Friday, 27 October 2017

Jersey Our Island: Methodists, Mermaids and Music – Part 4

Published in 1950, this is an interesting snapshot of the Island and its customs as it was in the immediate post-war period, and not without humour. Most guide books of the time give the tourist information, or give the impressions of an outsider to the Island, but this is in "inside view", which is rarer.

Jersey Our Island: Methodists, Mermaids and Music – Part 4
by Sidney Bisson

I was more successful with Godfrey's stone circle, which he claims to have been a witches' meeting place. It lies just outside the castle gateway, but even a drunken witch could have drawn a better circle, and I have never heard it suggested that the witches' brew was an intoxicating form of liquor. 

Whatever the stones may be, I doubt if they have any archaeological or necromantic significance. Mrs. Hawkes certainly does not mention them in her comprehensive survey of Jersey's prehistoric monuments.' 1 The Archaeology of the Channel Islands. Vol. II. The Bailiwick of Jersey, by Jacquetta Hawkes. 

In a field bordering the road that leads to L'Etacq I came across another group of stones which seems to be unrecorded by the archaeologists. Though possibly a natural feature, they look for all the world like the remaining uprights of a megalithic structure. Unfortunately the site was overgrown with gorse, and I had to balance the doubtful glory of an archaeological discovery against certain tears and scratches. I might have risked the scratches, but as D. claims all my surplus clothing coupons I took another look at my trousers before venturing among the prickles. Regretfully I decided that they were not nearly ready to be reduced to gardening status, so I passed on.

From near this point a path strikes across Les Landes towards the cliffs, beyond which the huge mass of granite known as the Pinnacle Rock rises a hundred and sixty feet from the sea. Impressive enough as a natural monument, the Pinnacle is doubly interesting by reason of the discoveries that have recently been made at its foot. 

The narrow strip that connects the Pinnacle with the mainland seems a curious place to choose for a habitation, but inhabited it was, and possibly for a very long period judging by the different types of pottery that have been dug up. Two stone ramparts which were uncovered at the same time probably give us the clue. Extending right across the col, they would make a small protected area, with the Pinnacle itself and the steep sides of the col for its other boundaries. 

In times when life was comparatively insecure this must have been billed by prehistoric house agents as a highly desirable and easily defended residence. What is not so clear is the purpose of the rectangular `house' of which the stone foundations lie just outside the enclosure. It looks like Roman work, but as there are no other Roman remains in Jersey with which it might be connected, its purpose must remain a mystery.

At the point where the road from Grosnez turns to go down to L'Etacq I stopped again to admire a view. Not rocky cliffs this time, but the gigantic gentle curve of the west coast. As fat as La Pulente a narrowing belt of silvery sand separates the sea from the land. Then the cliffs start again to form the south-west corner of the island.

This is the area of blown sand. At the L'Etacq end man has controlled it with a network of walls and hedges. Some of the earliest potatoes are grown here, and already they have been dug up and replaced by rows of little sticks. If you look closer you can see that at the foot of each stick is a tiny tomato plant. On a sunny day the heat on the sand is incredible and there is no means of irrigation. You would think that the plants would wither away under these conditions, yet in a couple of months you will come back and find that the first tomatoes are being picked.

At the other end of the bay the sand is not confined to the low coastal plain. It has piled up in the corner up to the level of the 250-foot plateau, and in one place extends a mile and a half inland. There is no cultivation here. In the years between the two great wars man tried to assert his superiority by dotting the narrow plain with little wooden bungalows. Everyone who could afford it, and some who couldn't, had some kind of pied-a-terre along the bay.

Starting as part of the town dweller's urge for a foothold in the country where he could spend a weekend in peace, the movement became so popular that it defeated its own object. St. Ouen's Bay became noisier than the town. Most of the original squatters sold out and started a fresh search for solitude. The newcomers did not want solitude. They wanted to race their motor-bikes and sports cars up and down the beach, to turn on their portable wireless sets and dance, to take off most of their clothes and sun-bathe. That was the only way they could think of to `get away from the neighbours' and shake off the last shreds of Victorian `respectability' which still clung hard to island life.

Today no trace of this hectic relaxation remains. Either for strategic reasons or because they were short of fuel, the Germans pulled down nearly every wooden hut in the bay. Gaiety and ugliness have gone; romance and beauty have returned. One wonders if the present generation still feels the urge to express its desire for freedom in this way. Or is modern life unconventional enough to make this kind of `escape-weekending' unnecessary? 

The boom in holiday camps suggests that perhaps we have not got as far as we thought in ridding ourselves of the inhibitions that caused the bungalow town to flourish. `Mother of Six' still writes indignant complaints to the local paper about young people who `parade the town in scanty garments.' In the next issue `Pro Bono Publico' thunders against those who `spoil our beautiful bays with holiday camps and unsightly huts.' Can't you see, dear `Mother of Six,' that it's because you won't let your children walk about the town in bathing costumes and sunbathe in the front garden that they will want to build an `unsightly hut' when they grow up, where they can enjoy a little freedom away from your over-anxious mind

Shorn of its bungalows, St. Ouen's Bay is one of the most romantic places in the island. Not colourfully and fairily romantic like the north coast, some people find it a desolate and dreary waste. But there is romance of another order that comes when you tramp the hill paths amongst the sand dunes on a day of high winds. You swallow it with great gulps of salty air. It bites into your flesh with particles of blown sand. It shouts aloud. Sounds most uncomfortable e All right. Let's leave it at that. You will probably find it desolate and dreary. 

As a corrective come with me to L'Etacq, where the bus will be waiting to take me home. There used to be two hotels here. The Germans gutted them both. They burrowed under the pyramid of rock that is supposed to give the place its name (though to derive L'Etacq from le tas the heap is not very sound philology) and stuck guns into its sides. They built fortifications on the rocky beach ...

Yet Romance rears its head again in the midst of desolation. It is always somewhere round the corner in Jersey if your eyes are open and your heart attuned. Can you look at the shell of that old cottage without a flutter? Its stone walls and high pitched roof still stand as proudly as on the day in 1743 when some local fisherman first displayed it to his bride. There is no doubt about the date. You can still see it on the lintel with the bride and bridegroom's initials linked by a heart.

1743  FHB ELGL

A lovely custom, this, of perpetuating in stone the date when you first set up housekeeping. You can still find examples of it on many an old granite house in Jersey.

One wonders if FHB and ELGL expected to raise a family. For there is only one living room in the cottage, with a single window, a narrow doorway, and an enormous fireplace.The room at the other end must have been where FHB kept his boat and nets. It has a wide entrance and no window. Was the bride a little disappointed, perhaps, to find that the commemorative stone had been placed over this entrance instead of over the front door?

Across the road a bare-chested Hercules is spreading seaweed on his tiny plot. I ask him if the cottage has a story. No, he knows nothing about it. It has always been there, always been empty, as long as he can remember.

There is no one else to ask, and the bus, with its two other passengers, is waiting. Some day I must remember to ask Godfrey. 

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