My post today is a selection from "The Channel Islands" by David Thomas Ansted and Robert Gordon Latham, published in 1865. Most travel guides look at the population, the sights to visit, something of the history, but this is an exception. It begins by looking at the geography of the Islands, and then considers how this has shaped their subsequent history, so it is a bit different from the general guidebook.
Geography of the islands – Part 1
The entrance to the English Channel (la Manche), about a hundred miles wide between the Land's End in Cornwall and the island of Ushant, near Brest, retains that width, with a nearly easterly bearing, for a distance of 100 miles. From Start Point, in Devonshire, the coast of England recedes northwards; and from the opposite land, in Brittany, the French coast recedes southwards rather abruptly, so that the width of the Channel is increased to 150 miles.
At a distance of about fifty miles more to the east, near Mont St. Michel, in Normandy, the French coast abruptly bends round to the north, and continues in that direction for about eighty miles, terminating at Cape la Hague; while the English land, rounding to the south-east somewhat gradually, terminates in Portland Bill, almost exactly opposite. The distance between Prance and England, or the width of the Channel between these two points of land, is thus narrowed to little more than fifty miles.
It is in this wide expanse of the Channel, and within the deep recess or elbow of land formed by part of the coasts of Brittany and Normandy, opposite West Bay on the south coast of England, that we find the remarkable group of islands, known collectively as the Channel Islands.
With one exception (the Chaussey Archipelago), all these islands now belong to England, having originally (as indeed the names of the principal islands and rocky groups clearly import) received visits from the northern navigators.
When the Normans afterwards united with the Saxon and Danish tribes, who had already occupied England, these islands continued to be held by them. For a long time, this was the case rather by accident than design; but it is many centuries since their position has been felt to be too commanding and important to allow of their being other than English, so long as Great Britain retains its place among the maritime powers of Europe.
Geographically, no doubt, the Channel Islands belong to the continent and to France; and they must be looked upon as outlying possessions of England, although their communications are much more frequent and complete with England than with the continent.
It is not, however, altogether to political reasons that the greater communication with England is due. While on the opposite land, to the north, there are numerous natural harbours, and many important towns and maritime stations, there is not a harbour of the smallest importance along the whole enclosing land of Brittany or Normandy, between Heaux and La Hague, except that of St. Malo; and only two towns (St. Malo and Granville) larger than fishing stations. This part of the French coast of the Channel is only approachable by small vessels and at great risk.
There are thus good physical reasons why these lands should still remain English; and we need not be surprised that, although occasionally visited by the French of the neighbouring shores for business purposes, and sheltering from time to time political refugees [for example Victor Hugo], they are not a common resort of French tourists.
The area of sea including the Channel Islands is thus denned: on the south, it is limited by about seventy miles of the coast of Brittany, from near Paimpoul to Mont St. Michel, in Normandy; on the east, it is bounded by about eighty miles of the Normandy coast, running northwards from Mont St. Michel to Cape la Hague. From this Cape to the Casquets is a line running west about twenty-five miles, which forms the northern boundary of the group, and consists of a rocky ledge, very little of which is sunk twenty fathoms, and which rises at frequent intervals to form groups of rocks and rocky islets.
From the Casquets rocks, a line of about sixty-five miles, clearing the rocks off the west coast of Guernsey, and passing outside the 'Roches Douvres,' reaches the coast of Brittany at' Les Heaux' lighthouse,—completing a nearly regular trapezium, containing an area of about 3000 square miles.
Within this space, the groups of islands, rocks, and shoals, are as follows:—(1.) A northern group, including Alderney, Burhou, and the Casquets, together with several rocky ledges. (2.) A north-central group, including Guernsey, Herm, Sark, and a singular complication of rocks and islets. (3.) A south-central group, including Jersey, three groups of shoals and rocky islands connecting the north of Jersey with France, and some others, running out from the south-east of Jersey also towards France. (4.) A southern group, including the Minquiers, the Chaussey Islands, and some outlying rocks to the far west.
Between these groups, and amongst the islands and rocks that compose them, are numerous narrow and a few wide channels; but, as will be seen by reference to the map at the end of the volume, and the annexed diagram, a large proportion of the sea between Jersey and Alderney and the whole of that between Jersey and France, is less than twenty fathoms deep.
The sea-bottom around the Channel Islands, could we see it denuded of water, would present a singularly broken and jagged appearance. Pinnacles of granitic and porphyritic rock would be seen to rise out of large rounded masses of similar rock. Banks of sand, some of them extremely steep, would occupy intervals between the groups of pinnacles and the more important hummocks of hard, naked rock. A few comparatively deep valleys would mark the navigable passages, and a considerable degree of regularity would be observable in the width and direction of some of these.
But, on the whole, the result of an elevation of thirty fathoms would be, to give a very large and well-defined tract, enclosing all the islands and rocks. This land would not be unlike the western part of Brittany, the valleys being already provided with abundance of sandy soil, the hills jagged and abrupt, and the coast terminated with a cliff going down at once into water of considerable depth.
When Jersey, Guernsey, Alderney, and Sark, are quoted as the Channel Islands, the expression must then be understood with some reserve. No doubt these are the principal inhabited tracts of land, stated in order of magnitude and population; but the smaller inhabited islands,—the numerous large rocks and ledges, above and under water,—the sand-banks, from which fishes are taken, and on which ships are often stranded,—and the smaller islets and rocks, with their rocky coves and inlets, important for shelter, or requiring to be known that they may be avoided—are also of very considerable interest.
Few parts of the world present, in so small a space, so much variety as is the case with this archipelago; and few groups of islands are so remarkable for their great political and historical interest, combined with singular natural beauty. Constructed for the most part of hard crystalline rock, decomposing or weathering by the constant action of the sea and weather; exposed to the incessant dash of the waves coming in from the Atlantic, which are thrown back by the coast of the Cotentin, only to meet a fresh arrival of others, all bound on the errand of destruction;—the islands have been for countless ages beaten about, penetrated, rounded, broken and carried away,—leaving now only a fret-work of those hardest barriers that have still resisted the attack, and are enabled to present a bold and serried front against their relentless enemy.
It is very essential to a right understanding of the scenery of these islands, that their physical and geological features, and the changes they have undergone to bring them into their present state, should be appreciated. They were originally connected together, and formed part of French land. The separation being once made at various localities, the softer and more easily weathered rocks would soon be swept away by the sea, while the tougher and harder materials would offer much longer and more successful resistance.
Intersected in every direction by veins and crevices, some of the veins being filled with rock yet tougher than the granite of the mass, and some with soft minerals and clay, the result has been the production of the islands and rocks as we see them. It is inevitable that in this contest, the land above water, that between wind and water, and that permanently below water, must have been differently though always greatly affected.
Bearing in mind these few observations, it will not be surprising that Guernsey, the outlying island, should now present a bare mass of the toughest syenite, with a coast affording the grandest and boldest scenery; while Jersey, although a much larger tract of land, more within the gulf, is softer and rounder, with larger and tamer bays, and a less severe style of beauty.
Sark, somewhat the loftiest of the islands, is also the most weather-worn, and is being gradually torn to shreds. Alderney is a rounded mass: the Casquets are jagged pinnacles. The Chaussey islands are like the debris of a worn-out series of quarries.
Each group has its own characteristic, and each is a resisting centre, on which the waves have long beaten, but still have only partially done their work. But there is little real difference. The granites or syenites of Guernsey and of the Chaussey islands present differences of detail, but not more so than we often find in granites from adjacent quarries. Each decomposes into a similar soil, and the practical difference between them amounts to little more than a non-agreement as to their rates of decomposition.
Islands placed as these are must be subject to certain inconveniences, inseparable from those spots whose approach involves the crossing of troubled water. There is no way of escaping from this annoyance, except by the use of vessels so large, that they could neither navigate the narrow channels, or enter the small harbours with convenience.