Fortresses of tranquillity - The Channel Islands
I was enjoying a round of golf on the island of Alderney, third largest of the Channel Islands and so close to France that you can make out the traffic on the coast road of the Cherbourg Peninsula, when I was faced with a tricky "blind" shot to the green. "No problem," said my local companion, "just aim for that gun emplacement up on the high ground there, just left of the observation tower."
These aren't the sort of landmarks that come into play on a golf course in, say, Surrey or Hertfordshire, but in Alderney they define the landscape, nearly 70 years after Hitler's occupying forces fortified the island in readiness for an Allied attack that never came.
I took aim, sliced my shot into thick bracken, and spent five minutes looking for my ball and considering the accidents of geography and history that make the Channel Islands unique. Stuck between two great powers who were forever warring with each other, and coveted by the Third Reich as stepping stones towards European domination, Alderney and its two bigger sisters, Jersey and Guernsey, have been floating fortresses for centuries. Now, at last, peace reigns in this lovely corner of Europe. Tourists can clamber safely over the military relics as they're gently reclaimed by nature and (good) golfers can use them to sharpen their aim.
Peace and quiet - of a kind southern Britain hasn't experienced since the 1950s - is the special quality of Sark and Herm, the fourth and fifth islands of the group. Spectacularly beautiful Sark jealously preserves its bygone traditions and unhurried pace of life. Cars are banned in this dreamy place of hidden coves and beaches, luxuriant vegetation, tea and craft shops. It would have been the perfect location for an Enid Blyton novel, and is best explored on bike or foot. Sark's most striking feature is the narrow, natural causeway that links the two halves of the island, running nearly 300 feet above the waves on either side. There are sturdy hand-rails, but it's no place to go if you suffer from vertigo.
Herm is less than two miles long and a mile wide, with a population of less than 100 that swells twenty-fold in the summer months. Some are content to stay within the luxurious confines of the island's only hotel, but the day-trippers make a bee-line for two of the finest beaches in the British Isles: Belvoir Bay and Shell Beach.The latter's brilliant white surface is a beachcomber's delight, with an unending supply of shells deposited on the island by the Gulf Stream. Everything on Herm, including some shops, holiday cottages, a school and a post office, is run as a business by a tenant family, who ensure that litter and noise are kept to a minimum, and that everyone without a permit to stay overnight is safely on the last ferry back
to Guernsey, 20 minutes away. Outside July and August, this is the ultimate get-away-from-it-all retreat.
Herm, Sark and Alderney all belong to the Bailiwick of Guernsey, which means they're effectively governed from the island's capital, St Peter Port. Jersey is also a bailiwick (derived from an old French word meaning an area of jurisdiction) and the two big islands have a remarkable degree of independence. Each has its own constitution, parliament, tax system, currency, stamps and excise duty. The UK is responsible only for their defence, as dependencies of the British Crown.
It didn't feel like that in 1940, when the Nazis earmarked the Channel Islands as a key brick in their defensive Atlantic Wall, that stretched from Norway to Spain Britain, at the height of the Blitz, was in no position to help, and the islands were abandoned to the enemy without a shot being fired. The Germans brought in slave labour from Eastern Europe to shore up their defences; Alderney was virtually cleared of people to make way for four concentration camps. Churchill was advised that recapturing Alderney alone might cost a quarter of a million Allied lives, and the "dear Channel Isles", as he called them, were left to fend
On the golf course, and pretty much everywhere else, you're reminded of the four years and 10 months of occupation, when food ran so short that the German soldiers were reduced to eating domestic cats and dogs. Alderney is an easy-going place now, with its notably relaxed attitude to the licensing laws giving rise to the saying that it's "two thousand drunks clinging to a rock", but it was a grim place in the war years, and the period is superbly captured in the island's museum in St Anne, the quaint, cobbled capital.
Guernsey has plenty of evocative war memorabilia too, including an underground military museum and hospital, and an Occupation Museum depicting the day-today grind of island life in those desperate times. Emerging into daylight, they make the elegant, quaint streets and alleys of St Peter Port look all the more beautiful, although Guernsey has nothing quite to match Elizabeth and Mont Orgueil castles on Jersey - the two most imposing buildings of the Channel Islands, dramatically floodlit at night.
Jersey is the biggest, wealthiest and most populous of the islands, and although its capital, St Helier, lacks the charm of the other main towns, there are plenty of beauty spots within easy reach. Nearly half the island's 50-mile coastline is sandy beach, and 350 miles of narrow, hedgerow-fringed roads make it seem much larger than it is. There's a speed limit of 20mph most of the way, but the byways are so mazy and diverting that you'll be pushed to exceed it. Rainy-day highlights are the Jersey Museum in St Helier, where the star attraction is Lillie Langtry, the island-born socialite who scandalised London in the late 19th century, and the world-famous zoo, founded 50 years ago by Gerald Durrell, who was a generation ahead of his time in realising that exotic wildlife must be preserved, and not merely caged.
Jersey is just 14 miles from mainland France, so it's no surprise to find a strong Gallic influence in its cuisine, dialect and place names. French yachtsmen sail over for lunch at French-owned restaurants. The most celebrated incomer to the islands was the French Romantic writer, Victor Hugo, whose exotically-decorated house in Guernsey is open to the public. But don't be misled. In a dozen visits to the islands, I've seen a forest of Union flags and scarcely a single French tricolour. The Channel Islands might feel like abroad, but their heart will always be close to home.Channel Island facts
There are at least 12 flights per day to Jersey and Guernsey from London.
Aurigny Air Services (www.aurigny.com) flies to both Jersey and Guernsey from Gatwick and Stansted, and to Alderney from Southampton, and operates between the three main islands.
Flybe (www.flybe.com) flies to Jersey and Guernsey from Gatwick and Southampton, with additional services to Jersey from Luton and Southend.
Blue Islands (www.blueislands.com) flies from Southampton to Jersey, Guernsey and Alderney, plus inter-island services. New weekly Air Southwest (www.airsouthwest.com) flights serve Jersey from Oxford.
Condor Ferries (www.condorferries.com) operates a fast car ferry service year-round from Poole and Weymouth to Jersey via Guernsey, and a direct service from Poole to Jersey in summer. A traditional ferry sails from Portsmouth to Jersey, with a journey time of 10 hours 30 minutes.
Accommodation and information
All the islands have a wide range of accommodation, from luxury hotels to self-catering cottages and well-appointed campsites. The islands' tourist information websites have details of current vacancies and deals, as well as online search facilities and email booking services.
Because the Channel Islands are not part of the EU, visitors are not covered by the European Health Insurance card and need to ensure they have adequate personal insurance in case they need health treatment.
Jersey Zoo (www.durrell.org) celebrated its 50th birthday on July 12.
Jersey Museum & Art Gallery (www.jerseyheritage.org) - a quarter of a million years of history and some fine Surrealist art under one roof.
Mont Orgueil Castle, Jersey (www.jerseyheritage.org) - stunning views and 600 years of history at the island's most photographed site
Hauteville House, St Peter Port (www.victorhugo.gg) - Victor Hugo's Guernsey home from 1856-70 features an astonishing display of eccentric furnishings, and is preserved by the City of Paris.
German Military Underground Hospital (www.visitguernsey.com) - an eerie reminder of the wartime occupation, the Channel
Islands' largest construction was hewn out of the rock by thousands of slave workers.
Wartime memorabilia helps tell the island's story at the Alderney Society Museum (www.alderneysociety.org)
All prices and details were correct when pubilshed, please check before visiting the Channel Islands.