Wednesday, 21 September 2016

The Geography of Alderney – Part 2

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.

The Geography of Alderney – Part 2

Although the coast certainly affords the principal objects of interest in Alderney, there are other not trifling matters on the plateau. The town itself is pretty much what might be expected from the circumstances of its origin and growth. A vast multitude of new, small, plain houses, covers the part looking towards the new harbour. There is nothing either in their design or execution, that requires a single remark. There are few public buildings except the new church, and not one of them exhibits anything but the worst style and most vulgar taste, if we except an Independent chapel, now being built, which is creditable, even elegant.

The new parish church, however, forms a marked exception. Placed unfortunately in a depression, and not on the top of the high ground, the massive early English style selected prevents it from being favourably seen, except from one or two points, not easily reached. Thus its noble and severe proportions, instead of being felt as elements of strength and beauty, as they would have been, had the building occupied a commanding position on so small an island in an open sea, now communicate an opposite impression, and some of the best parts of the design cannot be at all appreciated.

Still it is a remarkable building, and does great credit to its eminent designer, Mr. Gilbert Scott. The walls are of island sand-stone, with quoins of Caen stone—a selection much to be regretted, as this latter stone is eminently ill adapted for outdoor work, in such a climate as that of Alderney. Accordingly, although not constructed more than fifteen years, all the faces of these stones on west and south-west exposures, are scaling and falling away.

Except the doors, which want size and importance, and the windows, which, oven for the style, seem extremely narrow, the exterior of this fine church must be regarded as satisfactory, if we exclude from consideration the unfortunate want of adaptation of the building to its site. Within, few modern churches could be pointed out, which show better taste and feeling for the sacred purpose of their construction. Everything here harmonises, and even the smallness of the windows is not objectionable, so soft and well arranged is the light.

A beautiful circular apse, at the extremity of the choir, forms a proper finish, and is connected with the building by an arch of exquisite proportions. The roof is simple and effective, not at all prominent, rather original and very ingenious, while there reigns throughout a mixture of order and variety that cannot but please the most fastidious taste.

The church is a worthy memorial of the family of Le Mesurier, long the hereditary governors of the island; and was erected, with that intention, by the son of the last of the hereditary governors, Lieut. General Le Mesurier.

An extremely fine portrait and good picture, said to be by Opie, representing this active and energetic officer, is suspended in the Court house. It is a picture, remarkable as well for its drawing as its colouring; evidently true to nature, and rendering, without flattery, the higher qualities of the intellect; and this in a manner rarely seen in English art.

Outside the town, and in the open country, away from the cliff, there is not much in Alderney that is interesting to the general tourist. The geologist will find some remarks that may be worth attention, in the chapter devoted to that subject; and, the antiquarian, if also a geologist, may study to advantage a number of supposed cromlechs, which, in comparatively recent times, seem to have been far more perfect than they now are.

In one part of the island, near Fort Touraille l[ater to be re-named Fort Albert following the death of the Prince Consort] , called les Rockers, a common is strewn with a vast multitude of round blocks of granite. These have not really been water-worn, as might besupposed. Similar blocks exist in great abundance, just below the surface. Those standing alone on the surface are probably in situ; but, where several are near together, especially if arranged in any order or heaped one upon another, they have, perhaps, been removed a short distance.

There are few trees in Alderney, except in the two or three small valleys opening to the sea, on the side facing the Channel. Over the whole of the plateau, the land is naked, and divided into long, narrow strips by a few boundary marks; or, at the most, by low stone fences. Near the edge, the ground is usually uncultivated, and is often not very easy to walk upon, as it slopes rapidly, and terminates abruptly in steep and dangerous cliffs.

Alderney is amply supplied with water, obtained from wells in most parts of the island, and from a few small running streams. The water is of good quality.

From Alderney, towards the west, there extend several groups of islands and rocks, with two intervening channels of moderate width and small depth. About a mile from the south-western part of Alderney, but leaving a safe passage of not more than a few hundred yards, extends a large shoal, from which rise several islands and rocks. This shoal is about two and a-half miles from north-east to south-west, and a mile and a-half wide.


The nearest islands, called the Burhou Islands, are almost flat, and of considerable size. One of them is nearly half a mile in length. They are all uninhabited; but a house has been erected on the largest islet, to shelter fishermen and others, who may be driven to land there by stress of weather. The shape of this land is broken and rather picturesque; and a multitude of small rocks run out, at low water, making the length, at such times, nearly three times as great as at high water.

The passage between Alderney and the Burhou shoal, is called the "Passe au Singe," Anglicised into "the Swinge." It is always dangerous, and often unapproachable; and, in the narrowest part, there is barely ten fathoms of water. It is funnel shaped, widest towards the north-east. The width is least between the Burhou Islands and the rocky bay included in that part of Alderney extending from Mont Torgee to the Clonque.

A second similar range of low islets extends behind. Other rocks are continued, at intervals, until we reach the singular and picturesque islet, called Ortach. This rocky mass, well shown in the engraving at the end of this chapter, from a sketch taken about three miles to the south-east, is about sixty feet in height; and is a striking object from the south, being seen, in clear weather, at a distance of upwards of twelve miles. Towards the south, it goes down vertically into the sea to a depth of sixty or seventy feet; but, on the west side, a ledge of rock runs out from it, at a depth of fourteen feet below low water. Not far from it to the south-east, is a concealed rock, called the " Pierre au Vraic," over which the water dashes and foams incessantly, even in the calmest weather.

Between the Burhou islands and Ortach rock, and the rocks farther westward, there is a passage called the Passe d'Ortach, wider and deeper than the Swinge, but even more dangerous, owing to the peculiar set of the tides. This passage separates the shoal already described from the group of rocks terminating with the Casquets.

The latter rocks are very important, from their position in the Channel. They are nearly midway between England and France; and rise abruptly out of deep water, in the direct line of a ship's course advancing up channel, whether from the Atlantic, the Bay of Biscay, or St. George's Channel.

The Casquets group of rocks is about a mile and a-half in length, from west to east, and about half a mile across. The northern islet, which is of conical form, and bears the light towers, is about 100 feet above high water spring tide; the southern islet is much lower, and flat-topped. They both rise rom a mass of rock uncovered at low water, from which rise six other large rocks. To the east the mass extends for some distance, terminating abruply in a large rock, named Cottette Point.

The light-houses are three in number, each having a catoptric light of the first order, revolving, and eclipsed at intervals of twenty seconds. The height of the lights above high water is 113 feet. The lights are visible at sea to a distance of fifteen miles in clear weather. They are seen perfectly in ordinary weather from the high ground of Guernsey, at a distance of twenty miles. A bell is sounded in foggy weather.

The first effective lights at the Casquets were placed in 1790, preceding which date there had been for about eighty years a partial light, at first merely of burning coals, and afterwards oil lights, in a copper frame. Many wrecks are recorded to have taken place upon them before this time.

In spite of the remarkable and distinctive character of the triple light, a Russian man-of-war was lost on the rocks in the beginning of the present century. The circumstances of the wreck are worthy of note. It is supposed that the ship first made the Casquets in coming up channel, so as to keep two in one, retaining this position till she came abreast of the rock. On then opening the third light the pilot discovered his error, and endeavouring to extricate the ship, actually fell into the destruction that had by accident been avoided.

Several banks, some rocks that occasionally appear above water, and some banks of sunken rocks, rising out of deep water to within a few fathoms of the surface, surround the Casquets. These produce a swell and disturbance of the sea at all times, which render the whole group very difficult and dangerous to approach. A little to the north-east of the eastern rocks are the "Pommier" banks, covered with only three or four fathoms water.

There are two landing-places for boats on the Casquets; but there is rarely a possibility of using them, owing to the incessant swell and frequent breaking of large waves. The two landing-places are hardly ever accessible at the same time. The provisions and oil are supplied monthly from Guernsey; but it is always thought right that three months' provision should be kept on the rock. Fish and lobsters are caught around and on the rocks. Water is saved from the rain in cisterns, and there is or was a small spring.*

About a mile and a-half from the Casquets to the S.S.W., is a singular bank of coarse sand, nearly three and a-half miles in length, by half a mile wide, the top of which is more than ten fathoms below the surface, but is a steep ridge, narrow at the top, and bearing about S.S.E. This is generally described as the Casquets' middle or S.S.W. bank, and there is reason to suppose that this direction may have applied to it at the time of Admiral White's survey, although it is now not only very much smaller in extent, but altogether different in position. This ridge is probably one of the results of the peculiar course of the tides, part of the tidal wave sweeping between Jersey and Guernsey, and so through the Swinge and Ortach passage, while another part coasts the island of Guernsey, passing outside the Casquets.

About five miles due south of the island of Alderney, is a very extensive bank and shoal, measuring about seven miles by two, and covered by only ten feet water at the lowest tides. It lies in a direct line between the Race of Alderney, and the entrance to the great Russel. This is the Banc du Schole. It is shifting and very dangerous, as the sea breaks on all parts of it. It is composed of sand, gravel, and shells. It appears to be broadening.

The projecting line of rock extending from the coast of France, near Cherbourg, to the Casquets, may therefore be regarded as a kind of natural gigantic breakwater, forming the northern arm of the great hay in which the main groups of the Channel Islands are contained.

If the sea-bottom, which is in very few parts so much as twenty fathoms deep, were elevated a hundred and twenty feet, the island of Alderney, the Burhou and Ortach group, and the Casquets, would be connected by low land, and form a narrow island about twelve miles long. The eastern extremity of this island would approach within a few miles the coast of France, and it would range nearly parallel to the south coast of England, between Weymouth and the Isle of Wight. Each extremity would rise three or four hundred feet above the sea level, and a hill of similar elevation would be seen about midway, but with these exceptions the land would be low, irregular, and rocky, not unlike the northern parts of Guernsey and Alderney.

Taking, however, the land at the level at which we now find it, this large island is reduced to a multitude of rocks and a few small islands, the fragments of a more extensive district.

No comments: