Channel Islands Way
For many people of my generation, the Channel Islands are perhaps best known from the television detective series Bergerac. My fading memories of watching that programme as a teenager were certainly one of the things that motivated me to visit the islands all these years later.
The Channel Islands (or more properly, the English Channel Islands, as opposed to the lesser-known French Channel Islands, or Îles Chausey) lie in a corner of the English Channel, just off the coast of France, within sight of the west coast of Normandy and not far over the horizon from the north coast of Brittany. From largest to smallest, the five main islands are Jersey, Guernsey, Alderney, Sark and Herm, each of which has its own unique character and charm. Each of these has smaller islands or islets nearby, some of which are accessible on foot for part of the tidal cycle, though one must be careful to avoid being cut off by the tide, which in many places can race towards the shore faster than a person can run.
The Channel Islands Way is a relatively new long-distance walk, devised by four local ramblers in 2005. Unlike most long-distance paths, it isn't a single continuous route, but rather is made up of separate circular walks around the five main islands. The Way provides clockwise routes around the coasts of Guernsey, Herm, Sark and Alderney, and an anti-clockwise circumnavigation of Jersey. The circuits of the three smaller islands can be walked in a day, while Guernsey and Jersey will take most walkers 3-4 days each.
As part of Normandy, the islands became dependencies of the English Crown as a consequence of the Norman invasion of England in 1066, when William the Conqueror, who was Duke of Normandy, became the King of England. Despite King John's later loss of most of his territory in Normandy in 1204, the Channel Islands remained loyal to the English Crown and have stayed that way ever since.
Since 1259, the islands have been administered as two self-governing territories: the Bailiwick of Jersey and the Bailiwick of Guernsey, each led by a Bailiff. The Bailiwick of Guernsey also includes Herm, Alderney and Sark, with the last two also having their own parliaments, separate from that of Guernsey. Sark had Europe's last feudal system of government, only adopting democracy in 2008.
The German army invaded the Channel Islands on 30 June 1940 and occupied the islands for almost five years until they were finally liberated on 9 May 1945, a date now celebrated every year as Liberation Day. For the last eleven months of the war the islands were almost totally isolated after the Allies invaded Normandy on D-Day and swept across France, cutting off the German supply lines to the islands. The Channel Islands were the only British territories occupied by Germany during the war. By the summer of 1941, the British had seized air supremacy by winning the Battle of Britain and the German ambitions to invade the British mainland were effectively thwarted.
During the occupation, the Germans used forced and slave labourers, many of them Russian and Crimean prisoners of war, to heavily fortify Jersey, Guernsey and Alderney. More than one million tons of concrete were used to build bunkers, batteries and lookout towers, most of which are still present today, some carefully preserved while others are slowly decaying. Some are open to the public, while others are closed for safety reasons, and a few were sealed at the end of the war and have never been explored since then. Several of the German structures have been turned into museums that tell the story of the occupation and liberation of the Channel Islands.
Today, as British Crown dependencies, the two Bailiwicks are not part of the United Kingdom or the European Union, but the islanders are British citizens, and were thus also EU citizens prior to Brexit. Most of the 170,000 islanders live on Guernsey and Jersey, with less than 3,000 people living on the smaller islands. Guernsey and Jersey each have a large harbour town as their capital — St Peter Port and St Helier, respectively — and these are home to around a third of the total population. Outside of these two towns, the islands are primarily rural, with farmland surrounding most of the inland villages and long stretches of relatively unspoilt coast between the coastal settlements. The major industries on the islands are tourism, agriculture and financial services.
Before I arrived in the Channel Islands I had been expecting a strong French influence, but there turned out to be much less of that than I anticipated. Many of the place names and street names are French, but the culture is predominantly English and aside from a few families on day-trips to Jersey from the French coast, I rarely heard French being spoken. One of the publicans I spoke to told me that the local dialects of French had been overtaken by English in the 19th century and their usage had continued to decline ever since, perhaps accelerated by the influx of British television, radio stations and newspapers in the 20th century.
Nonetheless, I greatly enjoyed my visit to the Channel Islands, which I found to be excellent walking territory, not only for the coastal paths covered by the Channel Islands Way, but also for the many inland walks available on Guernsey and Jersey.