both the island and its populace have lived a tense existence at various points in their long history, and it is along its coastline that Guernsey displays the most obvious traces of this past.
Castle Cornet is an island fastness in the bay at St Peter Port, dating back to the 13th century. Further fortifications, including Martello towers and various batteries, are strung along the coast – all constructed to deter a French invasion. However, it was the defences built by the occupying Germans during the Second World War that were most apparent.
There are more than 800 German installations on Guernsey and it was fascinating to spend time exploring the trenches, gun emplacements, bunkers and blockhouses. Yet they retain an eerie, menacing quality that made me shudder. The impassive range-finding tower, its four slits looking out over the Isle of Lihou and overshadowing a Neolithic burial passage grave, had lost none of its sinister, intimidating power. The occupation, which lasted from June 1940 to liberation in May 1945, was a dark time for the island.
Herm: a walkers’ paradise
Keeping Guernsey as my base, I rose early for the short ferry ride from Saint Peter-Port to Herm. Herm, I was told, was where Guernsey people went to ‘get away from it all’. Indeed, while 62,000 residents live on Guernsey, the permanent population of Herm is just 62.
From the moment I arrived on the tiny island I could feel my cares slipping from my shoulders. A quaint sign at the top of the Rosaire steps read: ‘Herm welcomes genteel visitors’. If they weren’t feeling genteel when they arrived, they certainly would be when they left.
I’d caught the ferry over in the company of a troop of noisy Sea Scouts, but when I set out on the coastal path, this time in an anti-clockwise direction, I was soon entirely alone – save for some kayakers paddling around the headland. As I rounded the first bend Guernsey dropped out of sight and I was left with the sound of birdsong and waves gently washing over the rocks below. On my left, inland birds produced a confused chatter while on my right the gulls and oystercatchers provided a more authoritative caw and pipe.
The sky above was deep blue, the sea sparkled turquoise and the path under my feet was easy to tread. No cars or bicycles are allowed on Herm, and I was certain that I had truly discovered a walkers’ paradise.
A complete circuit of Herm is a distance of only four miles, so I tarried in order to make the most of the walk and its sights. At Belvoir Bay, sunbathers basked in the heat or sat beneath umbrellas by the island’s only beach kiosk. Then, when I reached the long and almost deserted Shell Beach, I did what was becoming a favourite Channel Island Way pastime: I took off my shoes and walked in the sea. By the time I had explored the small village and church, crossed the common and returned to the harbour, more tourists had arrived but thankfully most were content to stick to the island’s two pubs and two shops. There was just time to indulge in a dairy ice cream before boarding the ferry back.
Heading out to Sark
The taxi driver who dropped me at the Sark ferry shouted out of his window as I made my way to the gangway. “It’s been thirty years since I’ve been over and it probably hasn’t changed much – that there ferry is a time machine!”
How far back it might transport me he didn’t say. All I knew of fiercely independent Sark was that it too was traffic-free and also tax-free – but that sounded almost futuristic. In my head I imagined an island Monaco. Yet as the ferry drew close to the island, my first inclination was to gulp. Girded with soaring cliffs riven with gullies, the island looked almost prehistoric.
The difference between high and low tide in the Channel Islands is ten metres. It is one of the biggest tidal ranges in the world, and when the ferry tied up at Maseline harbour the quayside was a long way above us. It was such a climb that none of the passengers were permitted to carry luggage up the steep stone steps from the water’s edge.
A tunnel through the rock linked the harbour with the altogether more placid landscape of Sark’s interior. Those who didn’t want to walk uphill to the village mounted a horse-drawn charabanc while a tractor and trailer saw to the luggage.
I located the footpath from my guidebook, finding that I had to refer to it regularly as I walked along Sark’s green grassy lanes, which kept me well back from the cliffs. A rare viewpoint at Point Chateau did give vertigo-inducing views of Derrible and Dixcart Bays.
The highlight of Sark is the so-called coupée. This is a high level causeway with vertiginous sides that links Sark with Little Sark. Before the path was built, islanders risked their lives crossing the steep cliffs. Once on Little Sark I attempted to make my way to its western-most tip to walk the loop around the remains of old silver mines, but I lost the path on the steep hillsides and for the first and only time I felt too close to the edge.
When I eventually arrived in the village on Sark I found a fete in full swing. The streets were hung with bunting and lined with stalls opposite the wartime prefabs, selling local treats and lemon drizzle cake. It was a heart-warming scene from yesteryear and I now knew exactly what the taxi driver had meant.
TIME/DISTANCE: Paul walked two stretches of the Channel Island Way on Guernsey, including the route from Saint-Peter-Port to Petit Port Bay (22.5km/14 miles). He also walked around the smaller islands of Herm (6.5km/4 miles) and Sark (16km/10 miles).
TRAVEL TO: Condor Ferries run a daily high-speed cataraman service between Portsmouth/Poole and the Channel Islands. One-way foot passenger fares start from £37.50 per person (www.condorferries.co.uk). On Guernsey Paul stayed at the La Barbarie Hotel, which offers double rooms with breakfast from £98 (www.labarbariehotel.com).
FURTHER INFO: HF Holidays offers a 7-night guided island hopping tour in the Channel Islands from £1,119 per person, which includes stunning walks on Guernsey, Alderney, Herm and Sark (www.hfholidays.co.uk). For tourist information on all the islands that comprise the Bailiwick of Guernsey see www.visitguernsey.com.