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Thursday, 15 September 2016
The Geography of Alderney – Part 1
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 it his has shaped their subsequent history, so it is a bit different from the general guidebook.
It is perhaps especially pertinent, as Alderney residents have made the news recently, as they voiced their anger about controversial plans to run a nuclear power cable through the island at the September States Meeting. The FAB electricity project will use Alderney as a connection point to pump electricity across Channel.
While bringing much needed income, the Alderney Debate Group commented on adverse effects:
"The FAB Link project is planned to dig interconnector power and fibre optic cables through our prime beaches and the environmentally and culturally sensitive Longis Common. The interconnector cables are important to France and Britain, but for the island they will bring minimal benefits."
Here is a look at those beaches, and the geographical and geological nature of Alderney.
The Geography of Alderney – Part 1 by David Thomas Ansted and Robert Gordon Latham
A formidable mass of hard rock, forming the north-western extremity of the Cotentin and terminated by Cape la Hague, serves as a buttress protecting that part of Normandy which ranges northwards from Mont St. Michel.
This headland is separated by a narrow channel of no great depth from the northernmost of the three principal groups of the Channel Islands; and, through this channel, the sea, at high spring tides, sweeps at the rate of eight miles an hour, in a steady current. From the rocks beyond Cape la Hague, to those that fringe Alderney (the nearest land), there is a distance of only six miles, of which little more than two miles exceeds twenty fathoms in depth. This passage is called the Race (or Ras) of Alderney. The extreme distance from the Cape la Hague to the nearest land of Alderney, is about eight and a-half miles, the direction being nearly due west.
Alderney is the largest and principal island of the northern group; and, as a military position, it may be regarded as the Ehrenbreitstein of the English Channel. It is oblong, or long oval, in form, lying north-east and south-west. It lies between 39° 42- and 39° 44- north latitude; and between 2° 9 1/2- and 2° 14- west longitude.
One half of the island, divided by a line running east and west from the Braye to Longy, is high; the extreme height being about 280 feet. The length of the island from north-east to south-west, is about three and a-half miles, and its width about one mile. The greater part of the island is a flat table land, more or less cultivated. The land continues flat to the edge of the south-eastern and southern cliffs, which are wonderfully grand, and there descends almost vertically into the sea, presenting to the lover of fine scenery, a succession of magnificent examples of broken and perpendicular walls of rock. On the north side of the island, the ground slopes gradually towards a succession of bays, more or less tame.
It will now be desirable to communicate to the reader some idea of the island, by a survey of the coast. Approaching from Guernsey, the exceedingly lofty and abrupt cliffs of Alderney are somewhat masked by a number of detached rocks or islets, lying a short distance from the south-western extremity of the land.
A still nearer approach separates them, and shows something of their magnitude and importance. This coast terminates at a small battery or rock fortress, standing out about a furlong from the land, with which it connects by a causeway.
The Clonque, as this fortress is named, is the first of an important series of defences which run round nearly five miles of coast, reaching from the Clonque to Fort Essex. The Clonque is situated near the south-western extremity of the island, and the part of the coast requiring defence includes not only the whole of the side of the island facing the north-west, but the whole northern extremity, and about a mile of the side facing southeast. The rest of the south-eastern side and the southern extremity, are naturally defended, and may safely be left to take care of themselves.
The form of Alderney has been mentioned. The ground rises from the sea, on the north-western side, in some places by a gradual slope, and in others by a succession of terraces, to a plateau about 250 feet above the sea level. The whole of the coast is rocky; on one side (the west) there is a cliff of irregular angular blocks of granite, fallen away from above, and deposited as a natural talus, reaching about half way up the ancient cliff*. On the other side, is a bluff precipice of rock, reaching to the sea, and defended by an outer barrier, or fringe of granite islands. Beyond the heap of detritus on the west side, there is also a fringe of unbroken portions of the granite rising out of the sea.
The talus, just described, extends from the Clonque towards the north-east to the commencement of the new harbour, and renders it impossible to strengthen this part of the island except by coast forts adapted to resist a landing on the dangerous shores of the bays that exist between the Clonque and Touraille forts.
Of these bays there are three; the westernmost, Clonque Bay, is between the Clonque and Fort Torgee. It is very rocky, and not deeply indented; nor is the land very approachable from it. The next is the Plat Saline, extending to Fort Doyle, between which and Grosnez is a small bay, called Crabbic. There are sands at low water in these two bays. At Grosnez, the pier commences. On the side of the Plat Saline, nearest Fort Torgee, is a pretty opening communicating with a valley, giving easy access to the interior of the island, and connecting with other valleys opening in the opposite direction, at a point called Tres Vaux, or Three Valleys.
These valleys terminate abruptly at a lofty, vertical cliff. The part of the rock out of which these valleys are scooped is an exceedingly rotten granitic vein, readily acted on by the weather. A small stream of water comes down to the western coast, and has been made use of to turn a wheel. Roads communicate from the Plat Saline to the town, which lies above, on the plateau, at a short distance.
A neck of land, near Cape Grosnez, is called the Braye, and gives its name to the next bay—the largest and most important of all, and the one selected for the new harbour.
From the extremity of this headland, on which is a strong fort, the long arm of the western pier or breakwater takes its origin. The distance of this point from the opposite land of the bay, is about 1,200 yards, this being therefore the effective width of the natural bay. The curve is nearly semicircular, but the bottom is rocky and at present shallow. Much blasting and clearing out will therefore be necessary; and owing to the direction taken by the west breakwater, the harbour must always be inconvenient.
The harbour originally projected required the construction of two small breakwaters: one, 900 yards to the east from Cape Grosnez; and another, north-west from Roselle Point, running out 400 yards. These would have enclosed the natural bay.
To enlarge this design (which was originally either too much or too little), it was determined to alter the direction of the west breakwater to east north-east. This has involved a large quantity of work done in water upwards of twenty fathoms deep, and has completely cut across the excellent anchorage that might have been secured by carrying the breakwater from rock to rock.
Had this latter work been decided on, a magnificent harbour would have been secured at a comparatively small expense. Nearly a million sterling has now been expended on the 1200 yards of the west breakwater at present carried out. The east breakwater is not yet commenced.
The effect of the breakwater hitherto has been to shelter a considerable part of the anchorage from west and south-west gales. There were originally several rocks within the space enclosed, but most of these have been lowered to a sufficient depth to render the harbour safe even for large vessels.
The annexed plan represents the present state of the works, and the two methods suggested for completing the harbour are indicated by broken lines.
Great as the error has been in the construction of this harbour, and although, beyond doubt, the accommodation, when completed, will be far less and far worse than it ought to have been, no policy could be more absurd or suicidal than to stop or check the works in their present state.
The shelter that will be afforded when the works are completed is an object of great importance. To obtain this, vast sums have been expended in constructing a long series of forts, to command efficiently some five miles of coast. It is in this harbour that our merchant ships would look for safety in the event of war. It is here that gun boats and other ships of war would collect;—to this place they would repair for coal and stores;—here they might refit, and hence they might issue to cut off and destroy an enemy stationed at Cherbourg.
If the Channel Islands are to be preserved—and that the possession of these islands means the possession of the Channel, is more than ever the case now—it can only be by rendering Alderney useful as well as strong; and much of this usefulness consists in there being a harbour of refuge. It is not now the time to consider what might have been done better; but it is a very serious question indeed, what can be done best with the materials still at our command.
On the northern side of the harbour is a hill of no great height, but of an exceedingly hard porphyritic rock, which has been strengthened, and on which is constructed the principal defence of the island. This is Fort Touraille. Beyond it is another, much smaller, but also important work—the Chateau d'Etoc. Between the two forts is another rocky little bay.
At the foot of a small hill near Fort Touraille is the first of a series of extensive quarries, opened and worked for the purposes of the harbour. The stone here is a grit-stone, partly fine and partly coarse-grained; moderately hard, compact, and capable of being worked in blocks of considerable size.*
This kind of sand-stone rock forms the whole of a small, low promontory at the north-easternmost extremity of the island. In a military sense, this extremity is the weakest point of the island. The coast is low, and though certainly very rocky, and with a considerable current generally driving past, it might, in favourable weather, be made use of for landing men and artillery.
To strengthen as much as possible this part of the island, no less than six forts and batteries have been constructed, the total length of coast-line being only about two miles; but it still remains weak, should an attack be made with mail-clad ships able to silence the batteries. There would be no difficulty in constructing a deep and wide canal, detaching this weak part of Alderney altogether, reducing the number of men and guns required for the defence of the place, and greatly strengthening the remaining defences, by rendering the landing of artillery almost impossible, except in Braye Harbour or the Plat Saline.
This little promontory of sand-stone has several small rocky bays, the last and largest of which, and that which cuts deepest into the shore, is called Longy Bay. Sand partly covers the rocks in all these bays; but the grit-stone rises in small jagged ledges and angular blocks, often extremely picturesque, and giving a curious appearance to the shore at low water.
A small island of sand-stone is connected by a causeway with the northern side of Longy Bay. It is called the 'Isle du Ras'—the island of the Race (of Alderney)—a name corrupted into Rat Island. On it is a fort of some importance. Similar islands, occupied by forts and communicating by causeways, may be seen to the east and west of the northernmost point of Alderney, completing, as far as possible, the defences of those parts of the coast regarded as assailable.
The scenery of the coast, from the Clonque round to Longy, is not either grand or very picturesque. There are some small valleys with a few trees; but for the most part, the aspect of the land is naked and tame. Fort Touraille is an exception; and, from its severe simplicity of outline, it impresses one more with an idea of strength than any other part of the island. It is well placed, the approaches are few, and the intensely hard porphyritic rock on which it is built has been made available on all sides.
From Longy Bay the rest of the south-eastern part of the island, a distance of nearly five miles, offers succession of grand and beautiful examples of cliff scenery. These, however, are only approachable with some little difficulty, by following the line of the cliff and descending from place to place where the ground admits.
There is hardly a single point along this whole coast at which it is possible to reach the sea without incurring greater trouble and risk than the occasion altogether warrants; but, without this, enough may be done to satisfy the lover of the picturesque, however severe and critical his taste may be.
Commencing at Longy, one can ascend the steep cliff to the south by a good road, which continues as far as Fort Essex, where is a very curious little tower, said to be of great antiquity. From this, a rough climb conducts to the Roche Pendante, one of the most magnificent isolated masses of sand-stone rock to be seen. This grand pinnacle rises from a heap of broken fragments of sand-stone, but is itself a part of the cliff. The separation is a narrow gorge, whose walls are absolutely vertical. The rock, having a stratification parallel with that of the cliff, stands—a huge, square block of stone—on a base, whose area is some two or three thousand square feet. It is at least thirty, perhaps forty, feet in height, and there is another similar but smaller block a little below, which again connects with a succession of rocky eminences extending out into the sea.
A noble view is obtained from the rocks at the foot of the Roche Pendante, the sand-stone being seen in a succession of stratified plates, dipping away into the sea, and covering the cliffs as far as the cliffs can be seen. Many inlets occur, and each of them presents peculiar and beautiful features, produced by numerous thinly-bedded grey rocks, coated with lichens, projecting beyond the soil.
Passing on along the slope of the cliff, the grit-stone may be walked on for more than a mile. It then ceases, and is succeeded by deep hollows, alternating with bold, narrow ridges of hard granitic rock, several of the granitic masses extending out to sea, and forming detached islands.
The cliffs are here, without exception, far too steep to render a descent possible; but one can generally perceive the nature of the coast, by going some distance down on the deeply shelving slope, overgrown with broom, heather and grass. At one place a huge arched rock is seen, the light piercing through from the further side. In another, is a small beach, covered with black sand, mixed up with numerous large rounded blocks of granite. Here the rocks descend at once into a deep black pool; there the water is so clear that the rocky bottom is visible from the cliffs above, although their height is nearly 200 feet.
Continuing to work our way round the various inlets, we come again, after a time, to the sand-stone, of which there is a second small patch, quarried near the top of the cliff, and seen reaching the sea.* Afterwards there is nothing but naked and rough granite and porphyry. Wonderfully broken and precipitous are the cliffs thus formed.
Many of them are quite vertical, either to the sea or to very small bays, where the water is seen foaming and boiling in the most extraordinary manner. From one headland to another—round great hollow depressions, where the granite is soft and decomposing—along parts of the cliff where wide cracks at the surface show the possibility of the ground sinking under his feet, the visitor may pick his way, rewarded occasionally by bursts of unexpected grandeur and beauty. The cliffs are often so vertical, that one may look down to the sea rolling in at one's feet, and across a narrow inlet perceive clearly the geological structure of an opposite cliff. There is one spot in particular, where a wall of rock, a couple of hundred feet deep, displays a beautiful olive-coloured porphyry, crossed by great horizontal veins of flesh-coloured feldspar, succeeding one another at intervals down to the sea line.
The scenery of the cliffs varies a good deal, and much of it is almost peculiar to Alderney. In many places depressions of the surface are observable, and one is obliged either to make a wide circuit, or descend a deep hollow. Two or three such scoopings out of the surface are passed on the south-east coast. They correspond to the presence of a peculiarly decomposing rotten material, that alternates with the harder parts of the rock. As there are generally hard walls to these softer hollows, they are often in the highest degree picturesque, for the action of the sea having worn away a deep inlet, the wall of rock on each side allows of the inlet being approached pretty closely without inconvenience.
Up one such hollow the telegraph wire communicating from Portland, through Alderney, to Guernsey and Jersey, has been brought. It is now unfortunately useless, and must remain so, until by taking advantage of late surveys of the Channel, and making a cable adapted to the amount of wear it is likely to undergo, some rational plan is suggested for re-laying the whole line. Certainly, no one acquainted with the Channel, would have expected that the cable, as laid down, could long resist those numerous destructive agencies to which it was sure to be exposed between England and Alderney.
Towards the south-western extremity of the island there is a succession of very bold and grand cliffs, beyond which is a reef of picturesque rocks, some of them of large size. At length we come in sight of Clonque Battery, and the little island beyond, marking the termination of the bold liue of coast. The fragments of a magnificent Druidical monument may be traced on the cliff at this point.
It is the fashion, and has become almost a tradition, to speak of Alderney as a desolate station, offering no single object of interest, and nothing to occupy any rational person for many hours. But those who are capable of appreciating grand, rocky scenery, and who are able to look at it; persons who would regard Wales, Scotland and Switzerland, as worth visiting for themselves, for their wild beauty, and for the sublimity of their scenery, ought not to complain of this remarkable island. Such persons may, beyond a doubt, find along the coast we have been describing, quite as much grandeur and beauty as they have anywhere seen in a day's ramble.
And although there is certainly no extended line of this fine rocky cliff, owing to the smallness of the island, still even a distance of only five miles, where every hundred yards exhibits something worth pausing to admire, will occupy a good deal of time. A considerable drawback exists, owing to the great difficulty, often amounting to impossibility, of getting down safely to the water's edge, and rambling on from point to point, at low tide, as can be done in Sark.
To get to the small beaches a boat is necessary; and it is not often, even in weather apparently fine, that boatmen would be found willing to venture so near the shore as to enable one to visit the beaches, and examine closely the naked rocks and the caverns.