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2. The Universe / The Earth / Europe / United Kingdom / The Channel Islands

Guernsey, Channel Islands, UK

A Guernsey cow over a map of Guernsey

Guernsey is the second largest of the Channel Islands (with Jersey being the largest one). It is situated 26 nautical miles off the north-west coast of France and is believed to offer the perfect break away from the hustle and bustle of working life. You'd never guess that this introduction was written by a resident, would you?

Guernsey is shaped like a right-angled triangle with the sharp corners cut off. It is eight miles long by five miles wide and encompassed by beach and cliff coastline. The short sides are the east and south coasts, and the long side is always referred to as the West Coast despite facing northwest. Total land area is about 25 square miles (63 sq km), and the short sides are six or seven miles long.

Crown Dependency

Guernsey, like Jersey, is a Crown Dependency of the United Kingdom. This means that it is not part of the UK, but shares some of its government and administrative functions with it. Both Guernsey and Jersey have their own mini-parliaments (known as 'The States') and this gives them rather more practical independence of Westminster than, say, Scotland or Wales, although the UK government is responsible for the island's defence and foreign relationships. Whenever someone suggests that the islands should pay for this, islanders mention the German occupation during World War Two.

When the UK joined the European Union this situation became even more complicated. The UK negotiated an exception for the Channel Islands which basically gives them all the advantages of EU membership but without the financial obligations.

Guernsey is also responsible for Alderney, Herm, and a bunch of smaller islands with names that end in 'hou', such as Jethou (pronounced 'Jet-who'), Lihou and Breqhou. Most of these smaller islands are privately owned or rented.

Sark is yet another constitutional anomaly; it is the only Feudal Seigneury left in the world, and is therefore an independent state with the Seigneur owing allegiance directly to the Queen. The island parliament is called the Chief Pleas. Jokes about the Droit de Seigneur are considered to be in very poor taste on the island.

Getting There

There are a number of planes that journey to Guernsey and back from the UK and abroad. These include flights from Bristol, Birmingham and Belfast to name but a few. It is also possible to get to Guernsey by ferry. Ferries from Portsmouth, Poole, St Malo, Weymouth and Jersey run to the island of Guernsey.

Once there, transport is fairly cheap: buses such as the number 7 and 4 can be taken to and from the airport located just outside St Peter Port. Taxis and hire cars are also available. Hire cars carry a large 'H' plate so that local drivers can spot tourists and give them a wide berth. Guernsey roads take some getting used to, so this is an important accident prevention system. The local number plates are distinctive (all digits), so cars brought over on the ferry can also be identified. By the way, car hire is cheap on Guernsey, so it may not be worth bringing your own car over. Road markings and rules of the road are not quite the same as the UK, so make sure you know the differences before setting out. People drive on the left in Guernsey (mostly, anyway).

Buy a road map as soon as you arrive. The island is a maze of small lanes with a complicated one-way system. Direction signs are sparse except on main roads (most of which would just about qualify as 'B-road' in the UK). If you get seriously lost then try to head in a roughly straight line until you find a main road. In the south look for aircraft taking off and landing; they show where the airport is.

Guernsey's History

Guernsey was formed around 6000 BC, when it became cut off from continental Europe. Neolithic farmers settled on the islands and created the dolmens and menhirs that can be seen on the island. Guernsey contains three sculpted menhirs of great archaeological interest; the dolmen known as L'Autel du Dehus also contains a dolmen deity.

The Britons also occupied the Lenur Islands (Channel Islands) on their migration to Brittany. At this time the islands had different names to today. For example, Guernsey was called Lisia, while Jersey was called Angia.

Although Guernsey has never actually been part of the United Kingdom and is situated closer to France, the island owes allegiance directly to the Queen of England in her role as Duke of Normandy. This dates back to 1066 when William, Duke of Normandy staged the last successful invasion of the British mainland and became King William the Conqueror. The Channel Islands are the only bits of Normandy that the British Crown managed to hold on to during the subsequent 900 years. Guernseymen sometimes refer to the Battle of Hastings as 'when we conquered the English'.

Later, during the wars in France, King John was forced to cede the Duchy of Normandy to the French. The Channel Islands however were not wanted by the French and were given the opportunity of remaining loyal to England. They decided to do this in return for certain concessions. These included, no more taxes1 paid to the English and self-rule in almost all matters, except those of a military nature. To pay for the defence afforded by the UK, the local Government makes payments from collected taxes to the British government.

During the English Civil War, Guernsey was separated even further from its sister Jersey, as Guernsey sided with Parliament and Jersey remained Royalist. Guernsey’s decision to do so was due to there being a high number of Calvinists and other Reformed churches on the island and they did not take to liking Charles I who refused to get himself involved on a case concerning Guernsey seamen and their capturers the Barbary corsairs. Not all of Guernsey sided with Parliament though, there were a few Royalist uprisings in the Southwest of the island and Castle Cornet was occupied by the then Governor, Sir Peter Osbourne, and Royalist troops. Castle Cornet was the last Royalist stronghold to surrender, in 1651.

Guernsey’s location is advantageous to many, whether this be financial or otherwise. During the 17th and 18th centuries France and Spain were at war and Guernsey applied for Letters of Marque and turned their trading vessels into privateers. The 19th Century spelled financial success as the island prospered from the global maritime trade and stone industry.

The biggest thing to happen to Guernsey in the 20th Century was the occupation by Germany during World War II. Just before the war, Guernsey children went to live with people in England. The local defence force, for which Guernsey had been paying the English for nigh on half a millennium, turned out to be a score of spotty, adolescent schoolboys with wooden rifles who had joined the Combined Cadet Force. As you will appreciate, they were about as trained for combat as monkeys, and eventually, the British withdrew even this paltry defence force; the Nazis then came in to conquer the island. Surprisingly, considering the limited defences put up by the locals, the Nazis decided to bomb the island into submission for a day, and after the bombing Guernsey was occupied.

Any children left on the island were mainly deported to camps in the southwest of Germany such as Biberach an der Riss and interned in the Lindele Camp ('Lager Lindele'). There was also a concentration camp built in Alderney where forced Eastern European labourers were kept. Hitler turned the island into a fortress, and the resulting lumps of concrete are now among the most historically significant eyesores in the world. Nobody can decide whether they should be demolished, maintained as part of the island's heritage, or just allowed to fall apart.

Guernsey was eventually liberated at the end of the war. It appears that it took the Allies longer to liberate the Sarnians than it took them to get all the way to Paris; there certainly seems to be some evidence to suggest that Guernsey is not central to anyone's plans. Every cloud does have a silver lining however, as every year on 9 May the locals celebrate Liberation Day.

Finance

Guernsey receives about half its total income through financial services. The largest town is St Peter Port (usually just called 'Town', and never 'St Peter's Port'), which sits half way down the East Coast. It's notable for its cobbled High Street and amazing density of banks and other financial institutions. It has been used since Roman times and seen various visitors embark upon its shores. St Peter Port lies at the core of financial activity thanks to the generous tax laws held over the island. But these have recently been called into question under the European Union, which has different rules. Determined to continue prospering financially Guernsey is looking to change its tax system to remain internationally competitive. As it currently stands financial activity on the island is generally straight, but allegations of large-scale money laundering are made occasionally. Also an odd piece of law means that companies can incorporate on Sark with Sark directors and thereby avoid just about every piece of company law in the world. However, Sarkees who go into the Company-Director-for-hire business (known as the Sark Lark) run the risk of finding that one of the hundreds of pieces of paper they get asked to sign has turned out to be part of a fraud, for which they get arrested and imprisoned.

Language

The names and odd pronunciations bring us on to language. Guernsey has two languages: English and Guernsiais (Dgèrnésiais)2, which is a peculiar mixture of French and English with a few odd bits of its own.3 and English with a few odd bits of its own. In some of the smokier cafés on the west coast and in St Peter Port you can still hear people speaking Guernsiais. Even when speaking English the Guernsey accent is quite distinctive. Think of a cross between French and South African with the word 'eh' appended to the end of every sentence.

Visitor Attractions

There is, in some quarters, a feeling that Guernsey lacks culture. Not so; she has a plethora of renowned local talent. Granted, the small island has never been over-represented on the international, national or indeed, even the local music scenes. Nor, it must be conceded, has she achieved any enduring success among the Arts fraternity. Nevertheless it is most respectfully submitted that Guernsey is not without a cultural legacy.

Events

There are many events that take place in Guernsey during the year, which include the Walking Festival, Floral Guernsey Summer Festival, Tennerfest and the Nerine Festival. If you are there in September then make sure you see the excellent Liberation Day air display, featuring the Red Arrows and the Battle of Britain flight. It's free and the best place to watch is the top of the ferry terminal or Castel Cornet, although pretty much anywhere on the harbour is good.

The Barstool Race

Every year there is a barstool race through the town. Some say this is a frivolous waste of time and maintain that blocking the streets of the only town on the island for half a day is irresponsible. Participants in this annual race experience the giddy thrills of speeding around the streets perched precariously atop barstools.

Sport

There are numerous walks around the island that people can undertake including one to Lihou. But be aware, if you decide to take the walk to Lithou and back do it before the tide rises. Qualified guides are available for walks, but maps can be just as handy.

Cycling is another popular sport on the island, but beware those steep hills. Adrenaline junkies may want to try going down the Val de Terre without using the brakes.

You can also take day trips by boat to Herm and Sark. A short airplane ride takes you to Alderney, although it's not clear why anyone ever does this.

Diving, angling and sailing are also sports that take place on and around the island and surfing and windsurfing fanatics are catered for too. Guernsey is also an affiliate member of the International Cricket Council (ICC) and can be seen participating solo in the Commonwealth Games.

Beaches

There are also numerous broad sandy bays on the west coast. However, these get crowded during the tourist season. For something a little more secluded pick one of the coves on the south coast at the bottom of the cliffs. Moulin Huet and Petit Bot are probably the easiest to get to.

The South Cliffs

A trip to Guernsey has to include a walk on the South Cliffs. Guernsey has lowland north, which rises via steep hills to a 300-foot plateau in the south. The plateau drops abruptly down to the sea, producing spectacular views and a dream habitat for seagulls. You can walk along the whole length of the cliffs. In fact, you can walk along almost the entire coast, and a determined walker can do this in a couple of days.

When walking on the south coast stick to the paths. This especially applies if you are walking out with a girl/boyfriend and fancy a spot of alfresco sex. The emergency services rescue several such couples every year, and the use of excessive sarcasm has been authorised.

Sunbathing

If you prefer a more usual tourist activity, such as frying yourself in sun cream on the beach, then there are a number of broad sandy bays on the west coast. However, these get crowded during the tourist season. For something a little more secluded pick one of the coves on the south coast at the bottom of the cliffs. Moulin Huet and Petit Bot are probably the easiest to get to.

Food and Drink

There are a number of restaurants, most of which have a seafood theme. Locally caught crab is especially good. If you are self-catering then try buying your seafood in the market on the north side of town. The fishmongers buy it directly off the boat. And don't panic if you do not like seafood for there is plenty of other food available in a wide range of restaurants, with some even stocking foreign food such as Indian, Turkish, Spanish and Italian.

You can't get a pint, or any other alcohol, on Sunday. In fact the island pretty much shuts down on Sunday. Plan a day on the beach or walking the cliffs.

Accommodation

If you go to Guernsey during the summer then make sure you have accommodation organised before you get on the plane or boat, and preferably get both sorted well in advance. The island fills right up during the summer, and the authorities take a very dim view of people sleeping rough. There are several campsites, but caravans are heavily restricted. Basically, you can't take your caravan over there.

Museums

Guernsey has some of the most enthralling museums in the Northern Hemisphere: if the thrills and spills of the Guernsey Tomato Museum are too much, then the visitor need only visit the hardly-less-exciting Telephone Museum. Then for the hardened adrenaline junkie there is always Len Dorey's Farm Implements Museum, La Vallette Underground Military Museum4, the National Trust of Guernsey Folk Museum and the Tapestry museum.

There are a bunch of other museums too such as the one in Candie Gardens, which covers the island's history in general and is very good. One dedicated to diamonds and Military history is done at Castle Cornet and all the wrecks that have happened are at Fort Grey on the west coast. This latter is locally known as The Cup and Saucer because of its odd design. The Priaulx Library gives an insight into family history and Guernsey Museum and Art Gallery. Those who love the sea may well be interested in German Naval Signals H. Q. and the ship wrecks at Fort Grey.

The Guernsey Weekly Press

A newspaper published for the exclusive enjoyment of the locals, The Guernsey Weekly Press is quite possibly the least scintillating of publications. A recent headline was 'Shopper falls through trapdoor!', which referred to a woman walking around the local shop who was so dozy that she didn't see the open trapdoor in front of her and fell straight through it, disappearing from sight and straining her right shoulder. This is big news in Guernsey. Later on in the same issue we had 'Irene can't part with her plough', all about an old woman in Alderney, a nearby island, who has been trying to sell her handplough for a few years now. Apparently, she just can't find a buyer. Wow, exciting news for Guernsey!

Animals

Guernsey's most famous export is probably the Guernsey cow. It's a little larger than the better-known Jersey cow, and does not have the characteristic black face of the Jersey. There also used to be an Alderney cow, but they appear to have become extinct during the Occupation.

Donkeys have also been used on Guernsey, as a useful mode of transport over the cobbled streets and are believed by Jersey people to reflect the ânes (otherwise known as Guernsey's occupants) with regards to stubborness. In response to this the people of Guernsey nickname the people of Jersey crapauds which is french for toads5. There is also a Guernsey goat, which is distinguished by its golden-coloured coat.

Attitudes

Attitudes on the island are, well, insular. Black and Asian faces are sufficiently rare that they may attract stares, but serious bigotry is unlikely to be a problem. Being openly gay, on the other hand, is probably a bad idea. Homosexuality was only legalised comparatively recently, and then only because the European Convention on Human Rights required it.

The Guernsey Flag

The Guernsey Flag is a St. George's Cross with a yellow bit in the middle.

Famous Guernseymen

Famous people who hail from Guernsey include:

  • Andy Priaulx (born 1976), motor racing driver
  • Isaac Brock (1769 - 1812), Hero of Upper Canada
  • Football fans will know of Guernseyman Matthew Le Tissier (born 1968), the prodigiously talented, much-loved character who has faithfully served Southampton Football Club for many years.
  • GB Edwards - wrote The Book of Ebenezer Le Page which contains insights into life in Guernsey during the 20th Century.
  • Roy Dotrice (born 1923), actor
  • Thomas de la Rue (1793 - 1866), printer and stationer
  • Victor Hugo was not born on Guernsey, but he was its most famous resident (living in exile). You can visit his house (Hauteville House now a museum) in St Peter Port if you are interested. He wrote Les Misérables.
  • William Le Lacheur (1802 - 1863), sea captain and merchant

1 The island also leads the world in the field of tax-avoidance: nobody dodges taxes like the Sarnians. Sarnian is the name for a person from Guernsey. It is derived from the Latin name for Guernsey (Sarnia).
2 Dgèrnésiais is the Norman language of the island.
3 Until the early 20th Century French was the only official language on the island.
4 More military history can be found at Castle Cornet.
5 Do not admit to having come from or visited Jersey, when you are in Guernsey.

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Entry Data
Entry ID: A590302 (Edited)

Written and Researched by:
Siege
Paul Johnson
U231227

Edited by:
Nick Fel


Date: 23   July   2001


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Referenced Guide Entries
Telephone
Newspapers
Cows
Victor Hugo - Writer
Jersey, Channel Islands, UK
France
'Les Miserables' by Victor Hugo
Guernsey, Channel Islands, UK
British Touring Bicycles
Buses in the UK
Countryside Etiquette
The United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland
The Neolithic Revolution
The Romans in Britain: A Brief History
The Channel Islands


Related BBC Pages
Guernsey's


Referenced Sites
Alderney
Herm
Guernsey

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