Thursday, 10 November 2016

Islands and Rocks near Guernsey: Herm and Jethou

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.

Islands and Rocks near Guernsey.

The east coast of Guernsey is separated by a narrow channel from a formidable group of rocks and islands, ranging north-east and south-west, and nearly parallel to the main island. This channel is called the Little Russel, and in the narrowest part, opposite Vale Castle, there is not more than seven fathoms water. The whole group of islands and rocks is nearly six miles in length, from the Anfroque to the Ferrieire rocks, and the width is about two miles. It includes Herm and Jethou—both inhabited—Crevichon, with a few other rocks, partially covered with vegetation, and Brehou, on which a small fort has been constructed.

There are some other large detached rocks always above water j many others that are exhibited only during a part of each tide, and a multitude quite as dangerous as these, that never appear at all. One of the most dangerous rocks in the Little Russel is the Roustel, which lies exactly in mid channel, and only shows within two hours of low water.

An area of nearly continuous broken granite, laid bare at low water, extends for about two miles beyond the northern extremity of Herm, the principal island of this group. Except two narrow channels, there is no important break in the rocks, and they connect with a similar group about half a mile wide, projecting beyond the west coast of Herm, looking towards Guernsey. Close to Herm, and forming a tongue at its northern extremity, there is a spit of low, flat land, which extends some distance seawards.


That part of the island of Herm permanently above water, is an irregular oval, measuring about a mile and a-half from south to north, and half as much across. As in Guernsey, the southern and eastern part of the island is high and precipitous, while the western and northern parts are lower and more accessible.

The low grounds of L’Ancresse are represented in Herm by the long stretch of beach already alluded to; but while in Guernsey the sand is entirely quartz, in Herm it consists exclusively of small shells and fragments of shell, ground into a powder by the sea. On the north-eastern side of the island is a small bay, similarly provided with a shell beach.

The summit of Herm is flat. There is a valley at the north end, opening out to the smaller shell beach, and a well-marked through narrow depression on the south side, near Jethou. The central table land is, for the most part, cultivated; but the slopes, especially near the sea, are still wild and covered with coarse, wiry, tufted grass, brambles and gorse. Among them it is difficult to walk. It is possible, however, to make one's way round by the cliffs and scramble down to the rocks at various points, although at the risk of being embayed, should the tide be rising.

The scenery of the coast is remarkable. A beautiful white and black granite rock forms the hard back bone; and may be recognised at intervals, around the coast, sometimes projecting from the ground in jagged pinnacles, sometimes seen in boulders and detached rocks. This granite is intersected by many wide veins, extremely variable in their nature, but generally either soft or readily decaying.

Deep ravines have consequently been cut by the sea at various places, terminating in small caverns; none of which, however, run in very far. Where the vein is decomposing it turns readily into soil; a great thickness of micaceous sand and fine gravel exists at the surface, and the entrances to the caverns are, in these cases, deeply and richly fringed with ferns, whose brilliant metallic green singularly and beautifully contrasts with the peculiar square, hard lines, produced by the parallel walls and straight top of the sides and roof.

But besides these caverns, eaten in by the sea, there is also a noble creux in this little island. The top is about as large as the Pot in Sark, but the depth is less considerable. At the bottom is a tunnel, communicating with the sea. The origin of this creux is clearly to be traced to the action of water from the surface; and is quite unconnected with the sea; although, no doubt, when the water had once made its way downwards and a channel at the bottom was opened, the carrying away of the fallen rubbish greatly facilitated the enlargement of the hole above.

[The word creux (a hollow space), already made use of, is applied in Guernsey to a cavern, hut elsewhere in the Channel Islands it means rather a funnel-shaped depression or shaft, communicating at the bottom with the sea by a kind of tunnel. Occasionally, the walls of this tunnel are broken away.]

Singularly wild and picturesque are the rocky bits to be seen at the back of Herm. Some rocks, now quite detached at half tide, are worn into battlements and pinnacles; blackened, and presenting all the features of a ruined mediaeval castle. Some large, flat expansions of hard, but much weathered rock, afford a kind of irregular pavement, on which those shod with stout boots can walk pleasantly enough, except when it is interrupted by deep fissures with vertical walls, serving as inlets to the sea. Here and there is a Cyclopean mass of ruined masonry, of nature's own construction.

It is in many places almost impossible, or at any rate, very troublesome, lo get down to the sea at the back of Herm; but when the coast is reached, and with a falling tide, a large part may be walked over with only the ordinary difficulties of cliffing, and with more than the ordinary satisfaction derived from doing a difficult thing, owing to the nature of the veins, and the variety of minerals met with in a short space.

The granite of Herm has been quarried to some extent. It is probably sound; but, on the whole, it seems to decompose more rapidly than that of Guernsey. At any rate, parts of it make an excellent soil, which would repay any amount of cultivation.

The land of Herm is in many parts rapidly encroached on by the sea. All round the southern and eastern shores, there is evidence of very recent land slips, and considerable portions of the cliffs are only kept in their places for a time by the roots of brambles and ferns, matted together; or by the grasses which grow on the surface in large tufts. It is quite evident that every season must produce a change, and that the destruction can hardly cease, so long as the island holds together.

The numerous rabbits that abound both here and in the adjacent still smaller island of Jethou, are at once a proof of the decomposability of the granite rock, and a cause of the destruction going on with greater vigour than might otherwise be the case. The rabbits take advantage of the sandy sub-soil, where the granite lias become rotten, and the long holes they burrow tend to weaken the face of the cliff, by facilitating the passage of water.

Nowhere very high, though generally lofty enough to be quite inaccessible, the hills and cliffs of Herm subside towards the north, terminating there, as has been already said, in a broad expanse, covered very deeply with innumerable fragments of shells. It is a curious sight to watch these sands; sometimes a vast solitary blank, without a pebble, a ripple-mark, or a wormcast upon them—one mass of myriads of shelly particles and shells; at other times, during an excursion from Guernsey, peopled by scores of women and children sweeping into their bags this great wealth of cowries and limpets, and separating from the mass before them all that seems most beautiful or valuable.

It is not easy for a stranger to trace the cause of so extensive a shell beach at this particular part of the Channel. There is nothing of the kind elsewhere in the whole group of the Islands, although at Vazon and other bays in Guernsey, and St. Aubin's Bay, St. Ouen's Bay, and elsewhere in Jersey, there are not wanting sands of considerable extent. The shell beach of Herm is quite a different thing from these sands, which are composed of quartz or of pounded granite.

A careful consideration of the course of the tidal wave, and the circumstances under which it passes through the two channels of the Great and Little Russel, will, however, explain this anomaly. While a part of the main wave sweeps towards the north-east through all the channels, that portion which has reached the French coast, being turned backwards, produces a north-westerly wave running along the coast of the Cotentin, and expanding when past the rocks north of Jersey. The north of Herm is the point of land where there would be slack water, from the meeting of these currents a short distance to the north; and a submerged island between this and Herm effectually protects the coast from any eddy that might otherwise disturb the shelly sands once accumulated. The shell sand being lighter, accumulates at the tail of the drift.

There are two farms in Herm both occupied by thriving proprietors. Each farm has a house and several buildings. An indifferent road connects these, and leads from the pier, which only serves as a landing place when the tide is high. At other times, the landing is on the rocks, and is not pleasant for ladies and those unaccustomed to walk over rough boulders, slippery with the water that has recently washed over them.

This island is much visited from Guernsey. During the season of 1861, one of the Herm farmers and fishermen, who is also a boatman, stated that he had himself carried over nearly two thousand persons. Other boatmen from Guernsey, and the steamers, which not infrequently make excursion trips, probably doubled this number of visitors. •

Except, however, for those able to reach the back of the island and scramble among the rocks and round the cliffs, to enjoy the views over Jethou and Sark, there is little that is attractive to the tourist. Indeed the shell beach is to most persons the chief point of interest, and the great attraction of Herm. The view of Guernsey from the landing-place is good, but not equal to that seen in crossing; and the west and north sides of the island, which are those most frequently seen, slope gradually towards the sea, and are less picturesque than the south side.

Traces of copper ore are said to have been found in veins in the granite of Herm; and mining operations were at one time commenced. The chief mineral product of the island is, however, its granite; although, owing to the variable and often decomposing character of the rock, this also has been neglected. No doubt good material might be selected; but the veins of rotten stuff are numerous and large, and there would always be a risk of taking bad with good. It is hardly equal to the best black Guernsey granite for macadamised paving and curb stones.

So long ago as the middle of the fifteenth century, we learn from documents that means were taken for the supply of religious instruction in Herm, proving that the population was at that time very much larger than at present. Even of late years, however, there have been frequent and great fluctuations in this respect, according as at different times the resources of the island have been made use of or neglected. It has recently been leased by a gentleman, who proposes to carry on larger operations than have been undertaken for some years.

The last important works in the island were carried on about thirty years ago.

The owner of the island at that time had entered into a speculation to supply granite, both for building and paving; and for this purpose a harbour and pier were constructed, an iron tramway laid down, houses built, and other conveniences and appliances for a fixed population introduced. Stone was at first extracted in very large blocks, and favourable reports were made of its beauty and quality. After a time, however, the owner disposed of his interests to a company; and shortly afterwards the company was dissolved, the quarries were abandoned, the harbour and pier neglected, and the whole establishment collapsed,—the island being offered for sale without even finding a bidder.

In former times, there would seem to have been much game of various kinds in Herm. Thus, in 1716, an inquest was held "for the discovery of certain persons who had killed stags, roebucks and pheasants, on the island, contrary to the ordinance;" and it is recorded that the last two deer were killed about the year 1773. Rabbits, we have already said, arc common, and the soil is eminently favourable for them.

Small as it is, many hours may be spent with advantage in this island; and its resources are by no means exhausted in a single visit. To see all that it contains of interest, several days would be needed, even without taking into consideration the shell beach, which, to the conchologist, is absolutely inexhaustible. The appearance of the island, at high and low water, is so different, that it would hardly be recognised as the same by an occasional visitor; and to see this difference to advantage involves several visits.

Herm has good fresh water in natural springs, and in two places there is running water. Fresh water may be seen trickling down within some of the quartz veins traversing the granite; and no doubt a supply might be obtained from wells sunk into the solid rock.

There are scarcely any trees in Herm.

There is no military occupation of Herm, as it could be of little value to an enemy. Indeed, the absence of a sufficient landing-place, and of roads of any kind, except between the two farms, would greatly interfere with any attempt to render it available, even if it were not commanded by the guns of Fort George, whose distance, however, is as much as 7000 yards. The whole coast of Herm is exceedingly dangerous at all times.


A narrow passage, of a few hundred yards in width and not very deep, separates the south-western extremity of Herm, at low water, from a singular and very picturesque group of three islets,—one, in the centre, being a round hummock of granite about half a mile in diameter;—the others, much smaller, pinnacles of granite, nearly equidistant from the central rock. Nothing can be more picturesque than the whole group, as seen either from Herm or from a boat approaching that island from Guernsey.

The central rock of these three is not only by far the largest, and covered with vegetation, but boasts of human inhabitants. It is a private estate, partly under cultivation, but chiefly valuable for the rabbits it contains, and the stone of which it consists. There is a tolerable residence upon it with outhouses, besides a small plantation, and several clumps of trees.

The Ferrieres Rocks.

Except towards Herm, the sides of Jethou are precipitous, and without a landing-place. This island is higher than Herm, and looks conical, but the summit is table land, and cultivated. It has a creux corresponding to that on Herm, and the cliffs are fine and bold.

The islets near Jethou, both of which are surmounted by white sea-marks, are not very large, but are, from some points of view, remarkably symmetrical. At certain times of tide they are cut off by water from the central islands. The one towards Guernsey is the larger, and is called Crevichon. It has some vegetable growth upon it, but is too small to be inhabited. There is an old quarry on it, which forms a picturesque object at a little distance.

To the south of Jethou, a number of rocks rise out of comparatively deep water in sharp, jagged, and dangerous pinnacles. These are called the Ferrieres, and are seen in greater or less number, according to the height of the tide, for a distance of about two miles. Between these rocks are dangerous passages. The space they occupy narrows gradually towards the south; and the depth of water around, and often that immediately outside them, is generally nearly twenty fathoms, on the side towards Sark.

On the west side, there are few places in the Little Russel where there is more than fifteen fathoms water, but the rocks are more thickly grouped. The southernmost rock of this group, called the Sardriere, rises out of water upwards of 120 feet deep on three sides, and is curiously connected with the isle of Brecqhou, close to Sark, by two pinnacles of rock rising in the same way,—one to within thirty, and the other to within fifty feet of the surface,—from water 180 feet deep, the distance (about three miles) being divided into three parts by these rocks.

On the other side there is an important bank, less than a mile from Guernsey, intervening between this same rock and the Guernsey high land. The diagram in the last page will give an idea of the state of the sea-bottom at this part of the Channel.

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