Friday, 28 July 2017

Beautiful Britain - Guernsey - Part 1

My history for the next few weeks will come from “The Channel Islands” by Joseph E Morris, B.A., published by London, Adam and Charles Black, 1911. It is fascinating because, firstly, it is a guidebook from 1911, depicting a Guernsey before the Great War erupted across Europe, and secondly because it is very much an outsider looking in, and making very personal observations mingled with the history.

Beautiful Britain - Guernsey - Part 1

Jersey, with larger acreage and a bigger population, is content to form a kingdom by itself; Guernsey is fain to ally itself with its immediate neighbour, Sark, and even seek bonds of union with Alderney, twenty miles away. The diversity maintained jealously in these little islands, which an Englishman is too hastily accustomed to regard in a lump, is complex and even amusing. Just a few trivial details must suffice. In Guernsey the toad is altogether unknown, except for some few stuffed specimens in the Guille-Alles Museum; whereas Jersey exhibits an exaggerated species that is supposed to be quite peculiar to itself.

The mole, again, though common in Jersey and Alderney, is unknown in Guernsey, though the last has a field-vole of its own. Guernsey, in fact, is supposed to have become an island at least 4,000 years ago, whilst Jersey was torn asunder from France not more than 3,000 years before Christ.

Guernsey thus received only the Continental fauna that flourished at the period of its final insulation. All the islands, like Iceland, are exempt from poisonous snakes.

In domestic animals, again, the distinction is strongly marked. Jersey has a picturesque cow of its own, mottled white and yellow, placid, and rather big. Guernsey, on the other hand, has a smaller breed of cattle, much more wiry in movement, and a kind of tawny red. Beasts from Guernsey and Alderney are allowed to inter-breed, but the Jersey cattle are looked on as undesirable aliens, and sternly prohibited from the sister State.

In all three instances the cattle are tethered when at pasture, as happens also in some parts of France. The animal, thus driven to forage in a circle, perhaps crops the ground more closely than when free to range at will.

Guernsey, whatever were its merits half-a-hundred years ago, will now, perhaps, be found the dullest of the Channel Islands. Owing to the frenzy for intensive cultivation, the inland parts of the island are now literally covered with glass. Acre after acre of ugly rows of hot-houses have displaced over most of the interior what once were pleasant fields.

Attached to each such settlement is an ugly concrete house, and each has a skeleton iron windmill, for pumping up water, that completes the repellent aspect of the scene.

The writer has travelled over most of the island on foot to explore its twelve old churches, and investigate its coast. Frankly, he is driven to put on record that he found it a dismal task. Features, of course, remain of interest and beauty, if one is willing to walk about in blinkers, and seldom raise one's eyes above the ground.

The old, granite-built farmhouses, standing back, as a rule, but a little from the road, are uncommon, and extremely picturesque. Inland Guernsey, again, possesses one single glory that is almost unknown in Jersey.

Everywhere in the island, commencing even with the very suburbs of St. Peter Port itself, the low, green, sod walls that divide the little fields are covered with millions of saffron primroses. Such a wealth of primroses I have never seen elsewhere-not even in the remotest lanes of the Surrey or Sussex Wealds. How the primrose has survived in such excessive fertility, with so huge a population, and with such bitter cultivation, is a problem easily stated, but not very easily solved. Whether it is likely long to survive is a question one fears to ask.

In Sark, again, the primrose-though here it is no marvel -carpets the ground like daisies on a “wet bird-haunted English lawn "; like daisies, too, in Switzerland, the stalks of the Sark primrose grow to remarkable length. But as soon as we cross to Jersey-and when the writer noted this strong contrast, he crossed directly from Guernsey to Jersey, and almost directly from Jersey to Sark -the primrose is seen no more by thousands in the hedge-side. The only spot where I have noticed it growing in profusion in the larger island was on the prehistoric “Hougue " at Prince's Tower.

St. Peter Port

Guernsey, however, though thus irritatingly spoilt in its interior-for the visitor comes to see beautiful scenery, and not to assist at a horticultural triumph-still possesses in its south coast a feature of distinction that neither recklessness nor greed of money has so far been able to spoil.

It also possesses in St. Peter Port a capital so pleasant, and withal so picturesque, that it makes one desiderate all the more keenly the beautiful environment in which it was once set. Approaching this port in the early morning light, the colour and grouping of the little town seem almost fantastically correct. Surely this more resembles an imaginary sketch than a city actually realized in this commonplace, workaday world.

St. Peter's Church, in the middle of the picture, has just the required outline, and is set in just the right place. The tall, brown houses behind it, with their mellow red roofs, are of just the right colour, and in just the right number. The new church of St. Barnabas is just rightly designed, and is built just exactly where it ought to be built. And lastly, the wooded amphitheatre behind all, with its sprinkling of white villas, is just neither more nor less than such a background ought to be. A composition like this on the drop-scene of a theatre would scarcely surprise us, but here we rub our eyes.

We land ; and the cheerful anticipation of the sea view is hardly hurt at all by contact with actual fact. A pleasanter little town than this, or more full of bustling happiness, is not :readily conceived. Darker aspects no doubt are there, but they do not obtrude on the casual view.

The Parish Church

Castle Cornet, immediately on our left as we approach the harbour, holds much the same position to St. Peter Port as Elizabeth Castle holds to St. Helier. Castle Cornet, indeed, is connected with the mainland by a causeway ; but as a building it is equally uninteresting.

In fact, the only object of antiquarian interest in St. Peter Port is the old parish church, so conspicuous on the quay. This has a central tower, with a good leaded spire, that is luckily not twisted like the leaded spire at Chesterfield. At the side is a small cote for the Sanctus bell, exactly as at Barnstaple, in Devonshire. More frequently these cotes were placed on the east gable of the nave, whilst at Oxenton, in Gloucestershire, the Sanctus bell swings to the present day in a curious little opening high up on the south face of the fifteenth-century tower.

It is possible, too, or even probable, that the curious "low-side" windows-once absurdly called " leper windows "-which generally occur, when they occur at all, towards the south-west corner of the chancel, were used to enable the sanctus bell to be rung through their opening by hand. On the ringing of this bell the passer-by would bow his head in reverential awe, just as the peasants in Millet's picture bow their heads at the ringing of the Angelus. Inside, the chief feature of St. Peter's Church is the strangeness of the nave arcades, the arches of which spring from piers that are only two or three feet high. Notice also the Flamboyant tracery of the windows, so typical of the Channel Islands, and the very striking piscina in the south aisle of the choir.

Victor Hugo's House

Historically the chief interest of Guernsey is comparatively recent, and centres round the residence here of Victor Hugo. After the Coup d'Etat Hugo settled first in Jersey, where he occupied a house in Marine Terrace. But the English Government, which maintained friendly relations with the new French Imperialism, pleased him little better than that of his native land. His conduct, indeed, was as wantonly tactless as that of an earlier fellow-poet.

If Shelley flaunted his tract on the Necessity of Atheism in the face of grave clerical dons at Oxford, Hugo and his comrades were equally reckless when they imagined that la justice or la verite were wronged. Encore un pas," cried this enthusiast bravely, " et l'Angleterre sera une annexe de l'Empire francais, et Jersey un canton de l'arrondissement de Coutances."

The occasion of this outbreak was the banishment of three of his compatriots from the island in 1855. “Et maintenant," thundered the poet in retort, " expulsez nous." " Whether he intended it or not, he was taken at his word. The protest was written on October 17, 1855, and Friday, November 2, 1855, saw the expulsion of the whole band, 33, who had signed the defiant document."

Hugo at once removed to St. Peter Port, and established himself there in Hauteville House. Here he resided from 1855 to 1870, when Sedan rendered possible his return to France, and the house still belongs to his family. To the Guernsey visitor it is now a place of pious pilgrimage, not less than that other old house, in Paris, in the charming Place des Vosges. Much of the furniture and fittings remains almost exactly as he left them fifty years ago, and much is of real historic interest.

Thus a table in the Red Dining-room once belonged to Charles II. of England; whilst a fire-screen was worked by Madame Pompadour, and some bead-work belonged to Queen Christina of Sweden. From the upper windows it is possible to enjoy the same lovely view towards Sark, with Jethou and Herm in the middle distance, that is got from all the upper parts of St. Peter Port-as, for instance, from the grounds of the Priaulx Library, or from the gardens of the Old Government House. Hotel.

It is pleasanter to picture Victor Hugo at Guernsey, writing here his novel, Les Travailleurs de la Mer-the scene of which is laid at Torteval, in the extreme south-west corner of the island-and always looking longingly towards the invisible shores of France, than to dwell on certain other episodes in the history of the island, which, however disagreeable, cannot lightly be put aside.

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