Guernsey: Island of adventure

Cathy Winston explores Guernsey’s glorious countryside and coast — and delves into an often-forgotten dark chapter in this Channel Isle’s history


St Peter Port (Photo: Visit Guernsey)

Looking up to the cliffs off Guernsey’s south coast, the only sound was the splash of the waves against our kayak and the call of squabbling gulls high above. With the sun shining over this most westerly of the Channel Islands, the only questions disturbing our peace were whether the tide would be high enough to venture into some of the sea caves (not quite) and how wet my trousers would be by the end (very).

It’s this beautiful coast that draws most visitors to Guernsey today — white sand beaches, wildlife including seals, dolphins and puffins, and a thoroughly laid-back vibe. But you soon discover that beyond those very real temptations, Guernsey’s history includes some far less serene chapters.

Even on Petit Bot beach, where our kayaking expedition with Outdoor Guernsey had started, a small 18th-century Martello (or loophole) tower sits at the top of the little cove, one of 15 built to guard against possible attacks by the French – the north coast of Normandy is so close here that my phone intermittently declared that I was in France.

But it’s a more recent chapter of history that left a bigger mark on these islands; the five-year German occupation during the Second World War.

Still often little known to many in the UK — although the popularity of The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society book and film educated many – one of the best places to start is at the German Occupation Museum, a few minutes’ drive from Petit Bot.

A short video provides some background, including on the evacuation of children from the islands, with many expecting to leave for just a few weeks rather than five years. In the remaining rooms, there’s a collection of exhibits, including Nazi uniforms, weapons, insignia and more day-to-day items, as well as a recreation of a wartime street in the island capital, St Peter Port.

Elsewhere, displays focus on individual stories from occupied Guernsey, including those of the brave islanders behind one of the its two underground newspapers, who were betrayed to the authorities and imprisoned, as well as a section on the island’s small number of Jews.

Today a memorial by St Peter Port’s harbour commemorates three women — Marianne Grunfeld, Auguste Spitz and Therese Steiner — who were deported to France in 1942, and murdered at Auschwitz-Birkenau.

Standing by the Guernsey Liberation Monument nearby (itself cleverly designed to cast shadows that point to key moments marked on a wall on Liberation Day, May 9), tour guide Gill Girard revealed that two other Jewish women who avoided registering with the authorities managed to survive.

As she guided us through the pretty streets, hung with bunting for the Liberation Day celebrations, she shared some of her own family’s stories of the evacuation and occupation, along with tales from Guernsey’s long history, dating back to Roman times.

Her grandmother was able to accompany her children, among the 17,000 who left over the course of just a few days. Her grandfather, who intended to follow, missed the last ship and was one of the 25,000 trapped on the island.

Over the course of the five-year occupation, around 15,000 German troops passed through Guernsey, and about 1,000 tunnels, bunkers and gun batteries were built, including an underground hospital. Most astonishing are the gun emplacements, designed to house guns from a First World War Russian dreadnought.

Batterie Mirus is open for public tours, as well as private tours led by guide Amanda Johns, with photos to illustrate the sheer scale of the work involved in its creation — the giant concrete bowl sunk into the hillside, is only the beginning of the battery.

The huge guns are long gone, but you can venture underground into the old barracks, as well as the operational rooms.

On the walls, along with later graffiti, remnants of the German occupation remain – signs reminding the troops to be wary of enemies listening in and, most chilling of all, a swastika topped by the stylised Nazi eagle.

It’s something of a relief to emerge into the sunshine once again, wildflowers waving softly in the breeze. While it’s a chapter of history that should never be forgotten, Guernsey today could hardly be more different than it was in the dark days of occupation.

Some of the island’s loveliest beaches are only a few minutes’ drive from Batterie Mirus, including the long golden stretch of Vazon Bay and the curving white horseshoe of Cobo Bay. I decided to watch hardy swimmers braving spring temperatures from a table at The Rockmount, across the road from the beach, which serves fresh fish alongside inventive vegetarian dishes.

On neighbouring Herm, Shell Beach and Belvoir Beach are equally tempting. The island is only a 20-minute boat ride away with Travel Trident ferries, and small enough to walk around in two hours. Don’t rush though, this is somewhere to grab an ice cream and kick back watching the waves.

The Bailiwick of Guernsey, to give it its correct name, includes several other smaller islands; Alderney, Sark, Jethou, Brecqhou and Lihou, along with Herm and Guernsey itself.

A Crown Dependency – the islands are part of the British Isles but not part of the UK – it has its own laws and parliament, and even its own language — Guernsey French, which derives from old Norman French, which is mostly unintelligible to outsiders, even native French speakers.

We can thank bad King John for this. When he lost control of Normandy back in 1204, the islands – then part of Normandy – were given a choice whether they would like to be French or British.

The islanders chose the latter, but with the proviso that they could have their own laws, resulting in a thriving trade thanks to different rates of duty charged on goods.

Walk around St Peter Port today and you can still see the old merchant’s houses in the streets around the harbour, with huge cellars to store luxury items and wines. British chain stores are dotted here and there, but the streets have French names.

A mural looks down on one of the oldest houses, featuring prominent Guernseymen (and women) such as Nelson’s second in command, an Olympian and the creator of the Wombles.

Even further up the hillside in Candie Gardens sits a statue of Victor Hugo, who took refuge on the island during exile from France, and promptly stayed for 15 years – his house, Hauteville, is just outside the capital and open to visitors.

Our own base for the trip was the luxurious Fermain Valley Hotel, only around a five-minute drive from Hauteville and St Peter Port, although nowhere is very far from anywhere in Guernsey, even with the island’s 35mph speed limit.

Part of the Handpicked Hotels collection, the muted yellows and turquoise accents in the rooms transport you to the beach before you’ve even unpacked, with local scenes depicted in the artwork on the walls and White Company toiletries in the bathroom.

Along with three restaurants, there’s afternoon tea served on the terrace overlooking the sea, and fabulous breakfasts, from French toast and pancakes to egg dishes galore, plus breads, pastries, fruits and cereals at the buffet.

You won’t see all of Guernsey’s attractions if you stay on land though. A day after our ferry trip to Herm, we were back at sea once again (and going rather faster than on our kayaking expedition), on a RIB tour with Island Rib Voyages, to see some of Herm’s wildlife.

We found seals lolling on the rocks, lazily watching us as we cruised past, although not the pod of dolphins which sometimes appears.

Visit between April and June and you can also spy puffins, which make their nests in crevices and cracks in Herm’s sea cliffs – the previous day one had popped out of its burrow just as the boat arrived, although we had less luck.

Cruising back into St Peter Port, I was struck once again that while Guernsey is only an hour’s flight from London, 90 minutes from Manchester, the island’s history and unique blend of French and British influences mean there’s no question you’ve landed somewhere very special.

​Getting There

Flights to Guernsey from London start at £109.98 per person with Aurigny, which also flies direct from Manchester.

Double rooms at Fermain Valley Hotel start at £170 per night B&B.

For more information on the islands, guided tours with Gill Girard and Amanda Johns, and kayaking and boat trips, go to

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