Jersey Girls

19th July 2013

Kathy Walton, inveterate Francophile, admits to having always thought of the Channel Islands as the poor man’s France – but her husband sees it differently. Having spent several happy childhood holidays on Jersey, he wanted to take their daughters there. Could Kathy fall for the island’s charms?

I was wildly excited when we landed and the first thing I heard was an airport official speaking what I was sure was Jèrriais (Jersey French) into his walkie-talkie – until our taxi driver put me right. “That was never Jèrriais,” he said. “Just really bad French. That bloke’s from Portugal.”

Jèrriais dates from when the Channel Islands were part of the Anglo-Norman kingdom. When England lost Normandy in 1204, we hung on to the islands, but they continued to speak their Norman French. The language began to decline during the Napoleonic Wars in the 1700s (when Jersey had to be defended against a possible French invasion, and English soldiers and construction workers soon outnumbered the natives) – but it was during the German occupation (1940-45) that Jèrriais finally lost its hold. Though farmers continued to speak it, and often used it to outwit the Germans, many of the children lost their familiarity with it during their evacuation to England.
Recent attempts to revive the language have been moderately successful, but a tourist need not fear incomprehension. English has all but taken over, although French is still used for official titles and by the legal system.
I soon discovered, though, that one of the many enchanting things about Jersey is that everywhere you go, you will find evidence of the island’s French heritage: in food, in family and place names and on many road signs and public notices. It’s just that, at first glance, written Jèrriais seems to owe more to ’Allo ’Allo than to the French you learned at school.

In the capital, St Helier, for example, I saw a rubbish bin for tinnes and boutelles; printed on our bus pass, underneath the English, was the phrase Bouonjour a bord d’la beusse: positively Clouseau-esque. Despite the surreal language, though, I heartily recommend the beusse as a way of getting around. For a small island (just 8 x 5 miles), Jersey has a huge amount to see, which means that you’re never stuck for something to do, even in poor weather. A family pass for the week was excellent value at £56 for the five of us. The brand new bus station in St Helier made waiting almost a pleasure, the beusses themselves were comfortable and generally on time and their journeys along the winding lanes and coast roads extremely picturesque. Just remember that most buses stop around 6pm, which means taking a taxi in the evening.

We stayed just outside St Helier. Parts of the town are pretty shabby, but it has a bustling pedestrianised shopping area and it has recently converted a Victorian slaughterhouse on the waterfront into a surprisingly attractive arcade of cafés and craft shops: think Covent Garden-style, but smaller. There are also several elegant Georgian and Victorian properties in town, including one now owned by the National Trust, plus a Victorian cast-iron market hall that’s worth a peek, especially for its second-hand bookstall, where we found several interesting out-of-print books on Jersey.

If you’re heading for the beach, the road skirting St Aubin’s Bay from St Helier to the busy little resort of St Brelade has some stunning views, particularly at the point where it zigzags its way up round the Corbière headland and down to St Ouen’s Bay. Judging from the hotels and restaurants on the sea front, St Brelade’s attracts the chic set – despite not being at all chic, I’d probably stay there next time (and yes, there may well be a next time) – while St Ouen is where the surfers go. The bay has tides wild enough for young watersports enthusiasts to enjoy, and yet its seemingly endless five-mile stretch of sand remains empty enough, even on a sizzlingly hot Bank Holiday Monday, for middle-aged sunworshippers and their children to play boules without ever encroaching on their neighbours’ towels…and whatever your age, do visit the Le Braye beachside café, which, inside or out, is cool enough for even the bolshiest of teenagers to be seen in.

Inland, the architecture changes quite dramatically, as hotels and apartments give way to cottages and magnificent farm houses and manoirs, some dating from the 17th century and made from Jersey’s famous pink granite stone. Turned into jewellery, the salmon-coloured granite doesn’t appeal to me at all, but used for building, it looks mellow and inviting, especially covered in blossom. Another of Jersey’s charms is that the gardens bloom earlier than ours: in late May, every one was ablaze with clematis, bougainvillea or wisteria. Long hours of sunshine, rich soil and temperate climate make the island a gardener’s paradise – and if gardens are your thing, don’t miss Samarès Manor (above). Even our horticulturally averse children were enchanted by the guided tour of the herb gardens, reputed to be the finest in the UK. Take a picnic and eat on one of the benches in the Japanese garden.

The 32-acre Durrell Wildlife Park is a must on a sunny day. It feels like an outdoor jigsaw puzzle that allows you to see things in whichever order you choose, and I found the whole place surprisingly uplifting; zoos usually depress me, but here the animals are so obviously well cared for. There are currently 130 species, many endangered, and although there are no really big animals, we particularly liked the small Peruvian bears (Paddington!); the venomous snakes; the tiny, bright frogs and the flamingos. Children can go through a tunnel and emerge under a Perspex bubble, a great viewing-point from which to compare the meerkats. My own little monkeys loved it.
There’s an excellent café and a picnic area for people who bring their own food. You can also glimpse the home of the park’s founder, the late novelist and naturalist Gerald Durrell, most famous, of course, for his childhood memoir My Family And Other Animals, whose influence is still felt here today.

As well-known in her time as Durrell in his, Jersey’s other famous character is Lillie Langtry, celebrated actress and long-term mistress of Edward VII. Her grave is in the churchyard of St Saviour’s, and the rectory where she was born in 1853 is nearby. Also buried here is her contemporary Henri Bosdet, creator of the pre-Raphaelite stained glass windows in most of the island’s churches. His altar window in St Saviour’s is particularly splendid. My children marvelled at the colours and at some of the headstones: huge angels with wings, open Bibles and even a cannon on wheels.

Situated as it is on St Saviour's Hill, a short distance above Government House, the churchyard offers wonderful views over an island that is neither England, nor poor man’s France, but recognisably and only itself.

Jersey War Tunnels

Sombre as it might seem, it would have felt wrong to ignore the Jersey War Tunnels. The Channel Islands were the only part of the UK to be occupied by the Germans during World War II. On Jersey they used both local men and 5,000 slave labourers (mainly Eastern Europeans) to dig more than 1km of tunnels to house offices, a radio station and a hospital for wounded soldiers. All the items on display (handwritten records and letters, identity cards, clothes, weaponry, farm and kitchen implements) and the reconstructed rooms are sensitively described, while sound effects, video clips and archive interviews with islanders, take you right back to the Occupation
We learned about individual islanders who were shot or imprisoned, about those who betrayed their neighbours or fraternised with the enemy or escaped, and, of course, about those who risked their own lives to shelter Jewish neighbours. Some names came up again and again, a sad indication of the extent of the hardships and losses suffered by so many families. It was all very moving, and I’d venture that these tunnels are the most evocative museum I’ve ever visited. Wear a coat, even on a hot day (it’s very chilly down there) and allow two hours for your visit.

Find Your Local