Page last updated at 06:57 GMT, Tuesday, 9 December 2008

Sark's historical customs remain

By Lynne French
BBC South West

Sark horse-drawn carriage: Pic VisitGuernsey
Horse-drawn carriages are one of Sark's few modes of transport

Covering one of the most historic elections in the Channel Islands was always going to be different.

As the people of Sark prepare to embrace democracy on Wednesday, with its first elected government for more than four centuries, there were certain early pointers.

Travel arrangements to the tiny island, situated about 25 miles (40km) from the French coast, gave the first hint with the discovery it was possible to fly to the neighbouring island of Guernsey, but from there the only means of transport was by boat - the following day.

An e-mail from a work colleague at BBC Guernsey provided a few more clues - and raised some nervous flutters - as it offered a list of bicycle hire shops.

There are no cars, no buses and definitely no taxis or black cabs on Sark, so covering the island has to be done on two wheels or two feet.

'Toast rack'

A good torch was the next "must have" - Sark has no street lighting and in mid-December daylight hours are at a premium.

A later e-mail reinforced its importance - a search party had to be sent out for a journalist lost in the dark.

The lack of street lights was not so surprising, however, as the island does not really have an abundance of streets, roads or pavements.

What it has are lanes and paths aplenty, which, when it rains, can become somewhat muddy - thereby explaining why "wellies" or stout walking boots were also required.

Passengers disembarking on Sark from the little ferry are transported to the village in the "toast rack" - a tractor-drawn carrier.

You show me a law that says you can beat your wife and I'll show you a newer law that calls it assault
Lt Col Reg Guille, Sark seneschal

Little appears to have changed since Hellier de Carteret, a Jersey nobleman, was granted a fiefdom (inherited land) from Queen Elizabeth I in 1565.

This gave the seigneur (Lord) the right to colonise Sark with 40 families in exchange for guarding the island from pirates.

More than 400 years later, Seigneur Michael Beaumont has retained that right by taking an oath of allegiance to the Queen and by paying the British Crown his annual feudal rent equal to one-twentieth of a knight's pay - 1.79.

To this day, he and the descendants of the original 40 tenants are theoretically required to keep a musket to defend Sark, although, in reality, Britain is responsible for Sark's defence.

As head of the island, the seigneur continues to have other privileges dating back for centuries, including the right to be the only person on Sark who is allowed to keep doves and pigeons or an unspayed dog.

There is also a Colombier (dove cote) at his 17th Century home, known as the Seigneurie, but Mr Beaumont does not have an unspayed dog.

Sark lane: Pic VisitGuernsey
The island's leafy paths and lanes have no street lights

Frequently asked by inquisitive visitors about Droit de Seigneur (sleeping with a bride on her wedding night), the seigneur's standard reply is that it would get him into trouble.

Nor, he has said, does he exercise a Sarkee husband's right to beat his wife with a stick no broader than his finger.

As Lt Col Reg Guille, the seneschal (senior judge) pointed out: "You show me a law that says you can beat your wife and I'll show you a newer law that calls it assault."

One ancient right all Sarkees can invoke if they believe their property is being threatened is the Clameur de Haro.

By falling to their knees in front of witnesses, they can recite the Lord's Prayer in French then cry out for justice: "Haro, Haro, Haro! A mon aide mon Prince, on me fait tort!" (Help me, my prince, I have been wronged).

If the Clameur is registered with the Greffe (court), the alleged wrong must stop until it is dealt with by the court.

The seneschal said he had dealt with only one Clameur in 1999, but they almost always involve a boundary dispute.

Unknown future

"It's a very immediate form of justice. If someone's putting a wall up where they shouldn't be, the Clameur stops it," he said.

The island has a breathtakingly beautiful and unspoilt charm and its inhabitants appear welcoming and friendly - most waving a cheery "hello" to friends and strangers alike as they whizz past on their bicycles.

Services taken for granted on the mainland, including the police, fire service and the government, are mostly done on an unpaid voluntary basis by Sarkees from a sense of responsibility to each other.

To outsiders, Sark's way of life may be described as quaint, quirky or old-fashioned, but, for the island's inhabitants, it has suited them very well for nearly 450 years.

Only time will tell whether the historic move to a democratic future on Wednesday might change that.

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