The Channel islands are a group of islands in the English Channel, lying off the northwest coast of France, between Normandy and Brittany. They consist of Jersey, Guernsey, with the islets Herm and Jethou, Alderney, and Sark.
Like the Isle of Man in the Irish Sea, the Channel Islands are nearly independent of Great Britain, to which they owe a merely feudal allegiance and, while one of them has a legislature and laws of its own, the other three are governed together. The legislature consists in each case of a “Royal court,” composed of the chief-justice or bailiff, and twelve jurats these officials, with twelve rectors, twelve constables, and fourteen deputies, form the Parliament. The bailiff presides, and he has the casting vote but the Parliament cannot be assembled without the consent of the lieutenant-governor, a vice-regent appointed and supported by the British crown, who also has the right of veto, though he seldom exercises it. The bailiff and rectors are appointed by the crown for life, and the jurats are elected for life by the rate-payers. They are not required to have legal qualifications, but a butcher, a baker, or an innkeeper, is ineligible.
The Channel Islands are the oldest possessions of the present ruling house of Great Britain, having passed to the English crown through William the Conqueror. When Normandy was regained by France, the islands chose to remain with England, and, though Jersey has been attacked and invaded by the French, the population has remained loyal to England - a fact the more remarkable, since the language used is that of France. The words, “ From the fury of the Normans, good Lord, deliver us!” were added to the Litany, and the stoutest resistance was made to all attacks.
A day’s sail, more or less, according to the state of the weather, down the river Solent from Southampton, past the Isle of Wight, and out upon the ever-turbulent channel, brings the Caskets into view - the fatal reef upon which innumerable lives and vessels have been lost. It was here that Prince William, the only son of King Henry I., was drowned, after whose death the monarch never smiled again. Here a Russian line-of-battle-ship went to pieces and here, also, the English man-of-war Victory was lost with eleven hundred lives. Three lighthouses, a short distance apart, throw out warning rays for the benefit of the mariner, who passes the reef with a shiver as he remembers its dangers.
The sea around the islands bristles with projections of rock, upon which it dashes in the fiercest of white breakers add to these the perils of wily currents, and it will be understood that the safe arrival of the steamer at St. Peter’s Port, Guernsey, is a matter of relief and congratulation.
St. Peter’s Port is the only town of importance on the island, and it contains a population of about sixteen thousand, two-thirds being females, which is the case with the whole population of the islands. It is built on an embankment, rising two hundred feet above the level of the sea, and its steepness has necessitated a curious succession of long stairways, with cross-lanes meeting at the landings, and leading up narrower steps. There are an old and a new town, and while in the old town the houses are almost entirely of granite, in the new town they are stuccoed with tinted cream-color or brown. Unostentatious competence, if not wealth, and good taste, are visible nearly everywhere. Flowers are abundant, and before each house is a well-kept garden.
“Not an unimportant addition to the pleasure a stranger takes in rambling about St. Peter’s Port,” a traveler has written, “is the physical beauty of those he meets. We find here the pure Norman race, the same as that which conquered Britain; but, unlike that, scarcely mixed with Saxon or any other foreign blood. The men have a fresh, ruddy complexion; an honest, frank, good-humored, but manly expression. The women have a skin remarkably fair, delicate, and clear, and features regular, expressive, and often beautiful. If their eyes were only as brilliant and as elegant as those of their sisters of Greece or America, they would present a nearly perfect type of female beauty. And the children are, of course, charming, and even when they run out of the peasant-houses in the remote districts, and beg the passer-by for ‘doubles,’ there is a witchery about them seldom found in beggars elsewhere. But to speak of beggars in Guernsey is almost absurd, for extreme poverty is nearly unknown, while almost every tiller of the land cultivates a patrimony inherited from his ancestors for many centuries, and it is difficult to find evidences of squalor in the island. Even the houses of the peasantry are neatly kept, and a clean lace or cambric curtain hides the lower windows of the humblest cots, while flowers and vines are trained in the window-seat during the winter season.”
The accommodations for visitors are not so comfortable in Guernsey, however, as they are in Jersey, and the coast-scenery is not so varied but “ objects of interest” are common enough, and among others, at St. Peter’s Port, is Hauteville House, the residence of Victor Hugo.
St. Sampson’s is the settlement next in size to St. Peter’s, and is named after a mythical Irish saint of the sixth century. Large quantities of granite are exported from it to England. The church was consecrated in the year 1111, and is the oldest building on the island. Here are many of the localities described in “Toilers of the Sea,” and a day’s rambling is made more interesting by numerous dolmens and cromlechs, which point to the times of the Druids.
Guernsey is triangular in form, and a little over nine miles on its longest side. By far the pleasantest way to see it is afoot, as this will afford an opportunity to study the always-hospitable inhabitants. Seated in a capacious arm-chair before the wide fireplace of one of the little stone cottages, with an old clock drumming out the minutes over the mantel piece, and a mild old dame in a corner knitting socks for her sailor-lad, one easily passes into a dreamy period from which the real, high-pressure life of to-day seems to be a very distant thing. The southern coast is indented by several small but exceedingly beautiful bays, Fermain Bay, Petit Bo, and Moulin-Huet, being among the most noted, presenting a great variety of granitic forms, often almost volcanic in grotesqueness of shape, the cliffs rising sometimes over three hundred feet, often perpendicularly, from silvery beaches of soft white sand at their bases. Wild caverns are hollowed into the sides of the cliffs, and rivulets, under the sylvan coats of many varieties of vines and shrubs, descend from the plateau above to these bays. The stern, precipitous cliffs of Pleinmont afford one of the grandest sea-views in the world. Near the brow of these precipices Victor Hugo has laid some scenes, and on one cliff the old haunted guard-house, which he describes, still stands entirely and pathetically alone.
Jersey is the southernmost of the four islands, twenty miles southwest of Guernsey, forty miles north of Brittany, and about one hundred miles south of England. It contains forty thousand acres of land, including twenty-five thousand acres which are under cultivation. The population is fifty-six thousand, or about two and one-fourth for each acre of cultivated land.
One of the greatest attractions of Jersey is the equability of its climate, the summer rarely being hot or the winter cold. Masses of fuchsias lift their blood-red flowers to a height of four and five feet along the roadways, to which it is a common hedge; large trees of camellia japonica bloom throughout the winter; the araucaria also grows in December, and the geranium is perfectly hardy. Miasma is unknown ; the air is bracing and beneficial to consumptives, and fresh water of excellent purity is remarkably abundant.
The principal town is St. Helier’s, which contains a population of about thirty thousand. The approach is around the southwestern angle of the island, which is pointed with terrible rocks forever white with foam and spray, one of the most forbidding being the Corbière, or Sailors’ Dread, upon which a lighthouse is built. The tide rises forty feet, and in times of storm the waves are of extraordinary height, grandeur, and fury.
St. Helier’s lies on the eastern side of the beautiful bay of St. Aubin’s. The first appearance of the island, with its noble bay, sloping shores, and thickly-wooded heights, profusely studded with villas and cottages, happily unites the attributes of the beautiful and the picturesque. The town itself is very Swiss-like in its aspect, and backed by its lofty stronghold, Fort Regent, which is seen overtopping the houses in all directions, it at once impresses the visitor with a conviction that the elements of novelty are everywhere around him. Fort Regent, which is generally the first object that strikes the eye of the traveler, was begun in 1806, and before its completion cost no less than eight hundred thousand pounds. It has completely thrown into the shade the more ancient and picturesque fort called “Elizabeth Castle,” built on a huge sea-girt rock in the harbor; but an excursion to it which can only be made on foot, by a pebble causeway, at low water - should be certainly undertaken, for the sake of the charming views it affords. The church of St. James and Castle Clary, which stand in the highest part of the town, are very striking and commanding objects. St. Helier’s is about three miles in circumference.
At Gorey, on the eastern coast, is the famous castle of Mount Orgueil, or Montorgueil, perched on a rock two hundred and seventy feet above the level of the sea, and robed in ivy. It was built by Rollo, the grandfather of William the Conqueror, whose escutcheon is still quite distinct over the main entrance to the keep. The crypt under the chapel, and the apartments occupied by Charles II., when he sought an asylum in the islands, are well preserved but the most interesting spot is the dark cell, some six feet by four, in which Prynne, the Puritan, was imprisoned for three years. Among the literary exercises with which the prisoner occupied himself, was the writing of the following rhymed description of the castle:
“Mount Orgueil Castle is a lofty pile,
Within the eastern part of Jersey’s isle;
Seated upon a rock full large and high,
Close by the sea-shore, next to Normandie
Near to a sandy bay where boats do ride,
Within a peere, safe from both wind and tide.”
During the reign of Edward III., the famous Du Guesclin, with an army that included the flower of French chivalry, landed in Jersey, and besieged Mount Orgueil for several months but the castle held out, and the invaders were compelled to retire. Henry VI., during his contest for the throne, solicited French aid against Edward IV., and Count de Mauldrier was offered the Channel Islands in consideration of his services. De Mauldrier seized Mount Orgueil by surprise, and employed every device of kindness to induce the Jerseymen to renounce England. He could never prevail on the inclinations of a people who were enraged to see themselves sold to the French, a nation which they hated insomuch that, in about six years’ time, he could never make himself master of above half the island.”
The view from the walls of the castle commands the coasts of Normandy and Brittany, and gives an idea of the dangers which beset the mariner in these waters. Scylla and Charybdis were very trifling affairs compared with the chevaux-de-frise of rocks under and above water which encircle these islands. If the sailor escapes the Caskets, the labyrinthine snares of the Little Russel are ready to trip him or, if he is sailing for Jersey or St. Malo, the St. Roquier or the Hanways lie in wait for him - or the Paternosters, so terrible that they are thus called, perhaps, because there is nothing left to him who encounters their blows but to say his prayers. Escaping these, he still has the Corbiere or La Couchiere to avoid, and is yet not past dangers, for by no means the least savage yet lie in his path - the Chasseys and the Minquieres, fronting the coast of France many miles like a picket-guard.
The tourist, after visiting Mount Orgueil, should explore in the opposite direction westward, and cross from St. Heliler’s to St. Aubin, which can be done either by boat across the bay, or by a circuitous route over the beach, at low water. St. Aubin, once the chief town in Jersey, is beautifully situated. There one steep, straggling street drops abruptly from an eminence toward the sea. The shores of the bay are sheltered by high cliffs. Between St. Aubin’s and the bay of St. Brelade’s there are many interesting points, including the picturesque Portelet Bay, of which we give an illustration. The traveler Inglis thinks St. Brelade’s one of the most attractive on the island, Boulay Bay is grander; St. Aubin’s nobler; Rozel and Greve-de-Lecq more secluded but on St. Brelade’s the union of the barren, the wild, and the picturesque, is remarkable. “Greve-de-Lecq,” he says, “is not a bay, but a cove; and to my mind realizes the precise meaning of the word—such as I have been used to affix to it when, in perusing the voyages of old navigators, I have read that the vessel put into a deep and sheltered cove, in some uninhabited island, in search of wood and water. Such is Greve-de-Lecq; approached through a narrow and deep valley, of a wild but beautiful aspect; bounded by nearly perpendicular cliffs; and offering alike in form, and situation, and general features, a perfect picture of a solitary island-cove. Here, too, the sea has worn caves among the rocks; and here, on a fine summer evening, when the sun flames up the narrow valley, gilding the broad-leaved fern and the clumps of oak that checker the slopes, and when all is still but the low plash of the little waves, one may linger in the conviction that no island of more distant seas offers a sweeter scene.”
Herm and Jethou are two islets three miles distant from St. Peter’s Port. The former is about a mile and a half long. Only two or three houses are built upon it, but one of these is an hotel, which is much patronized by sportsmen in summer.
Alderney is twenty miles northeast of Guernsey, and is in some respects the least interesting island of the four, though the abrupt descent of its elevated table-land into the sea is somewhat curious. The table-land itself is flat and bare, however, and the town of St. Anne offers few points of interest. On the northwestern side is Braye Harbor, celebrated for the breakwater or needle which the English Government has built as a naval station and harbor of refuge, to compete with the Erench port of Cherbourg, on the opposite shore.
Seven miles from Guernsey is Sark, of which Mr. S. G. W. Benjamin, a trustworthy authority, has said: “It is one of the smallest, most curious, most interesting, most elusive, most desolate, most beautiful, most dangerous, most sublime, of all the Atlantic islands. The old legend-makers, who have sung weird tales of phantom islands, now appearing close at hand, then vanishing like enchantment, must have drawn their inspiration in watching Sark from Guernsey. On some days it is so distinct, and looks so near, that cliff and houses, and even men, can be distinguished with the naked eye also the soft play of light and shade, and color, on the rocks. The next day, should we look in the same direction, we could discern with difficulty the faint, hazy outlines of what seems an island forty miles away. The approach is almost always hazardous, and except in the best weather no boat can land or leave, owing to the maelstrom-like velocity and turbulence of the tides, which rush raging in all directions around the shore, and fill the hollow caves with melancholy dirges, as if for the many wrecked on that merciless coast. Sometimes, even in summer, weeks will pass without the possibility of communicating with the island.”
The cliffs are magnificently colored with brilliant vines and lichens, and are indented by deep caves, in which submarine vegetation and animal life exist in profuse variety. In one place there is a series of natural fissures more than a quarter of a mile long, not crossing the island, but running parallel to its length. The floor of these cañons is a wild chaos of rocks, some fallen from above, some rolled in from the sea. The roof, about fifty feet overhead, is always falling, and becoming converted into rocks and pebbles. The outlet is choked at one time by stones that even the old Druids would hardly have attempted to remove, but the next month the sea may have swept all these away, only to renew the barrier at another time. Colonel Waring says that the destructive action of the waves is constant. In all the little bays by which Sark is surrounded, and which can be approached only in boats, and in calm weather, the falling of cliffs at all seasons is sufficient to compel caution in visiting them. Wherever cultivation is carried too close to the cliffs, fields and fences fall into the sea, and in this way the land is slowly becoming narrowed. The Coupé rock is one of its chief wonders. It is a narrow neck of land, about five feet broad, with a precipitous descent on each side of some three hundred and fifty feet down to the sea.
Sark is about three and a half miles long, and its average breadth is not quite a mile. It is divided into Great and Little Sark - the latter being a small peninsula at the southern end. The island is devoted to agriculture and pasturage and, though it is not generally wooded, and is destitute of streams, it is very pretty. The botany of the island is very similar to that of Guernsey.
Not much is known of the early history of Sark. Unlike the other
islands, it was long held by the French, who took it during the reign of
Edward IV., and it was recaptured during the reign of Queen Mary.
At the time of Elizabeth, Helier de Carteret, of Jersey, falsely
representing Sark to be uninhabited, it was granted to him in fee.
He settled on it as his tenants forty Jersey families, and the present
population is largely formed of their descendants. It is the smallest
state in Europe, having a population of only five hundred and forty-six
persons. Nominally, it belongs to the bailiwick of Guernsey, but
it has, much in the same way that our States have, independent legal existence.
The local government is vested in one assembly, consisting of a seigneur
and his forty tenants. The seigneur must be present at all meetings,
either in person or by deputy, and his approval is necessary to the validity
of all ordinances. He alone receives all tithes, getting the tenth sheaf
of wheat, barley, oats, and peas; also the tenth of wool and lambs. His
tenants, who hold the forty divisions of the island outside of the seigneurie,
or grounds of the seigneur, are tenants by right of birth and purchase
- absolute owners under the laws of the island - but owing certain feudal
obligations to their chief. The holdings are indivisible. No
tenant can sell or in any way dispose of a portion of his property.
He may sell the whole, but in that case one-thirteenth of the price goes
to the seigneur. In case of death, the property all goes to the eldest
son, or, in the absence of Sons, to the eldest daughter, or to the next
heir. The assembly appoints the police force, which consists of two
individuals; and even this force is unnecessary, inasmuch as, though there
is a jail erected, no person has ever been lodged in it since it was built.
The Jersey system of agriculture prevails, and the soil is more fertile
than that of the larger islands. The dairy has little prominence,
and the cows are inferior.