Just off the Normandy Coast of France lies a series of small islands can be easily overlooked if you don’t look closely. For those that do find them on a map, many simply erroneously assume that the islands are part of France itself. In reality, these islands, known as the Channel Islands (or Îles d’la Manche locally) today, are the oldest possessions of the British monarchy, and have a long an interesting history involving Bretons, Normans, and even more recently Nazis.
At the same time, the islands themselves are gorgeous, the weather is much better than in most of the rest of the British Islands, the people are kind and relaxed, and the taxes are low. For these and for numerous other reasons, these Channel Islands are quite popular for businesses and residents, who come to enjoy these historic and picturesque islands.
My idea for a journey here started with a comment on this travel blog from Gus Fraser, a resident of Jersey, one of the Channel Islands. He noted that the Bailiwick of Jersey and the Bailiwick of Guernsey, both defined as ‘countries’ in the Traveler’s Century Club list of countries that I track were both conspicuously missing from my list. He also mentioned that there is a large IT community here, and that they held regular sessions and that I’d be more than welcome to speak at one. That was all the excuse I needed, and I took the opportunity provided by a trip to speak in Bavaria to take a side trip to these amazing islands, a diversion that proved to be highly entertaining for me.
A quick geography note…the Channel Islands are actually a group of four major islands (and multiple minor ones) that collectively form the two Bailiwicks that are both British Crown Dependencies, and NOT technically part of the United Kingdom, contrary to popular belief.
This is where is gets quite confusing, as even online maps (including the above) erroneously list the islands as being part of the UK. Rather than try to explain the complex British colonial, governmental, and geographical system, I’ll let this fantastic video explain it (NOTE, not my own work…truly wish it was though.)
Jersey, the largest and most populated island in the Channel Islands was the first place I visited, having flown there on a Flybe flight there from London’s Gatwick airport. I should also mention here that it is truly miserable to transfer between any of London’s major airports, and you can expect to pay through the nose for something as simple as bus fare between London’s Heathrow airport and Gatwick. So be warned, try to avoid any type of London airport transfer at all costs.
But on a lighter note, the flight into Jersey involved an easy hop over the English Channel and a beautiful approach into the main island, one that takes you directly over one of the Jersey Round Towers along the coast, and into the green pastoral interior before touching down.
Jersey’s largest and capital city is known as St. Helier, named after the 6th century hermit Helier, the patron saint of Jersey. Because of Jersey’s status as a tax haven, the city is a major financial center and you can find the offices of large UK banks lining the streets here. While here, I stayed in the famous Pomme D’Or hotel, centrally located and next to the majority of the nightlife that is here on the island.
What is fascinating to me is the fact that Jersey and the other Channels Islands are the last remnant of the Duchy of Normandy, and the oldest remaining possession of the British Monarchy. Originally part of the Duchy of Brittany, a Celtic nation, they were later transferred to Norman control in 933 AD. Normans, which came from the world ‘North men’ were descendants of Vikings who settled in the area of France called Normandy and who merged their own Norse language with the Gallo-Romance based language of the land in which they settled in.
The Normans expanded their holdings to eventually include the Channel Islands, which themselves were used as a base of operations for the Norman Conquest of England by William the Conqueror, from whom all subsequent British monarchs are descended from. When the mainland part of Normandy was conquered by Philip II of France in 1204, the Channel Islands remained loyal to the British crown, and are subsequently referred to as the British monarchy’s ‘oldest possessions.’ Indeed, when the Queen visits the islands, she is still referred to as the ‘Duke of Normandy,’ a curious remnant of the legacy of the Duchy of Normandy.
The language of the Normans is still somewhat preserved within the Channel Islands, in the form of the Norman language, called Jèrriais on Jersey, Guernésiais on Guernsey, and Sercquiais on Sark. The island of Alderney used to also have its own language known as Auregnais, although that one went extinct years ago. The Norman languages are very similar to French, and most of the place and street names are still written in them, though English is overwhelmingly the language of choice here today, as the islands have been heavily Anglicized over the years.
The Tides of the Channel Islands
What is the most fascinating aspect of the Channels Islands has to be the massive tidal movements, with changes in tides of over 7 meters in some places. You can literally see entire harbors emptied out during low tide, with all of the boats left stranded on the ground.
This is a truly impressive site, and makes you really appreciate the massive amounts of water which are displaced with every tide. The size of the island of Jersey increases substantially during low tide, and it’s quite astounding to compare the shoreline during high and low tides, a sight which was more impressive than any I had seen other than those in the Bay of Fundy.
Low tides also expose many of the castles and towers which dot the coast. For a short period of time, they are accessible via a walk across the tidal flats. This can be dangerous, however, as the tides move very quickly, in some places as fast as a galloping horse! So if your journey is not timed correctly, you could easily find yourselves stuck in one of the castles or a rocky outcrop until the next tidal cycle.
The tides expose the approach to Elizabeth Castle on Jersey, which is accessible from the land at low tide, but becomes an island during high tide. It’s somewhat disconcerting to know that the path you took to get somewhere will be completely covered by a rough and forgiving sea, filled with rapid currents and frigid waters.
All over the island of Jersey can be found World War II era bunkers and gun emplacements near the coast, part of the Atlantic Wall built by the Nazis. Indeed, one of the most fascinating elements in recent Channel Island history is the fact that the Channel Islands were the only part of British territory that were occupied by the Germans during the war. Indeed, all of the islands themselves were occupied for five years, during which time a massive series of fortifications were built to defend against a British invasion that never came.
Jersey War Tunnels
One of the largest and most interesting remnant of the Nazi occupation of the islands is known as the Jersey War Tunnels (Hohlgangsanlage 8 in German), an underground bunker constructed by the Nazis to serve as a wartime hospital.
Over 1km in total tunnel length, the Jersey War Tunnels are now home to a museum of the occupation. While I don’t always visit museums while traveling, this is one that is highly recommended, as it does a fantastic job immersing you personally into the history of the five long years of occupation.
The decision was made early in the war by the British to not defend the strategically unimportant islands, and islanders were given a choice to evacuate if they so desired, a decision that many made. However, a good portion of the population decided to stay for what they assumed would be a short occupation. Little did they know that it would drag on for the amount of time that it did, or that they would be one of the last liberated areas of Europe after the war.
Hitler took special pride in his conquest of this British territory, and made the decision to heavily invest in the defense of the islands. Captured Nazi prisoners, mainly from Russia and Eastern Europe, were used to build the tunnels and fortifications on the island itself. The islands were so heavily fortified, that the British decided to not even attempt to take them back, even after France itself was recaptured by the Allies.
The museum was full of stories detailing life under Nazi rule. The Germans took complete control, aligning the time zone with Berlin, forcing road traffic to drive on the right side of the road, and making the study of German compulsory for elementary school students. The museum takes a remarkably blunt look at the occupation, including tales of underground resistance, but also stories of those who collaborated with the Nazis, informed on their fellow citizens, and even including a discussion on local women who took on Nazi boyfriends and had German children.
In the end, German resistance only ended a week after the surrender of Berlin, nearly five full years after the capture of the islands themselves, on a day now celebrated in the islands as ‘Liberation Day.’ The tale of the occupation of these Channel Islands during the War is most definitely a fascinating one, and a walk through this museum is highly recommended.
Guernsey, the second largest island, was my second stop on this trip. Guernsey is part of the Bailiwick of Guernsey which, unlike the Bailiwick of Jersey, is actually composed of several other occupied Islands, including what was the last feudal society in Europe, the island of Sark. Unfortunately I didn’t make it to Sark this trip, but would love to visit there sometime soon, as it is a fascinating place I’m told, by tribute of it being the last official feudal society in Europe (its feudal status ended in 2008) and also an island that is by law completely car-free.
I took a small ‘puddle-jumper’ flight on an airline called ‘Blue Islands’ to get to the Island of Guernsey. As I walked up to the gate 20 minutes early for the flight, the ground staff addressed me by name and said that they were ready to leave early if I was. I jumped on the airplane and barely had time to put my seatbelt on before the pilot was already taxiing down the runway. We immediately took up and departed for Guernsey on a scenic 15 minute flight, touching down in Guernsey a few minutes before the flight was even scheduled to depart Jersey. Oh, and the price? 35 pounds…almost the same as that miserable bus ride from Heathrow to Gatwick.
Guernsey’s largest city is known as St. Peter Port, and is the capital of the Bailiwick. More compact and hilly than St. Helier, it has the distinct feel of a port town, and the marina is filled with ships of all sizes and from all nations.
The tides are large here as well, and a high tide brings the water levels right up to the edge of the city, a perilous situation, especially if there are breaking waves.
Along the harbor of St. Peter Port is Castle Cornet, originally built some time between 1206 and 1256. Originally built on an island, there is now access provided to the island via a causeway that is used as a breakwater for the marina.
Guernsey also did not escape the occupation during WWII, and it also is littered with German gun emplacements and bunkers, even those built directly on top of the old castles and towers. Indeed, Hitler was so obsessed about defending these islands that he dictated that 10% of all material used for the Atlantic Wall was dedicated to building defensive emplacements in the Channel Islands, a significant amount considering that the Atlantic Wall defenses stretched from Spain to the northern tip of Norway.
Liberation Day is also celebrated in Guernsey, and there is a marker by the harbor that marks the slipway that was used by British forced during the liberation of the island on the 9th of May, 1945.
The city center of St. Peter Port is quaint and pleasant to walk around, filled with old pubs, restaurants, and shops. The streets meander through the city and up the hills, and a walk through the city is highly recommended.
While walking through the city, Gus and I wandered by Victoria Tower, built to commemorate the visit Queen Victoria made here in 1846, and took in the old cemetery there at the top of the hill. This particular cemetery is filled with hundred plus year old tombstones, written on in English, French, and Jèrriais.
It seems that most places in the world have some type of esoteric traffic laws that are meant to confuse visitors. Well, the Channel Islands have a real doozy…a concept called ‘Filter in Turn.’ Basically, when you see a ‘Filter in Turn’ noted at a round-about or intersection, the rule stipulates that all cars must take turns going through the intersection. While it seems bizarre, the locals I spoke with prefer it when there is a ‘Filter in Turn’ in effect, as opposed to a traffic signal. I personally was simply glad not to be driving.
Another interesting esoteric note about the Channel Islands…as with Scotland, Northern Island, and the Isle of Man, Jersey and Guernsey print their own legal tender pound sterling banknotes, and even print in denominations as low as £1, a denomination that hasn’t been printed in England since 1984. Unlike Scottish or Northern Ireland banknotes, which are usually accepted in England, these notes are effectively only accepted by merchants in the Channel Islands. While I’m told you can exchange them in banks in London, it’s probably best to get rid of any remaining notes at the airport before leaving, however. Conversely, you can use Bank of England notes nearly everywhere in the Channel Islands, though you will likely get change back in Channel Island notes.
All in all, I had a great time in the Channel Islands, and had a phenomenal time touring with Gus and his family. These islands, the oldest possessions of the British monarchy, are truly unique, and their history during WWII is quite poignant. Given the proximity of this beautiful place to London and the ease of getting there, I’m sure I’ll be back to visit again someday!