When I mention I’m from Guernsey, many people either have no inkling as to where it is and respond with a perplexed face scrunch, or, if they studied history, know it as somewhere the Germans briefly occupied during the Second World War. Nicht cool.
Essentially, it is a little off the beaten track, a mere pin-sized dot on the world map. But it’s simple yet astonishing beauty is something I think nobody should go a lifetime without seeing.
You can’t beat a sunset at Cobo beach…
Guernsey is one of the Channel Islands, an archipelago of British islands in the English Channel, not far from the French coast of Normandy. In fact, on clear days it’s easy to glimpse the coast of France, which is less than 30 miles away. Fromage and tarte tatin are within easy reach, which is never a bad thing.
Hundreds of thousands of visitors journey to the island each year. With 27 beaches and the picturesque harbour town of St. Peter Port – more old cobbles and hydrangeas than generic sidewalks and Starbucks – it’s easy to understand why the sandals and fanny packs descend. However, Guernsey life and culture is heavily shaped by the 65,000 people who live on the island permanently.
For those who are lucky enough to call what has now been nicknamed the rock home, life is heavily influenced by the landscape, namely the coastline. In Guernsey, all roads lead literally and metaphorically to the coast. At only 78 square kilometres, you’re never far from the water and the majority of my – and most other islanders’ – childhood memories revolve around the shorelines.
The beaches are, of course, a magnet for the many holiday makers. But for the Guernsey people, the coast is an integral part of daily life, the flame to which us sea and sand loving moths fly, come rain or shine. It’s in our blood.
It’s not uncommon for people to drive straight to a nearby beach after a long day in the office, or head to the towering cliffs on the east and south coast on a crisp, blue sky Sunday. Weekends and family gatherings, for me at least, have often revolved around boat trips to one of the nearby sister islands of Herm and Sark, long afternoons braving the chilly seas and leaving footprints in soft, silver sand, smoky barbecues on slipways with friends, dripping ice lollies (which have now been replaced by sandy wine), attempting to surf with my brother and sister, rock pooling for crabs, windy walks with my grandparents and beach bonfire parties.
The coast of Guernsey is to locals what the Thames is to Londoners. Both have existed for centuries and though tourists flock to their edges, it is the local soul that brings them to life. Guernsey’s coast may lie on the periphery, at the fringes of the land, but it is at the very core of the place, its people and its traditions. I appreciate this concept even more now that I have travelled and lived elsewhere in the world.
The coastline is where the ferries come and go on hot summer days and rainy winter ones too, where the preserved German bunkers still stand high on the clifftops, where the fisherman spend their long days trawling for mackerel, where hundreds of surfers wait at dawn for the perfect set in Vazon bay and where the unusually large tides come and go against the fine, white sand. It’s where first dates happen, proposals are made, weddings take place and where many islanders’ ashes are scattered. Life and death in Guernsey is, for so many, linked with the nature of the island itself. The coastline is our shared back garden.
Rock-pooling is something local children pick up quickly. Admittedly, it’s a skill that won’t advance your CV, but it’s character building stuff and teaches you about patience and how to make the tricky distinction between seaweed and sharp crab claws (I learnt the hard way). There are plenty of beaches where rock pools magically appear at low tide, meaning my siblings and I became valiant rock pool conquerors, intrepid explorers armed with nets and buckets! L’Eree, Port Soif, Pembroke and Cobo were our favourites.
Swimming is big with local people, but it’s not an activity for the fainthearted. Forget floating on a lilo with your book because it’s chilly, and by that I mean fit for penguins. I have found the best method is to gradually submerge your body – roughly two inches per five minutes – so that numbness sets in and one can appreciate the crystal clear water in all its glory. Diving off a boat is a no-no unless you’re prepared for a brain freeze (advice I ignored in the following photo).
Regardless, we all put on our bathers every summer (some even in the winter) and take the plunge because on all the beaches but particularly Shell Beach in Herm, you could be in the middle of the Caribbean, it’s that turquoise and clear.
On Sark, a 30-minute ferry away, you can swap sandy beaches for Venus Pools, bike rides and horse drawn carriages, a trip we make a few times a year. With a no-car policy, a small chocolate factory and cream teas galore, it’s a place to really get away from it all. We come back with sore bums, full tummies and salt-tangled hair.
This is one of my best friends, modelling her sore backside like a pro after a day of biking.
Walking is one of the best ways to explore Guernsey’s coastline and countryside. I would like to say I have been down every path but I definitely have not. You probably think I don’t have an excuse as the island is so small, but you’d be surprised at how many hidden lanes there are. With one of the largest tidal flows in the world, miles of beach are often newly visible at low tide, making the coastal landscape one of constant flux and regeneration.
When the tides are right, you can walk across the seabed on the cobbled causeway to Lihou Island, the most westerly of the Channel Islands. Only one house exists on this little island, which is roughly a mile away from my closest beach, L’Eree. Many locals hire the house out for parties and special occasions and though I have yet to do so, I am tempted by the thought of being cast away on an island overnight. It seems romantic, in a Byronesque way.
The westerly view across the churning and dramatic sea towards the Hanois lighthouse is one of the best – even better in mid-winter when the wind is blowing a hoolie. My bedroom windows look straight out to the lighthouse and I remember its flashes on my walls as a child.
I still see the Hanois’ light beams when I go home to Guernsey. They remind me that the sea and the island’s coastline is always there, forever changing, but continually part of our life, our death, our sleep, our dreams.
This article was published in Unmapped Magazine in their May 2014 issue ‘Coastlines’. All photos: my own.