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An island that’s familiar but different...

Features | Published:

Guernsey Journalist Shaun Shackleton offers an outsider's view of Jersey after returning to the Island for the first time in several years

It had been three years since I’d set foot on our sister isle, and before that, another three again. And once the Liberation had backed into the harbour and I’d made my way down the iron gangplank and through the portholed beige corridor, which has always reminded me of Space 1999, then through the terminus and into the hum of a busy St Helier, I wondered why.

Just like a trip to Herm that never gets past the courtyard of the Mermaid Inn, I’d rarely ever strayed beyond Jersey’s capital.

This time, however, it was going to be different. On this trip I was going to see as much of the Island as two days and my size 12s would allow. I was going to see more of it by foot.

A meander round the town is a good place to immerse yourself in something that is at once familiar, but entirely different. Shops you haven’t seen before, streets you’ve never tripped down, people you’ve never passed. Traffic roars, crowds throng from work and do so at a set speed and direction – no one stalls at knocking-off time. Backstreets hide Chinese and Indian takeaways, a Spanish bar and Eastern European delicatessens, an ironing service piled high with plastic washing baskets, an independent chemist, a printers, the huge art deco cinema, now a pop-up evangelical church, the Freemasons’ lodge – a bombastic, pillared blue building – and the huge, circular pale blue and rust girders of an ancient gasometer rises above the terrace chimneys.

And the market – ironwork painted burgundy, bunting-bedecked, shops, stalls, barbers’, toys, fresh food, fruit and veg stacked high, cafés, bakeries, a fountain – is what every market should be. Busy, bustling and beloved.

And to a room at Hotel de France, three storeys up, in the 200s, with one wall virtual floor-to-ceiling glass, looking over it all. To me, St Helier has the feeling of Leeds, but with narrower roads and lower buildings. More city than town. More England than Channel Island. I hoped that the rest of it was, as I said, familiar but at the same time, something entirely different...

A shuttle bus from the hotel drops guests into town from 8.30 am onwards. On the beginning of my first full day I picked up a two-day pass from the bus station on the Esplanade, just off Liberation Square.

LibertyBus runs a fast and efficient service. It takes only around 20 minutes to get to St Aubin.

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Anchored on the south coast, this was for many centuries Jersey’s main harbour and its fishing fleet was part of the cod trade between the Island and Newfoundland as early as the 16th century.

Protected by its own fort, St Aubin provided a safe haven for all kinds of vessels.

Huge merchants’ houses mingle with smaller, white-painted fishermen’s cottages and give this village the feel of Cornwall crossed with Saint-Suliac on the Rance estuary in Brittany, whose trawlermen also fished off Newfoundland.

After a wander around the shops, for everything from Jersey cheese to local sea salt, take to the steep incline of Mont Arthur, or Ghost Hill, which winds upwards alongside the imposing Somerville Hotel.

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I don’t know how Ghost Hill got its nickname, but all the way up there were ancient stone gateposts and arched doorways in the walls, now filled with granite. Perhaps remnants of what was once stood there.

Rather than walk along Rue de Haut, a footpath wove through a wood filled with pines. Through to the other side, onto Le Chemin de Noirmont, an old campervan was submerged behind a wall. Its roof green with moss, it looked as if it had once belonged to a Newfoundland trawlerman.

The road led to the packed-sand car park of the Old Portelet Inn. Sadly it was way before opening time. A speedboat was the only thing parked there.

A footpath wound its way towards the cliffs of Portelet Bay. This was the first view of what I’d been hoping for. The gorse streaming down the clifftops, turning into pink granite, then the deep turquoise of the sea and, on a tiny islet of rocks, a tower.

Portelet Tower was built by the British in 1808. The rocks are a tidal island called L’Ile au Guerdain. It’s often known as Janvrin’s Tomb, named after a seafarer who, in 1721, was buried there on the authorities’ insistence, after he’d died of the plague.

All around the headland there are swanky apartment complexes and houses that wouldn’t look out of place on Thunderbirds’ Tracy Island.

Me, I’d just settle for the green-painted cabin that’s halfway down, any day.

Realising that I’d strayed from the prescribed route – after spotting the silhouettes of buses and tourists on a clifftop to the east – I set off along the cliff path towards Noirmont Point. Here was Batterie Lothringen, a veritable community of the finest brutalist concrete. The 3rd Battery Naval Artillery Battalion 604 (1941-1945) must have housed dozens of Germans in its network of gun emplacements, bunkers, machine gun posts, searchlight housings, latrines and ammunition stores. German tourists were there, clambering around taking phone photos of the huge grey guns and the black-and-white lighthouse.

I turned and retraced my steps, wondering what it would have been like to be stationed here, so far from Wismar, Kuhlungsborn or Stralsund. Familiar, but entirely different. I didn’t want to leave...

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