Saturday, 6 July 2013

Herm & Sark

Herm & Sark
I had already been to three of the five main Chanel Islands – Jersey, Guernsey and Alderney. Two remained to be visited, the traffic-free islands of Sark and Herm. I chose June for my holiday, just warm enough to enjoy a sea swim. I was thinking about that famous white sand beach on little Herm for my sea swim as Sark’s bays are less suited to taking a dip in the same way as are the coves beneath the cliff walk in Howth. In fact you could imagine Sark as if Howth were an island with the hilltop cut off and without the flat sandy bits.
The trip took quite a lot of planning as it involved getting to Guernsey first and spending a night there. I flew to Southampton with Flybe, and eight hours later onwards to Guernsey. At my time of booking Flybe would not allow me to book the complete trip on their website, so I fell back on which did allow me to make the booking on one ticket so that I didn’t have to take responsibility for a suitcase in Southampton Airport for eight tedious hours. When I checked-in at Dublin Airport I had a land, being charged €100 for 14kg baggage. They said I had not booked it online. didn’t bring up a baggage option, so I didn’t know there was an extra charge. I just had to pay up without fuss, and was advised to book my return baggage online, which would cost another €40. I have since sent a letter with payment proof to Gohop and await their response.
My time in Southampton Airport flew by. Booking my return baggage ate some time, as did having a meal, read magazines, and then after the early start I nodded off on the well-padded airport seats. It’s a well-run, customer friendly airport with a favourable staff to passenger ratio and much of their business comes from cruise connections. Best of all, today was the start of a period of beautiful sunny weather which lasted the whole of my eight day trip. The minute I boarded the 30 minute flight to Guernsey I found myself in conversation with one of its very sociable residents. I recalled from previous visits that the islanders are more talkative than the Irish, and indeed a lady who is a customer of my library has a Guernsey father, and she is noted to be among the most verbally active visitor of our clients.
The taxi driver who brought me to my hotel for the night had an Irish father, and he regaled me in stories of the annual family reunion in Galway for his father’s anniversary Mass. A born Guernseyman and true in laid-back chatty manner, he regularly visits the Aran Islands. As we turned into my hotel, La Colinette in St. Peter Port., he pointed my way to the harbour for next morning. I was delighted with my bedroom in this very lovely three star hotel. The tea & coffee facilities contained lots of sweetie goodies, and there was mineral water. My window overlooked a garden and swimming pool and I was sorry I had not longer to utilise this.
Nest morning I walked a very pleasant half a mile downhill to the harbour where I bought a return ticket to the Isle of Herm. Tidal variations are the second highest in this part of the world, and as it was low tide I had to make my way down loads of steps to the boat. I had left my luggage on the pier and was reassured this would appear in my hotel room. There is only one hotel in Herm and here they distribute all luggage to various rooms and self catering cottages as long as there is a label. The catamaran boat was spacious and the journey lasted a mere 25 minutes in calm seas. The Chanel Islands coats are extremely rocky and tidal-prone so we had to land at the Rosaire Steps, a landing-point away from the main harbour. At least I didn’t have to haul my baggage up those many steps, and as I walked through The Arch I was immediately introduced with the luxuriant plantations on the island.  
Shortly I found myself in the delightful leafy White House Hotel garden, bordered by a hilly plantation of majestic architectural plants such as bee-live echiums. Palm trees form a backdrop to the swimming pool and the white hotel building. A pair of pheasants strutted the lawns between sun beds, benches and a swinging chair. Enormous succulents cling to the rocky borders of this piece of paradise. The gardens have won a Britain in Bloom Gold Award. I walked onwards through the hotel lounges where several hearths were alight with blazing fires in spite of the sunny warm weather. Bookcases and cosy sofas lay bare for all the people were outside.
My spacious airy room had no television nor did it have a telephone as was the policy of the hotel. French doors opened onto a short pathway down to the pool, and a bathrobe was supplied for this journey to be made in bathing costume. The invitation into the water on this blissfully perfect day was too much to resist and I trotted a few steps down to the pool and lowered myself into the cool water, my first outdoor swim of the year. It was delightful, and I dried myself on the sun lounger surrounded by those exotic plants. Normally I am not one to spend time lying by a pool, but this was a completely different scene. The ambience was tranquil, with a few people sipping tea or wine at the outdoor tables, and birdsong all around. For the more active a tennis court and croquet lawn are provided.
At dinner time a place had been set for me in the aptly named Conservatory Restaurant and my table had a great view of the glowing sunsets over Guernsey. Most of my fellow diners were from Guernsey, treating themselves to a weekend on their favourite neighbouring island only 25 minutes away by boat. Guernsey folk make even the Irish seem reserved by comparison, and they all involved me in their cross table conversations. It was nice for me to feel so welcome among them, more so than I have done on some organised tours with fellow Irish travellers. The food, as in all the hotels on this holiday, was of high quality and superbly presented. Local herbs, like Sweet Cicely, are used in these restaurants. Instead of using standard garlic the hedgerow variety is used. Many of the ingredients are foraged, and they are not difficult to come by in these islands.
After a great breakfast I ambled out to see this very small island, 1 ½ miles x ½ mile. This sounds tiny, but believes me, it takes a full day to truly see the island, stopping and starting, and totally enjoying the experience. It could be cut shorter on a day visit, but it is so worth staying over and enjoying the full sense of relaxation that no spa could equal. The path around the island stays close to the coast. The northern third of the island is covered by a low hummocky heath fringed by sand dunes. This area is populated with small blue butterflies, whilst the southern plateau is dominated by the larger brown-orange shaded Painted Lady butterfly. The major highlight of Herm is the glorious white Shell Beach on the north east coast and I was tempted into the turquoise water, which felt freezi9ng cold when I first entered. My legs turned red-blue and so painful I had to run in and out many times before I could immerse myself. I told myself I would stay in for a matter of minutes, but half an hour later I was still in the water as I could feel the bright sun warming me through the crystal clear water. It was one of the best swims of my life. I had the sea all to myself, as no one else dared to get in. Afterwards I enjoyed a cup of coffee at the beach cafe.
The coast path climbs up the hill beyond Shell Bay, and I began to enjoy views of the cliffs of Sark beyond. It was so beautiful looking down into the clear blue waters below. Wild leeks provided a spectacular foreground for my photographs of Shell Beach. I followed the cliff path to another magnificent white beach in a cove, walking down the steps to the aptly named Belvoir Bay. I stopped for another coffee and a slice of Guernsey gache (a type of brack pronounced “gosh”) at this second beach cafe, where a Dublin girl was working.
Onwards and upwards, I rejoined the cliff path and met several people from my hotel doing the island circuit in the opposite direction. The wildflowers were a joy to behold, but the path was climbing a bit too high for my liking and was becoming closer to the sheer drop down to the sea. Strange to say for someone who has piloted aircraft, but I really have no head for heights and was finding this walk a little too unnerving. I made the decision to turn back and trek to the village at the centre of the isle. A hen pheasant strutted by as I sat by for a moment on one of the stone seats provided. Bright sunlight filtered through the canopy of trees which shaded the lane. Apart from the pheasant’s croak, not a sound breached the peace and quiet.
The little village is a delightful cluster of stone cottages with a hidden “square” behind the outward facing domiciles. Golden and white Guernsey cows grazed in the fields below. I entered the delightful chapel of St. Tugual which dates from 11thC, but which has been renovated as a place of ecumenical Sunday worship. About 60 people live on the island, mostly workers, but some year round permanent residents, and most live in the village. Alongside the residents’ cottages are those assigned to self-catering holiday-makers, so the tourist lives right among the people living on the island.
A short woodland walk led me back down to the harbour area where the Mermaid Tavern and Ship Inn are located with their lovely al fresco dining and drinking areas. My hotel laid close by with the ancient beehive shaped island gaol stands. Nowadays it is used as a lawnmower hut.
After two nights in Herm Island I took the Trident Ferry back to Guernsey’s St. Peter Port harbour and shortly boarded the ferry for the Isle of Sark, where I would spend the next three nights. The First Mate warned that the sea journey would be rough as a strong wind was competing with a strong tide. I had to remain in my seat in the front of the ship. After we passed again by Herm the sea let loose all its menace and the boat was thrashed by fierce waves, I had taken two travel sickness tablets which barely kept me from throwing up. I couldn’t wait to get to land, but it took 55 minutes to reach the rather unsheltered Sark harbour where the boat was rolling wildly in the harbour as I was helped to shore. I boarded a “bus” which was towed by a tractor up the half mile long hill to the island village. My hotel, the “Aval du Creux”, stood just before the village.
This boutique style hotel is managed by an Irish lady, Niamh McFaddan. The waitress is from Co. Sligo. I was offered coffee before going to my delightful and fairly compact room. I got into the bathrobe and headed straight down to the lovely small well heated outdoor pool. I found myself coming to the rescue of a drowning bee and other insects which had landed into the meniscus of the surface of the water. I used the belt of my robe to bring them to the safety of the pool surrounds, from where I watched them dry and fly off again. Dinner was a fine but expensive affair. The nettle sorbet had been a disaster for chef, so he substituted a blackcurrant one instead. Good food was a daily pleasure on this holiday.
Sark is rather larger than Herm, yet still only three or so by one and a half miles wide. Many young vineyards have been developed, and it is the currently Europe’s newest wine region. Sadly I did not encounter any on my trip. Some bottles have been produced, but not in any quantity. It was a pleasure to be able to stroll through the many small vineyards which are freely accessible to all. My first walk took me south to Little Sark where I crossed the narrow guarded path on the high isthmus called “La Coupee”, the most photographed part of the island. There is a sheer drop down to the sea on one side and a steeply sloping drop down to a beach on the other. I stopped at La Sablonerie tearoom, which is set in lovely gardens, for a bit of refreshment before venturing to the coastal paths which pass a silver mine and lead down to a secret rocky swimming spot called Venus Pool.
On the way back I had to cross La Coupee again, and not far beyond is the little cottage industry of Caragh Chocolates. Some years back I ordered some as a Christmas gift for a friend in England and they went down well. I was able to see the chocolatiers at work and I enjoyed part of a bar with coffee at the picnic tables outside. Lovely quality, with all that Guernsey milk and cream, and very yummy indeed.
Near my Aval de Creux Hotel stands the only village on the island, simply called “The Village”. It lies right in the centre of the island, well away from the coast. There are two banks, a post office with a gold painted post-box, a visitor and exhibition centre, a French boulangerie, two pubs, a couple of cafes, a bicycle hire centre, and a couple of shops. Just by The Village is the pony & trap park, where you can hire equine power to bring you to the various corners of the island, including the five other hotels.
The second evening in Sark, I decided to try an eatery in one of the other hotels. The nearest one is the Dixcart Hotel where Hugo’s Bistro serves a small but tasty selection of food. I felt like Little Red Riding Hood as I traipsed twenty minutes through the forest to reach this place. Fortunately I got back before darkness fell, when I would have had to use the torch supplied on the key ring with the key to the room. I really do not know how anyone would cope in darkness here, it would be a miracle to find one’s way home through the little lanes and paths.
That night a thunderstorm broke out which lasted all night long until six o’clock in the morning. There was a warning on the weather forecast that this could occur in the south-west of England. Fortunately that was the only bit of rain and “weather” that occurred on the holiday and it was cloudless sunshine once again in the morning.
Today I walked the northern half of Sark. As I ventured up a lane I heard a bit of commotion behind some bushes. A chicken was cackling noisily as her owner was giving out to her “You silly girl, you laid no egg this morning. What am I meant to do for breakfast?” These local hens provided the most beautiful bright yellow-yoked and freshest eggs I have ever tasted. I had arrived at the tail end of a Scarecrow Festival, and many such objects were dotted all over the island, including a hilarious “Scare-Cow”. The place was making me giggle all the time.
An honesty box allowed admittance to The Seigneurie walled gardens which lie in front of the private house which is the traditional home of the Seigneur of Sark. There is a dovecote, old telephone box and pond replete with noisy ducks. The walled gardens are magnificent and were blessed with bright warm sunshine on my visit. The floral colours were dazzling, but unknown to me my camera disk was full, so none of the shots have appeared in my collection. A bee-keeper was busy at work minding his charges, who seemed to be in a very healthy and lively condition. I entered a hedged maze, and just about found my way out again. A nice al fresco cafe beckoned for lunch which was owned by French folk who looked exactly like the English speaking islanders with their mousy fuzzy hair. That they share a gene-pool in common is obvious.
I decided to make my way down to Dixcart Bay, reputedly the easiest one to reach on Sark. This involved a trek through the woods past houses which have no other access apart from the very narrow steep tree-rooted path above a stream. A young woman passed me by and asked if I had seen a white labradoodle. I said I had seen one earlier in the day with somebody. She said he had seen galloped off when he heard the distant gunshot of someone shooting pheasant, and asked me if I came across him would I take him by the collar to the cottage at the top of the hill. “He answers to Muttley” I was told. I continued my careful slow walk towards the sea. I had to cross a fairly high bridge across the stream three planks wide and without handrail. Leaving the forest behind I found myself high above the beautiful shingle beach and had to descend quite a few steps down to it. The stream poured over a low cliff onto the sand. Once again the pictures I tried to capture of this idyllic bay failed to be saved to disc, much to my disappointment.
It was an ascending trek back to my hotel. Unfit, I was gasping at the top of the hill. A man standing outside a cottage asked me had I seen his Muttley, and I replied that I was keeping an eye out and would bring him back by the collar if I encountered him. I never did see Muttley and I hope he got home safely. I doubt if he took the ferry back to Guernsey, no self-respecting dog would board that vessel in those choppy seas.
Next morning it was time to return to Guernsey on those choppy seas, and the return journey was only slightly less nauseating than the outward one. I took more than one seasickness tablet and lay out flat, so I survived the journey quite well. Every harbour in the Channel Islands seems to have interminable steps due to the huge tidal range and I had to drag my suitcase up several flights of narrow concrete stairs with dizzying views of the disturbed harbour waters below.
From St. Peter Port I took a taxi the mile and a half up the hill to the four star luxurious Fermain Valley Hotel, which I stayed for the last two nights. The luxurious four star hotel occupies several buildings which lie in terraces through the upper Fermain Valley. My room was in the upper building and it was quite some uphill journey from reception through beautiful gardens. A tray of apples and fudge awaited me, plus a fine decanter of sherry, a hospitality corner with cafetiere and biscuits, and in the closet a bathrobe and slippers. I descended leafy Fermain Lane down to the lovely beach area and relished an enormous slice of home-made chocolate cake with my coffee at the open air beach Fermain Beach Cafe. The only way to reach this place is by foot, reminding me of the traffic-less islands I had just visited.
Next morning I walked the twenty or so minutes downhill to St. Peter Port. The route took me past Victor Hugo’s house, Hauteville, and a staff member at the door asked me would I like to take a tour. I was delighted to say “yes please” and enjoyed every minute of being shown around this most remarkable and sensational of interiors, which was designed by Hugo himself. I saw the beautiful little atrium in the roof where he wrote his books and poems, including Les Miserables. Again, my camera failed me. The house is five stories tall, including the outdoor gazebo on the roof, and the sea and harbour are visible from the upper rooms. There is a lovely garden to explore. It is a piece of Guernsey owned by France and belongs to the Museums of Paris. I was very lucky to have enjoyed the tour of the house as I later learned that some French people could not be accommodated as the later tours were booked out. Further down the hill on Cornet Street I wandered into the quaint Victorian Shop and Parlour, a relic of old maintained by the National Trust. Downstairs was a treasure trove of handmade goods, and I bought one of a basket of individual knitted owls - the one I picked was the most petite and bore an expression of great surprise.
St. Peter Port is a pretty town with picturesque lanes and interesting shops to explore. Jewellers  compete with each other for customers. One was selling everything half price and a queue formed at check-out. I bought a nice zircon and Sark stone necklace for a very reasonable price, and just off the high street I purchased some tax-free perfume you don’t come-by easily in Dublin.
One final place remained to be visited – Castle Cornet, which stands picturesquely on an island guarding the entrance to the harbour of St. Peter Port. It is joined to the south wall by a causeway. I spent several hours exploring the various galleries, museums, mini gardens and battlements. Returning to my hotel at Fermain I took the bus. “Since you’re not local I’ll charge you two pounds instead of one” the driver said dryly. You have to take Guernsey folk with a pinch of salt!
Last morning, as I was checking out for my journey home, I overheard that a guest had taken ill and that one of the hotel staff had been asked to take her to hospital. The driver waited by the desk with the keys to the car. The receptionist said it would be quicker than calling an ambulance, for which the guest would be charged a considerable fee. Her symptom of drooping on one side of her face was suggestive of a stroke and it was considered that time was of the essence. The girl on reception went to the guest’s room to see how things were and she exclaimed on her return “the sick lady’s husband is lazily reading the newspaper in bed, still in pyjamas if you ask, and she’s combing her hair and putting on make-up. I should just have called the damn ambulance!”
My journey home was eventful for the fact that my plane rejected take-off at Southampton. Having flown from Guernsey I had not too long to wait in Southampton airport, but just as we powered up for take-off, the aircraft started moving forward only for the engines to be throttled back. We pulled of the runway and the pilot announced that “An unknown aircraft was on the runway”. I was in the aisle seat up front, but others saw another Flybe had landed on the runway “over” our aircraft. I have read nothing of this incident, and a certain person from a certain aviation source advised me that my pilot probably had entered the runway without clearance. The exact scenario happened with my airline in Plymouth some time before, but that became part of the public records.

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