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.
Sark – Part 1
With the exception of the two dangerous rocks just alluded to, Sark is separated from the Herm group of islands and rocks by a tolerably wide and open passage, with from twenty-five to thirty fathoms of water, called the Great Russell. Although, however, it is usual to speak of Sark as one island, it is like the others, a group of islands, islets, and rocks, of which the number is very considerable. In describing it here, we allude first to the group, and afterwards to the largest and most important member of it.
Great Sark and Little Sark form one connected island, the connecting link being a natural causeway, at an elevation of nearly 300 feet above the sea. Beyond Great Sark to the north, and Little Sark to the south, are a number of islets, which we may regard as recently detached, and several islets and rocks, separated at a more ancient date, and much lower and smaller.
On both the cast and west sides are other and much more important pieces of land; one, the island of Brechou (Brechou, or Brek'hou: the islet of the gap or breach (Ircche, Swiss French, or breke, old Dutch)., looking towards Guernsey; the other, the " Burons," a number of islets on the east side.
Rocks appear at intervals nearly three miles beyond the Sark coast on the east, after which there is a clear space, the depth being at first thirty fathoms, and then gradually shoaling to the French coast. The distance of Sark from France is about twenty-four miles.
Great Sark is rather more than two miles (4,100 yards) in length, from north to south, and Little Sark rather less than a mile. Including both islands, and the rocks beyond, the total length of the group is about five miles. The greatest width of land in the principal island is about 3,000 yards; but, including Brechou and the Burons, it amounts to fully three miles.
From St. Martin's Point in Guernsey, the distance to Little Sark is about seven miles, and from Belgrave Bay to the detached rock at the northern extremity of Great Sark, is about eight miles. The whole island somewhat resembles the figure 8; but the upper part of the figure should be much larger than the lower part. Its outline is, in fact, a double loop; the two loops of different sizes, connected by a short line.
Both Great and Little Sark are table lands, and their elevation above the sea is upwards of 350 feet..* The ground sinks towards the south, but is everywhere surrounded by lofty perpendicular cliffs.
The island of Brechou is about 1,200 yards in length from east to west, and about 250 yards wide. It rises at least 150 feet above the sea. The Burons are much smaller, and lower.
The coasts of Sark, both Great and Little, and of the island of Brechou, are broken into numerous small coves, with sandy, shingly, or rocky beaches. Not one of these, however, in either island, communicates naturally and conveniently with the table land above, and not one is approachable by boats, except when the weather is favourable. No boat can put off from any part of either island during the severe gales that are so frequent in these seas.
By recent measurements the highest point of Sark is determined to be 305 feet above mean tide.
The wild scenery of the vertical wall of rock which surrounds Sark, is wonderfully enhanced in beauty and picturesque effect by the caverns with which it is everywhere penetrated, and the huge isolated masses of rock, often pierced with large natural vaults or tunnels, that form a kind of advanced guard in every direction, appearing to repel for a time the action of the waves, but really only serving as proofs of the destruction thus caused. Nowhere can the destroying power of the sea be better studied than in the grand scenes presented at every point round this remarkable island.
Detached portions of the main island, others nearly detached, and only connected by natural bridges or narrow necks of land, huge vaults through which the sea dashes at all times, or into which it penetrates only at high water, fragments of rock of all dimensions, some jagged and recently broken, some—and these the hardest and toughest— rounded and smooth, vast piles of smaller rocks heaped around: all these offer abundant illustrations of nature's course when the elements meet on the battle field of an exposed coast, the tidal wave undermining and tearing asunder even the hardest porphyries and granites, however they may seem to present a bold front, and bear the reputation of being indestructible.
The small bays, detached rocks, and pierced rocks and caverns, are the chief objects of interest in Sark; and they are so not only to the lover of the picturesque, and to the artist who dares undertake to represent what many will deem unnatural, but also to the naturalist in all departments. The geologist will here find many interesting studies in the alternation of almost stratified granite with masses of greenstone, serpentine and actynolite, traversed by numerous veins and fissures, filled with soft clay, coloured by iron and manganese, or occupied by some of the infinite varieties of the rock once called trap.
Many beautiful and interesting minerals may also be obtained, and much may be learnt as to the way in which these minerals were formed. The botanist will not, perhaps, discover many new plants; but there are known kinds under peculiar conditions of growth, for the climate is singularly favourable to certain kinds of vegetation, owing to its average temperature and constant moisture, without much cold.
But chiefly will the lover of marine zoology be rewarded for the trouble of visiting this spot. Nowhere in Europe, under the most favourable circumstances, can so great a wealth of animal life be found within a small space as in some of the Sark caverns. These are as remarkable for their extraordinary grandeur and beauty, as for the singular multitude and variety of the zoophytes they contain. A detailed account of the animal productions belongs to another chapter, and the exact spot of their occurrence will presently be described; but no account of Sark could be in any way complete without a reference to this source of interesting investigation.
The ordinary and best landing-place in Sark is called the Creux; but before attempting a description of it, let us first attempt to give the reader a general idea of the coast scenery of the whole island. Approaching the island from the south, we first reach and pass a small island called Le Tas, near which are some fine detached rocks on the shore, and a large cave. The name alludes to the form of the rock, viz.:—Tas, a heap, such as is made with hay or corn.
Beyond this, to the east, small recesses are seen in the vertical cliff; one of them clothed with green to the water's edge, at a point where a narrow opening conducts to a kind of large open funnel, called the Pot. With some little difficulty this can be descended from the top, and the fringe of ferns and other plants around it, with the curious appearance of the opening seen from below, render it well worthy of a visit.
Past the Pot is another smaller bay, with caverns, to which there is no land access; and then comes a third bay, with a pebble beach, immediately below the eastern and most perpendicular side of the celebrated Coupee, the narrow neck connecting Great and Little Sark. After this is an exceedingly broken and wild larger bay, in which are many caverns and large rocks, entirely pierced through. The shore here, as indeed everywhere, is covered with large, angular and rolled rocks. This is Dixcart Bay, and towards it a very pretty valley comes down from the interior of the island. The valley, however, terminates at a steep cliff.
There then succeed two singular points of land, the Point du Chateau, connecting which with the interior is a curious ridge called the Hog's Back, and the Point du Derrible. The latter headland is separated from the cliffs by a nearly vertical gap, but not by a sea passage.
This headland and the Creux are generally spoken of and described as Point Terrible and the Creux Terrible. There is, however, no doubt that the word Terrible is a corruption of Derrible, an old French word, signifying a fallen mass of rock.
A comparatively narrow inlet, enclosed by these two headlands, terminates in a fine rocky bay, within which are many caverns, and also the entries to one of those curious funnel shaped openings called creux, of which the Pot in Little Sark, and several others round the coast, are less perfect examples.
The "Creux du Derrible," as this is called, is a large, natural shaft or chimney, communicating below with the sea, and opening above into a field. It resembles the shaft of a mine, and a wild growth of brambles and furze surrounds the opening, one side of which is much lower than the other. To look down requires a steady head, for the walls are absolutely vertical, and only overgrown with vegetation round the outer rim, where a small earthen wall has been built to keep off stragglers. There is, however, little real danger.
At high water the sea rushes in below by two large entrances; one wave following another with a rapidity and force only possible where the water has but a few hours to rise thirty or forty feet into a funnel-shaped landlocked bay. The white foam of the angry water rises high in the cave, and is said in former times, when the entrance was narrower, to have splashed up nearly to the top during severe storms. The roar of the waves, and the disturbance caused by the rolling of the pebbles and boulders over the floor, reverberates in the shaft. Such is the Creux du Derrible at high water, and then a nearer view is impossible.
But it may be visited under other circumstances. It is possible, though not very easy, to make a descent by a narrow winding path, overgrown with ivy, to the brink of a cliff, down which, by the help of some iron rings fastened in the rock, one can reach the bay, into which, at the further extremity, the Creux opens. A wild rocky beach, covered with boulders, being crossed, we reach a yawning cavern, having a somewhat regular entry. It is one of two natural tunnels, about 100 feet long, that lead to an amphitheatre, having an oval floor, covered with pebbles, about 100 feet in length by fifty feet across.
Within the amphitheatre the walls of naked rock rise 150 feet or more in height, and are quite perpendicular. The colour of the rock varies. At the furthest extremity from the sea is a vein of rich, reddish brown, clayey material; but around, and on the floor, are several kinds of granite, and much hard stratified schistose rock is seen.
The variety of colour, arising partly from the different weathering of the rock, and partly from lichens, is very striking. The stillness, broken only by the waves as they break over the pebbles; the blue sky or fleecy clouds seen through the opening above; the bright, sharply-defined rocks of the Point du Derrible visible through one of the entrances, and a part of Jersey through the other; a little overhanging vegetation at the top, and the rolled pebbles of the floor: these form together a scene rarely approached in majesty and picturesque beauty.
Beyond the entrances to the Creux, the wet rocks, covered with sea-weed, may safely be crossed during a receding tide, and another small bay is then entered, in which is a vast detached rock, pierced with a natural arch, while beyond this again is another detached mass—a group of pinnacles, somewhat resembling one of the Autelets,* which is, however, in so insecure a state, that it may perhaps be washed away, or at any rate greatly modified, before another season arrives. Woe to the unhappy tourist who is found here after the tide begins to rise. Without climbing over a mass of steep, jagged rock, he will be cut off from the open bay of the Creux; and should he succeed in reaching this, he may still miss the approach to the ascent and be kept on the beach for some hours.
Between d'lxcart Bay and the Creux harbour, one can find rough paths along the cliffs, which afford many admirable points of view.
[The Autelets, or small altars, are detached pinnacles on the other side of the island, well known to all visitors to Sark. They will be described further on, and a view of them is given in Chapter XI., in the account of the modern geology of the islands. Like Jerbourg and other places in Guernsey, these promontories were, no doubt, rendered defensible against the chance attacks of pirates.]
From the Hog's back, a long, narrow ridge of hard rock, formerly a place of refuge, and now marked by a tower, one is enabled to see not only d'lxcart Bay, but Little Sark and the outline of the peculiar jagged depression over which the Coupee road passes, revealing the true nature of that curious isthmus, and justifying the name given to it. The castellated rocks of the Point du Derrible, and the noble form of the extremity of that jutting, rocky mass, are also here seen to great advantage.
From one part of the cliffs, beyond the Point du Derrible, a descent conducts us to a fisherman's cove, just opposite the Creux harbour, sheltered by a small, rocky island, but not connected with any bay. The singular form and picturesque outline of the Burons is here well seen, although their number cannot be made out; and they rather resemble a few large islands than a group of rocks entirely detached at high water.
The Creux harbour is one of the most curious of the Sark wonders. It is very small, and sheltered with a little breakwater, leaving an entry only just wide enough for a small boat.
Even within the breakwater, however, the boats are not secure in rough weather, without being drawn up to the highest point and made fast by ropes and chains. From the breakwater there is no appearance of a practicable road into the island, and no apparent path up the steep and lofty cliff. We must enter before seeing the gloomy tunnel that alone gives access to the road.
So singularly concealed, however, is the approach, that the Lords of the Admiralty, on a very recent occasion, arriving at Sark on their tour of inspection, and intending to land, actually did land on this breakwater; and there being no human being in sight, and no one knowing the state of the case, or seeing the tunnel, their lordships gave up the task as hopeless, and returned on hoard in search of less difficult landing-places, and better known, if less picturesque, spots.
The following account of this curious harbour is from an old brochure, published in London in 1673, entitled, "News from the Channel; or the discovery and perfect Description of the Island of Serke, by a Gentleman now inhabiting there, to his friend and kinsman in London."
"Two only ascents or passages there are into it: the first, where all goods and commodities are received, called La Soguien (the Creux harbour), where, for a large space through a solid rock, there is a cartway cut by art down to the sea, with two strong gates for its defence, wherein most of the storeage for navigation, as masts, sails, anchors, &c., belonging to the island, are kept, and two pieces of ordnance above, always ready planted to prevent any surprise.
The other is La Frickeree (no doubt the Havre Gossclin), where only passengers can land, climbing up a rock by certain steps or stairs, cut therein to a vast height and somewhat dangerously. Nor is it possible then for above one person to come up at once."
A pretty valley, wider than' Baker's valley, but not quite so picturesque or well wooded, opens to the back of the tunnel, and so communicates with the harbour. A road also passes through this valley to the table land above.
It is curious that neither this nor Baker's valley open quite down to the sea, both terminating in a precipitous, though not lofty cliff. Until the tunnel was bored, and made the direct road, the Epercherie * was the chief landing-place.
From the Creux harbour, and from the hill above, very beautiful views of the Burons arc obtained, altogether different from those before described. All the rocks are now perceived, with the passages between them, and they look small and almost grotesque. To the left is another corresponding group of rocks, projecting beyond the southern arm of the bay, called the Greve de la Ville; and as there is a small intermediate inlet, the view is symmetrical and exceedingly picturesque.
* Esperquerie—the harvest of dried fish, from perques, the perches or poles on which tho fish was hung up to dry. The name thus derived is now applied to the place where the drying was carried on.