The Island and Coast of Guernsey – Part 4
Few scenes, indeed, are more striking than these bays when the peasants, anxious to secure their harvest of weed, are busied either removing it from the rock, turning it over to dry, or stacking it for winter use. The seasons selected for this are spring and autumn; spring, when the intense orange yellow of the gorse is dazzling in its intensity on the hill side; autumn, when the fern is acquiring that rich burnt brown that forms so fine a contrast with the yellow and colder browns of the rocks, and their living coats of lichen.
Rare and difficult studies are here afforded for the genuine artist; studies by which lovers of art for its own sake, and artists who prefer grappling with a difficulty to rendering familiar scenes in a stereotyped manner, will learn much, and may perhaps unlearn yet more.
We have now reached the northern extremity of the island, which not long ago was almost detached, and is in parts little above high water mark. The neck of reclaimed land connecting Guernsey with L'Ancresse, its northern end, is called the "Brave du Val," or more generally the Vale. L'Ancresse is for the most part common land, and consists of granite rock, covered with blown sand. No part of it is high, but the floor of granite rises in hillocks from a few yards to sixty feet.
In the northern part of this higher plateau, and permanently above water, are two or three sandy and rocky bays of some interest. L'Ancresse Bay, and Bordeaux Harbour, are the most extensive, and the latter, close to the Vale Castle, is picturesque. Several old towers and modern forts are placed at intervals along the coast, chiefly on the various headlands, and on the sandy surface of the common are some Druidical remains, in a good state of preservation.
Vale Castle has long ceased to have any other use than as a small barrack, but the exterior is not without a certain amount of picturesque effect, and the view from the slightly raised ground outside is one of the prettiest in Guernsey. The eye takes in at once the wooded scenery of the Vale and the rising ground thence towards the Catel, the town of St. Peter's Port stretching out below in a semicircle, and the coast-view terminating with the harbour and Castle Cornet. Behind this is seen an upper terrace; the high plateau of the south of the island, which rises boldly, and is seen as far as Jerbourg. At one's feet is the harbour of St. Sampson's, with its shipping. Turning round, innumerable rocks are perceived at low water, almost connecting L'Ancresse with Herm; and another totally different, but almost equally picturesque view, is obtained over the northern part of Guernsey.
Bordeaux Harbour is of special interest to the zoologist, as it has yielded many rare and beautiful specimens for the aquarium. There are many rocky pools at low water, and the tide runs out to a great distance.
From various points in the interior, especially on the rising ground near the Fort, and on the road to Catel, views of the northern part of the island are obtained, which are singularly picturesque. Black reefs of rock, both to north-east and northwest, but especially the former, are seen running out like spiders' legs, at low water; and the form of the land, gradually sloping and little interrupted by hills, adds to the effect. In these cases there is a mixture of land and rock scenery, with distant sea and occasional islands, altogether peculiar to Guernsey, and not in any way represented in Jersey.
The valleys, gorges, and glens of Guernsey must now be referred to. Of inland valleys there are few, and they are not very important, though two or three are not unworthy of notice. Thus, behind and not far from St. Martin's church, the little dell, called “Haviland” deserves a visit, for its mixture of wild, rocky hill, with pretty houses, gardens and trees.
In St. Andrew's there is a singularly beautiful valley, to reach which a cross road must be followed, but which can be seen in a drive from the town towards the north-western coast. Perhaps the prettiest of all, however, is at St. Saviour's, seen in going towards Perelle Bay, and exhibiting, at all times of the year, a variety of rich-wooded and cultivated scenery, with picturesque houses and cottages. There are many other very pleasing, quiet, valley scenes, unconnected with the sea; and besides them, are not a few where the distant expanse of water, studded with islands and rocks, lends a peculiar charm to the woodland scenery.
There are several glens of great beauty. First, and most remarkable, is the double glen leading from the bay called Petit Bot. The character of the scenery in both branches is bold, and such as to give an idea of far greater magnitude, both of height and distance, than a reference to actual measurement would warrant. There are hardly any trees; but the forms of the rock are simple and effective. One of the branches, opening from the road near Icart, will remind the traveller strongly of North Wales.
Another, opening from near the Forest church, is yet more Welch. Both are covered with heather and gorse, so that in early spring and late autumn they are luxuriant and brilliant. There is a third narrow way between the other two, through narrow paths overhung with trees.
The glens opening into Fermain Bay are much smaller, but more wooded, and the sea view finer than at Petit Bot. They have been already alluded to. The approach to Moulin Huet is totally different, and introduces a new element, as some small streams here trickle down to the sea, and the paths, often crossed by the little rills, making their way onwards, are enclosed on each side by tall hedges or steep, stony banks. They are called 'water lanes,' and are characteristic of the island.
A rich harvest of ferns, especially of the broad-leaved harts tongue,—innumerable brambles meeting overhead, and loaded with fruit in the autumn,—a carpet of flowers in the spring;— these are beauties that the reader may say are neither confined to water lanes nor to the island of Guernsey; but they are very pleasing and charming in the narrow winding path leading to Moulin Huet, with its stream of pure water sparkling through the middle, and the granite here and there showing itself in a small quarry.
Some way down—for the lane descends rapidly— the view opens out towards the sea, revealing several pointed pinnacles of rock, with the beach below, and a charming little gorge, with a few ruined houses and sheds in the middle distance. Words do not fitly describe scenes of this kind; but they may be worth something if they remind those who are familiar with such scenes of thoughts and feelings they have suggested, or help the stranger to become acquainted with what he might otherwise pass by. The real source of the beauty of this spot lies, no doubt, in the ever-changing effects at all times and seasons; the freshness and life derived from the running stream; and the exquisite and sudden shifting of the scene, by the occasional introduction of the sea, with its numerous rocks and islets, and the enclosing cliff.
Rivers in Guernsey there are none; nor is there a stream of any kind that boasts of a name. Such natural drainage as there is, follows the fall of the land, branching off to the sea on the north-western and north-eastern shores. There are a few ponds, but no other waters on the surface. Little rills trickle down most of the glens and gorges to the sea.
The properties in Guernsey are for the most part very small; and there are hardly any estates large enough to render park scenery possible. The orchards, also, which in Jersey may be said to replace parks, arc not very numerous. Still there is a fair share of wooded scenery, the trees being small but much less stunted and much more regularly grown than might be expected. The best gardens are almost everywhere enclosed, and hardly can be said to add to the beauty of that part of the island seen by the tourist. They may, however, be easily visited by strangers; and many of them are extremely beautiful and remarkable for the variety of foreign trees and shrubs, rare in England, but here growing luxuriantly, without risk of frost and cold.
The garden of the lieutenant-bailiff (Valnor) is that which contains the richest variety of foreign shrubs and trees. These have been planted with great taste and perfect success, and will be again alluded to in the chapter on horticulture.
The churches of the island are not unpicturesque at a distance, although almost all have lost the stone tracery of the windows, and have been greatly neglected. Most of them have low spires; but St. Saviour's and St. Peter's-in-the-wood have towers. There are some interesting morsels of Norman work in some of the doorways, especially the Vale and St. Martin's.
The interiors of all the parish churches have vaulted roofs, but they are very badly pewed. There are some modern district churches; but Cobo is the only one that has the smallest pretensions to architectural beauty or good taste. Torteval is frightful; but is hardly worse than the district church of St. James', in the town of St. Peter's Port.
Of the houses, there are few that require much notice. Most of the principal mansions and manor houses, whether old or new, are placed so as to exclude a sea view, and built so as to take as little advantage as possible of any natural beauty in the vicinity.
Saumarez manor house, formerly occupied by the family of that name, and the Haye du puits, belonging to the Le Marchant family, are good examples of manor houses thus placed. Woodlands is prettily placed; and St. George is surrounded by grounds that have more of the character of an English park than is usual in the island. There are two or three good houses near the Catel church, but they are all remarkable for the absence of any extensive sea view. Haviland house is large, and somewhat in the style of an Indian bungalow; but the situation is very bad.
Of modern houses, the Vallon at St. Martin's is a quaint but picturesque house, placed at the head of one of the branches of the valley opening down to Moulin Huet. The view from the house, gardens and grounds, are chiefly confined to the richly-wooded dell in which they are placed; the sea here, as is generally the case in Guernsey, is carefully shut out. Still, there are few prettier places of its kind.
The house called Bon Air, on the St. Martin's road, has already been alluded to. The grounds behind are wooded, and the hill-sides are covered with furze and brambles. Perhaps there is no position in the whole island that excels this, in the exquisite intermingling of land and water scenery characteristic of Guernsey. Fine views are obtained from the windows of the house as well as from the grounds.
Many houses in and near the town are well placed for a sea view; but few of them combine wood with water. The house called Candie, the residence of the present bailiff; Castle Carey, at present the Government house; and the adjacent residences, Les Coutils and Beau Sejour,—are all placed so as to look upon the sea and on the numerous islands to the east. Candie is remarkable for a gigantic myrtle on the wall of the house, facing the road. In the garden are noble magnolias and orange trees, growing unsheltered in the open air, on which annually ripen thousands of fruit. At Beau Sejour are three almost fabulous camellia trees.
The military defences of Guernsey are on a large scale, and important. A cordon of detached forts, connected for the most part with barracks, has been placed round those parts of the island where the cliffs are low enough to offer no difficulties to an enemy's approach; and there is one strong and large fortress (Fort George), mounting a large number of heavy guns, and tenable from the land for about thirty days. This fort, like that at Alderney, could only be taken by a large attacking force, provided with siege train, and by an enemy having command of the Channel.
The main security, however, both of Alderney and Guernsey, is derived from the extreme variety arid complexity of the currents, the great range of the tide, and the multitude of rocks and shoals that beset the passages by which ships must approach. The island thus possesses the defensive strength of the porcupine and hedgehog, if not the massive proportions of the lion and elephant.
Cornet Castle, though formerly important, has ceased to be of much value, except against small attacks; and the rock of Brehou, between Vale Castle and Herm, although mounted with heavy guns, could hardly be used against an enemy. Vale Castle is now only a barrack.
Many of the farm houses throughout the island are interesting; partly from their antiquity, and partly for historiettes connected with them. Most of them have good doorways with semicircular granite arches that have stood without the slightest injury for many centuries. A pretty sketch of one of these very characteristic doorways forms a tail-piece to this chapter. These houses are placed generally in sheltered positions away from the sea.
The roads of the island are now excellent, and reach to every part. They are, however, a very recent innovation, and are due to the exertions of one of the governors, Sir John Doyle. Less than fifty years ago, in a speech in which he urged the inhabitants to submit to the somewhat heavy tax necessary to construct, systematically, a good net-work of roads throughout the island, it was politic to submit such remarks as the following :—
"One should think that in the nineteenth century, it would not be necessary to use many arguments to prove the utility of good public roads of communication. In this respect, we are two hundred years behind the rest of civilized Europe “
"It will be acknowledged that nothing is more conducive to health than exercise. In this country, if a man wishes thus to benefit his health, he must do it at the risk of his life. If the wife or daughter of a gentleman here is ill from the want of exercise, she is immediately ordered to England, at the risk of the sea—at the risk of the enemy, and at a considerable expense; and the husband, or father, must separate from her, or give up his business."
The roads since constructed were admirably designed, and have been well executed. They enable the visitor to drive round the island and cross it in every direction; but they are not formal, and they neither seek nor altogether avoid differences of level. Where they proceed along the coast, near the sea, as from Pezerie to Grande Havre there is generally a sea wall defending the road, and except where the trees are allowed to overhang them, the water runs off within a very short time after rain. Not only have the roads been originally well made, but they are also kept in good condition, so that little is to be desired in this respect.