The A to Z JourneyVisiting every country in the world, one step at a time

Jersey – A glimpse of the Channel Islands

I waited with an impatient anticipation as we were landing in Jersey, to see what life was like in the Channel Islands. Would it be an extension of England? A little version of France, given it was just off the French coast? Or something completely different?

I waited with an impatient anticipation as we were landing in Jersey, to see what life was like in the Channel Islands. Would it be an extension of England? A little version of France, given it was just off the French coast? Or something completely different?

Many people don’t understand what status Jersey holds, myself included. A little digging revealed that it is a British Crown Dependency. It’s self-governing, with its own legal and financial systems but is internationally represented and defended by the UK.

Roaming around the capital, St Helier, on the first day, I was greeted by stunning views over St Helier Marina – voted UK’s coastal marina of the year – at sunset. The affluence of the local residents also became quite clear as I stared at the expensive yachts that gently bobbed up and down as the sun went down over the island. Interestingly, despite its small size, Jersey has one of the highest number of cars per person in the world.

It was also a complete shock to see a Sri Lankan restaurant, Unawatuna, while walking along the Marina – a true taste of home for dinner with their pol sambol, dhal curry and chicken curry.

Sunset by St Helier Marina
Sunset by the bay near St Helier

A melange of England and France

Jersey, the largest Channel Island with just a 100,000 people, is only 9 miles long and 5 miles wide – smaller than the size of Greater London. Jersey has had a mixed rule over the centuries that crossed between the English and the French over time.  Traces of both cultures can be seen today on the island – the road names for example all sound distinctly French, while the people and the spoken language are more English. It is also where the state of New Jersey gets its name from. King Charles II gave the then governor of Jersey, George Carteret, a large plot of land in the American colonies for all his help while the king was in exile in Jersey in the 1640s. It was George who then immediately named that plot of land New Jersey, now part of the United States.

The Central Market in St Helier – a lively focal point for the island’s residents to gather at, full of colours and smells of local produce

Hiking through Les Mielles Nature Reserve to reach the lighthouse

Sunset by the cliffs at La Corbiere Lighthouse

The southwestern corner of the island had a fearsome reputation with sailors back in the day and was unsurprisingly the scene of many a shipwreck. To reach the southwestern tip for sunset (where you can find the La Corbiere Lighthouse) I decided to go on a 3 hour hike in the rain and howling wind through the Les Mielles Nature Reserve.  The coastal path is ideal to see the cliffs and to get a first glimpse of the lighthouse.  

On this walk there are some incredible postcard-worthy views of the southwestern cliffs, with the ferocious sea furiously thrashing against the rocks, the sun emerging from behind the thick grey cloud with no one else about. Views like this make the 3 hour hike in the rain worth every minute! It was also a definite learning for me that you don’t have to travel to the other end of the world to see some of the most photogenic landscapes – they can be literally within an hour from home.

Given the blustery weather, it was a real treat to catch a glimpse of sunset by the cliffs at La Corbiere Lighthouse, in the southwestern tip of the island. ‘La Corbiere’ (place of the ravens or crows) was described by Victor Hugo as ‘herdsman of the waves’ in the 1850s – given its reputation for turbulent weather and ship wrecks.  

At low tide, you can use the pedestrian causeway to get across from the mainland to the lighthouse (a few hundred metres). Be careful to watch the tide and get back to the mainland in time because when the tide comes in, the lighthouse is completely cut off by the sea.

Elizabeth Castle

The following day, we set off to Elizabeth Castle. This was first the home to a hermit called Helibert who was murdered in 555. It then became an abbey, built by monks to commemorate Helibert in the 12th century (who was made St Helier). Following this, it was transformed into a castle in 1594 by soldiers to protect Jersey against invasion.

An interesting fact I learned – Jersey has one of the largest tidal ranges in the world. At low tide the island nearly doubles in size, resulting in the transformation of turquoise bays to rocky lunar landscapes! It’s a feast for anyone who likes landscapes – the transformation is pretty incredible as the day progresses.

It’s because of this, that the Elizabeth Castle is a 15 minute walk from St Helier at low tide, but at high tide is cut off from the island as the pathway gets covered!

As you explore the grounds of Elizabeth Castle, you’ll soon come across Hermitage Rock – the hideaway of Hermit Helibert. Legend has it that the Belgian hermit Helibert lived on this rock for 15 years off the southern coast of Jersey – looking out for pirates and warning islanders if they approached. Helibert stayed here in isolation, starving and praying in the cold. It felt like one of the houses you’d expect to see in Snow White & the Seven Dwarfs.

Plemont Bay

Opinion on the best of Jersey’s beaches is divided. People are divided between St Brelade’s Bay, Grouville Beach, St Ouen’s Bay, Bonne Nuit beach and Plemont Bay. Given the towering cliffs, rock pools and hidden caves at Plemont Bay, this automatically became the natural choice for me. Upon arriving, you really get a sense of how dramatic Jersey’s north coast is, and how insignificant you are comparing to the cloud-kissing cliffs. Stand at the top in the charming, family-run Plemont Beach Cafe for some incredible views of the bay and even the neighbouring Channel Islands. The cafe is also a fantastic place to try some of Jersey’s renowned crab – in a succulent sandwich or toasted brioche followed by a warm hot chocolate on cold grey days like the day we visited.  

Given the rainy, grey weather, there wasn’t a single other soul walking along Plemont Bay at the time. Wandering through the hidden rock pools and caves with only the sounds of the sea somehow is incredibly therapeutic. And when the trek leads you to hidden treasures like a waterfall inside a cave, you forget all about the rain and instead just take in the majesty of the natural landscapes of this tiny little island that seldom falls on many people’s holiday hit lists.

A complicated past

Back on the mainland, it’s hard to miss St Thomas’ Church in St Helier – the largest Catholic Church in the Channel Islands. Originally built in the 19th century for the French community that were fleeing the revolution to the island, today it is the spiritual home of the Jersey’s large Portuguese and Polish communities. It’s also hard not to reflect on Jersey’s fairly painful past (especially during World War II) as you imbibe the calmness surrounding the church.

It was the only British territory to be occupied by the German forces. Upon the impending threat of German invasion, the British government decided that the Channel Islands were lower down the strategic priority list of areas to be protected, and so demilitarised the Islands. All those who wished to be evacuated were allowed to travel to England. Given the last minute nature of this decision-making, and the limited time and spaces on vessels departing for the UK, not everyone left Jersey.

It wasn’t long before German forces occupied the Islands (summer 1940). A tough several years ensued for the residents of the island as the occupation posed severe restrictions on the island’s people. Several camps were built with the aim of using forced labour to build concrete fortifications, bunkers and air raid shelters. Given the remote nature of these islands, food supplies dwindled and both the residents and occupying forces alike were on the brink of starvation by August 1944. It took months of long-drawn out negotiations before the Red Cross was allowed to bring much needed relief supplies to the island in December that year.

There was no specific effort to regain the Islands back from the occupying forces – the liberation of the islands happened only at the end of the war in May 1945, where the islanders were informed by the German authorities that the war was over.

Despite the British Government’s efforts at post-war restoration of the Islands, the Home Secretary’s in-person visit to explain why the UK did not defend them and did not use force to liberate them, and a subsequent royal visit, it did leave me feeling that the Islanders must have been left with a very bitter feeling about the UK. Especially for the generations that lived through World War II – both for those who had to flee their homeland in a rushed evacuation, and those who had to endure life through the occupation.

I visited Jersey in April 2018

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