SARK, ENGLAND — The rain had stopped, which renewed my enthusiasm for exploring tiny Sark, an island which is part of the Bailiwick of Guernsey. Smallest of the Channel Islands and only accessible by boat, Sark is unique in that it is a fiefdom granted to the Seigneurie of St Ouen in Jersey way back in 1565, with the proviso that he keep the island free from pirates.
Sark has no roads, just stony tracks and rural pathways, so for walkers good footwear is essential. Those who prefer to cycle can hire one from a shop on The Avenue, the island’s dusty main street, or there is the option of an island tour by horse-drawn carriage. Although most people visiting the island are daytrippers like me, there is accommodation available for those seeking a chill-out break, including some hotels, guest houses, self-catering properties and campsites. There are not many things to do on this pretty, green island, but that is part of its charm.
Those who like stargazing should know that Sark is designated a Dark Sky Community and the world’s first Dark Sky Island, ideal for observing planets and stars because there are no street lights. A small observatory primarily designed to keep star-gazers warm at night houses a powerful telescope. It’s worth a visit to see the creamy rich Milky Way and an almost guaranteed display of shooting stars. Besides that, you will be mesmerized by the twinkling lights of sister island Guernsey across the sea.
Above: Colourful homes cling to the cliffs overlooking Sark's harbour, where ferries bring lots of tourists.
My walk took me past the prison, possibly the world’s smallest with only two cells — I was told that it is still used for rare overnight stays. I was heading for historic manor house La Seigneurie, built around 1675. Though the house, permanent residence of the present Seigneur, the head of Sark, is not open to the public, the grounds are open daily. There is a pleasant café in the gardens where, after refreshments, I set off again past deep winding valleys bursting with wildflowers, white-washed cottages and berry-laden hedgerows to the Hog’s Back headland, a favourite spot with picnickers. The coastal scenery is magnificent — massive crinkle-cut cliffs with spookily dark caves, a one-time haunt of smugglers.
The rest of my brief visit to the Channel Islands was spent in Guernsey, second-largest island, famed for flowers and seafood and offering a variety of landscapes from rocky inlets to high-sided woodland and curving pastures. It’s easy to get whisked back in time here as almost everywhere you look there is evidence of a fascinating past, from medieval castles, forts and watchtowers, to landmarks providing memories of the World War II years when enemy forces invaded the islands. Two visitor attractions are La Valette German Underground Museum and the Occupation Museum with its hoard of war relics. Included is an exhibition called Occupation Street where re-created shop frontages depict a street in the island’s capital Saint Peter Port between 1940 to 1945.
Victor Hugo was so enamoured with Guernsey that he was inspired to write most of Les Miserables here during his 15-year stay while in exile from France. I wanted to visit his house but it was closed so had to make do with standing outside and imagining what it might look like inside. I did get inside Castle Cornet, though, the last remaining royalist stronghold during the last throes of the English Civil War and which has guarded the harbour entrance for more than 800 years. Unfortunately for the governor’s wife, an explosion in the gunpowder store in 1672 blew off the top of the tower and she was killed. The castle contains several museums including one devoted to all things seafaring, while the gardens are great for lazing round. Every day at noon a gun is fired by scarlet robed keepers while from Easter to September the Guernsey History in Action company puts on daily performances.
Above: Sark has lots of World War II history, some interesting animals and lots of lovely stone cottages.
I also visited the 12th century Sausmarez Manor where entertaining and knowledgeable Peter Suasmarez was my guide. He proudly told visitors that one of his ancestors circumnavigated the world 20 years before Captain Cook, helped capture the world’s richest treasure ship and designed the first naval uniform. A miniature railway runs through the extensive gardens which incorporate a sculpture park. Those who like me thrill that the unexplained will like the fact Guernsey is chock-a-bloc with myths and legends and punctuated with witches’ magic resting stones, creepy ruins and fairy rings, all of which dot the landscape like freckles. If you are really determined you may even discover the mystery of the ruined pagan priory on unspoiled, uninhabited bird sanctuary, tiny Lihou Island. Reached only by an ancient causeway at low tide, it is safest visited with a guide.
Seafood is king here, with ormers (sea snails) a local delicacy. This shellfish, which can only be harvested for a few days every year, is usually served coated in flour and fried. Guernsey mussels, too, are among the freshest you are likely to find. Add to that friendly locals, alluring scenery and a tranquil pace of life and you’ll wonder, as I did, why it took you so long to visit.
• More on the islands at http://www.visitguernsey.com and http://www.sark.co.uk