Jersey – Atlantic island adventure

To the ends of the earth with Nick Smith

Jersey’s west coast looking north over St Ouen’s Bay. The small military fortification is La Rocco tower built as a defence against the French. The tower’s name comes from Rocque-hue, meaning rocky island. Note the outline of Guernsey, far left

Despite Jersey’s reputation for being a safe and sedate holiday destination for the unadventurous, this largest of the Channel Islands is a feast for the senses. From glorious coastal landscapes to unexpected treasure houses of wildlife, fine dining to a rich and detailed history, Jersey has a surprise around every corner. And, as the Bay’s Nick Smith found out, it makes a change to find that one of the ‘ends of the earth’ is on your doorstep, less than an hour’s flight away…

Bouley Bay on the north coast of Jersey is protected by the island’s tallest cliffs, and gets its name from the French ‘bouleau’or birch tree / Military fortifications such as the famous La Rocco tower are a common sight on Jersey dating as far back as the English Civil Wars to as recently as Nazi Germany’s occupation of the Channel Islands in the mid-20th century

Mont Orgueil castle on Jersey’s east coast seen from the air. The medieval fortress has overlooked the fishing village of Gorey for more than 800 years

One of the best things about flying to a small island – especially if you can see all of it from the aero-plane’s porthole – is that you get a real feeling of excitement. And so as we started to make our descent into the Channel Islands, Jersey’s rough-hewn coast, sandy beaches, emerald pastures, tiny villages and poly-tunnel potato fields became a sort of living map. Here in your hand is a diagram of where you’re going, and there below you is the real thing. When the plane comes to earth you al-ready feel you know something of the place, if only that it is very small. The fact that Jersey is on the same sort of geo-graphical scale as Gower (it’s about two-thirds of the area) is one of the many similarities to emerge: glorious coastline, fantastic birdlife, wild pollution-free fresh air, soft Atlantic light, the occasional shower or two and the obligatory friendly locals.

But there’s a big difference too. Because of where Jersey is located – just 14 miles off the coast of France and 100 miles south of mainland Britain – the temp-erature tends to be a couple of degrees higher and the days are a little longer, which accounts for the island’s popularity as a holiday destination in the daysbefore cheap long-haul flight came along and we all started beating a trail to the Caribbean. It’s only an hour’s flight from Cardiff and there’s no time difference, and so door-to-door it’s far less hassle than driving to London – and much more fun. And while Jersey might not be one of the furthest flung ‘ends of the earth’ I’ve ever been to (it’s barely outside the United Kingdom, enjoying the special status of ‘Crown Dependency’), I reasoned that everywhere is a long way away to someone, and just because it was quick and easy to get to, it didn’t automatically follow that there was any less of an adventure to be had.

I admit here and now that before I’d even arrived I had a completely biased view of the place. Based on postcards from octogenarian aunts that seemed to land on the welcome mat every other week during the long hot summers of the 1970s, I thought Jersey was one of those tedious places for people who enjoy a quiet life, famous breeds of cows and traditional knitwear. Of course, if these maiden aunts had bothered to explain that this was the only part of the British Isles to be invaded by Nazi Germany in the Second World War, or it was where Gerald Durrell had his ground-breaking zoo, or indeed was where the future Charles II of England was exiled after the execution of his father, then my attitude might have been different. If they’d told me that even potato farming here is more interesting than it sounds (the farmers abseil down steep slopes to plant and harvest the crop), then I might have had a mental image more robust than the one on all the postcards, which was inevitably a photograph of the ‘Battle of Flowers’ that I now know to be a must-see event, which is to Jersey what the Notting Hill Carnival is to north-west London, only without the pickpockets, muggings and stabbings. No, I was told. I’d got it all wrong. Jersey was one of those undiscovered secret places that you needed to see to fully understand.

Top: Jersey is famous for its potatoes, with its export of Jersey Royals to the UK worth about £30m a year. Small wonder then that every scrap of available land is used to grow them, including here under polythene sheets on the steep slopes overlooking Rozel Bay. Bottom left: In a tree covered pond just above Devil’s Hole stands a metal statue of the devil himself, commemorating the figurehead of a shipwreck nearby in 1851. Centre: The circular Devil’s Hole probably created by the collapse of subterranean cave systems. Right: Corbière Lighthouse on the extreme south-west coast

And so without further ado, after collecting my bag from the carousel (getting through the pocket handkerchief Jersey Airport takes about 5 minutes) I picked up my hire car and decided to go for a spin. And what with the island being only 9 miles long and 5 miles wide and thinking that there’d be no need for a road map, far less a GPS, in I got, camera on the passenger seat and set off exploring. I was soon to find out that for an island you can easily walk around in two days, there was a surprisingly convoluted road network totaling 350 miles, in which no road ever points in the direction you wish it to, road name signs are in French (despite the fact that no-one here speaks the language) and the speed limit of 40mph is an impossible dream due to the proliferation of very large and very wide tractors thwarting your every move. None of this matters in the grand scheme of things, of course, as the coastal landscape is so beautiful it would be something of a crime to hurry along. With the sun setting over the Atlantic Ocean I threaded my way west to St Ouen’s Bay, parked up and went for a walk along the cliff path. As the sky became golden and purple over the lighthouse at La Corbière, nothing between me and New Jersey in the United States on the other side of the ocean, I started to realise what the fuss was all about. As I say, it may not be one of the ends of the earth, but it has some of the best coast around. Dig a little deeper, as I did over the next few days, and you find that the island is full of surprises. At Devil’s Hole, for instance, not only will you find the rugged and vertiginous splendour of the Atlantic-beaten rocks, but also a diabolical statue of a horned Prince of Darkness lending a genuinely spooky air to proceedings.

Sunset over the southern reaches of St Quen’s Bay / Royal Square in St Helier, where the statue of King George II is the ‘zero’ milestone from which distances are measured in Jersey. Here tourists enjoy a commemoration of the Battle of Jersey in 1781

After watching the sun go down I checked into base camp, which turned out to be the splendid Atlantic Hotel, perched high in the hills overlooking the ocean after which it is named. With its classic 1970s architecture (fine examples of which are a rarity on Jersey, believe me), golf course and landscaped gardens, it’s not hard to imagine carefree sunset evenings by the outdoor pool, when people once drank Campari and smoked Café Crème cigarillos while dancing to Abba in bell-bottomed jeans. Today, however, modern hospitality is the order of the day, with the Atlantic winning dozens of awards for the quality of the experience it provides, from fine dining in the Ocean Restaurant, the health club (with fantastic steam rooms), to the golf course overlooking the sea. As expedition base camps go, this was one of the more refined and relaxing I’ve had the privilege to stay in, and its location is as good as any hotel anywhere in the world.

The superbly situated Atlantic Hotel complete with outdoor swimming pool and ornamental gardens overlooks the ocean. Indoors, the Michelin-starred Ocean restaurant presents a superb à la carte menu

Displays at the Jersey War Tunnels tell the story of life on the island under Nazi occupation / Stained glass at the Parish Church of St Helier

The following day dawned overcast and damp, which is a good thing because at some point you’ve got to stop taking photographs and find out something about the place you’re in. Saint Helier is the capital of Jersey and with a population of just over 30,000 is easily the most populated place on the island. It was in Liberation Square I met Arthur the Blue Badge Guide who takes the heritage and culture of his native island so seriously and yet can bring it alive with a mixture of historical anecdotes and shaggy dog stories. Under his expert guidance I whiled away a rainy morning, being whisked around St Helier learning about Jersey’s special role in the Second World War as a strategic jumping off point for Hitler’s proposed invasion of Britain (which explains why the coast has so many concrete fortifications). We delved into various assembly rooms, discussed the many myths of the island’s tax status and stopped to take photographs of the stained glass in the Parish Church of St Helier. But as much as sightseeing is good for the soul, adventure is always better, and so after another disproportionately complex negotiation with Jersey’s highways and byways, I eventually pitched up at the Durrell Wildlife Conservation Trust, or ‘Jersey Zoo’ to you and me.

Bronze statue of Gerald Durrell with lemur by John Doubleday at Jersey Zoo / Les Augres Manor, which has been the head-quarters of the Durrell Wildlife Conservation Trust since 1963 as well as home to Gerald Durrell until his death in 1995

Familiar faces at Jersey Zoo include, the red-ruffed lemur, Lesser Antillean iguana, meerkats and Chilean flamingo

Jersey dairy cattle have been a feature on the island for two centuries and are famous for their high quality rich and creamy milk. There are about 3,000 on the island

These days we are rightly suspicious of the word zoo, which is presumably why the Durrell Wildlife Conservation Trust is squeamish about using it. The organisation’s logo is a dodo with the word ‘Durrell’ underneath it, in commemoration of the legendary animal collector, explorer and zookeeper Gerald Durrell (who I wrote about in my Bay article on Mauritius, home of the now extinct dodo and where the younger Gerald did some of his most pioneering early zoological work.) Maybe a better word would be ‘ark’ after Noah’s seafaring vessel in which he saved the animals from the Flood, because it is here in Jersey that the spirit of Gerald Durrell continues with its emphasis on conservation, breeding programmes and the return of animals to the wild. I spent a happy afternoon at Jersey Zoo photographing lemurs and flamingoes, meerkats and iguanas, while learning about what the worthy people at Durrell, their friends and supporters are doing the world over to try to restore some sort of common sense to our approach to wildlife. You can’t help feeling that while all this well-intentioned science is worth its weight in gold, unless national governments and big corporate organisations with real money get involved, it’s all a case of too little too late. I bought myself another copy of My Family and Other Animals in the gift shop to read on the plane home, forgetting that it was only a 55-minute flight to Cardiff. It’s a brilliant and unforgettable book describing Gerald’s childhood on the magical Greek island of Corfu. And although it has been adapted for film or TV three times (the most recent simply entitled The Durrells), none of these has ever managed to capture much of the Arcadian spirit of the book in a meaningful way.

As a travel photographer one of the first things you learn is that all places – especially islands – yield a handful of visual themes that will sum up perfectly what the place is about. And so while it was great fun photographing flamingoes, they seemed to say more about South America and Africa than a sunny little speck of plutonic igneous rock poking out of the Atlantic Ocean, nearest neighbour France. And so I set off in the hire car again, along the jigsaw road system, along parish boundaries, in search of Jersey with its famous cows, fields of flowers and leeks, hillsides covered with potato farms. To those of use who live close to Gower it will seem like home from home.

FACT BOX

Channel Islands Direct can offer four nights in Jersey at The Atlantic from £469pp, including return flights from Cardiff based on two adults sharing.

To book visit www.channelislandsdirect.co.uk or call 0800 0294 598

Walking tours with blue badge guide, Arthur Lamy, are via the Atlantic Hotel.

Car hire courtesy of Hertz, www.hertz.co.uk

To find out more about Jersey visit www.jersey.com

https://www.channelislandsdirect.co.uk/the_islands/jersey

 

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