CHANNEL ISLANDS WAY
Stage 5: Sark
Friday, August 4, 2017
The morning before this walk I departed Guernsey for the island of Sark, my third stop on the Channel Islands Way. The one-hour ferry ride starts out much the same as the trip to Herm had a few days earlier, sailing east across the Little Roussel toward Herm Harbour. Nearing Herm, the ferry bears right, through the passage between Herm and Jethou, then eastwards again across the Great Roussel, rounding the northern tip of Sark and running halfway down the east side of the island to reach the twin harbours at the foot of steep cliffs.
Sark is made up of two steep-sided plateaus, each about 100 metres high: the vaguely diamond-shaped Greater Sark to the north and the triangular Little Sark to the south. These are connected by a narrow isthmus called La Coupée. The small private island of Brecqhou lies just off the western tip of Greater Sark. Greater Sark covers about four and a half square kilometres, while Little Sark is about one square kilometre.
Sark is one of the world's newest democracies, having abandoned feudalism in 2008 after 443 years, though the head of state (the Seigneur) is still an hereditary position. By the mid-1500s, Sark's monastic communities had abandoned the island and pirates had taken over. In 1565, Helier de Carteret was granted the island by Queen Elizabeth I on the condition that he rid the island of pirates and populate it with at least forty armed men loyal to the Crown. The island was duly divided into forty tenements, thirty-five on Greater Sark and five on Little Sark, and a house was built on each of them. The tenements, which still exist, formed the basis of the feudal society.
Aside from the families living on the tenements, most of Sark's permanent population of around 500 live in The Village, which occupies a shallow basin in the middle of Greater Sark, meaning that most residents don't have a view of the sea.
Like Herm, Sark is car-free, with the residents using tractors and horse-drawn vehicles. Many visitors get around the island on bicycles (there are several bicycle hire companies in The Village), but of course I did so on foot.
Almost the entire coastline of Sark is made of steep cliffs, with Greater Sark's outline punctuated by several rocky bays at the bottom of steep paths. The geography of Sark makes it impossible to have a continuous coastal path all the way around the island and there are some lengthy sections of the Channel Islands Way that are out of sight of the clifftops. Despite this minor difficulty, Sark is splendid walking territory.
The circuit of Sark starts on Harbour Hill, which connects Sark's two small harbours with The Village. Before I set out on the walk I made a quick visit to the harbours, which are accessed by short tunnels through the cliffs on either side of an open area at the foot of Harbour Hill. Maseline Harbour (picture 1) on the left is where the ferry from Guernsey arrives, while the more enclosed Creux Harbour (picture 2) on the right shelters yachts and small motorboats.
A short distance up Harbour Hill, a footpath sign on the left points up a few steps to a path that climbs up the valley parallel with the road. At a junction, the Channel Islands Way forks left up steps, climbing out of the valley to emerge on the clifftop above Creux Harbour with a good view of the jumble of rocks that lie just offshore (picture 3).
Near a farmhouse the narrow footpath joins a broader track that heads out between fields before taking a dog-leg to the right. Reaching a signpost where I found about a dozen bicycles stacked up against the hedge, the Way turns left through a wooden gate and heads along the left edge of a field to reach a small dew pond — a clay-lined depression used to collect rainwater for animals.
The coastal path turns right here, but first it's worth bearing left and walking on for a hundred metres to see the Sark Henge perched on the clifftop (picture 4). The circle of nine stones looks quite old but was actually built in 2015 to celebrate the 450th anniversary of Helier de Carteret being granted the fiefdom of Sark.
The site of the henge has good views across Derrible Bay and down the coast to Little Sark (picture 5). After retracing my steps to the dew pond, I found the correct path that descends through the gorse to cross a shallow valley high above the bay. On the other side of the valley the path rises to a junction, where the Way turns right, but there's another worthwhile diversion to the left to walk 300 metres along the narrow ridge of the Hog's Back.
At the end of the Hog's Back an old cannon lies in the grass (picture 6) and there are wonderful views over Derrible Bay to the left (picture 7) and the neighbouring Dixcart Bay to the right (picture 8).
Having returned to the previous path junction, I followed the obvious route inland, soon taking a path along the edge of a field with views toward the southern side of The Village (picture 9).
At the end of the field, the Way turns left along a track then bears right across another track to take a footpath descending into the wooded Dixcart Valley. The path branches left three times before descending close to a stone house, crossing a small stream shortly thereafter and following it downhill. At a fork the coastal route bears right to climb to a clifftop footpath high above Dixcart Bay (picture 10).
The path runs across the slope, set back a little from the cliff edge, before turning inland to pass a young oak tree planted in memory of Major John Geoffrey Appleyard, a British commando who led Operation Basalt, an intelligence-gathering raid on Sark that took place on the night of 3/4 October 1942. Two months after this walk a granite memorial was installed on the Hog's Back, where the commandos made landfall, to mark the 75th anniversary of Operation Basalt.
The path bends right then left to merge into a track that rises gently to turn left around the end of a tall hedge at a redundant stile. After walking along the edge of a field to the right of the hedge, a second stile is crossed and tall ferns and scrub enclose the next stretch of the path until it eventually regains the clifftop above the western side of Dixcart Bay. Now running through bracken outside a series of small fields (picture 11), the path gradually curves to the right to reach a viewpoint where the most iconic view in the Channel Islands awaits.
The eighty metre high ridge of La Coupée (picture 12) provides a ninety metre long causeway between Greater Sark and Little Sark. The ground drops away steeply on both sides and the crossing must have been rather harrowing prior to 1900, when the first railings were added on each side of the original dirt track. The three metre wide concrete road was built in 1945 by German prisoners of war supervised by the Royal Engineers.
Fifty metres back from the viewpoint, the path descends to the road, which runs through a cutting and out onto La Coupée (picture 13). On the east side of the ridge is Convanche Bay, only accessible by boat, while on the west side is the sandy beach of La Grande Greve (picture 14), which can be reached by a long flight of steps that zigzags down the steep side of the ridge.
There's no coastal path on the northern part of Little Sark, so instead the Way follows the road down its centre (picture 15). After just over a kilometre the road runs down the side of La Sablonnerie, the only hotel and restaurant on Little Sark. In front of the restaurant (picture 16), the road forks and I turned left to follow it through the little hamlet surrounding the hotel and back out amongst fields.
The Way turns right through a metal gate, behind which two grassy footpaths head off through the gorse. I took the left branch (signposted for the Venus Pool), which climbs up to the stone chimney one of four abandoned silver and lead mines on Little Sark (picture 17). Sark's mining industry was short-lived, only lasting from 1833 until 1845, and was never profitable.
The path desacends to the clifftops at the southern tip of Little Sark (picture 18), where tucked away out of sight at the base of the cliffs is the Venus Pool, a natural rock pool that is refilled by the sea at high tide. Unfortunately I was visiting close to high tide, so it wasn't safe to scramble all the way down to the pool. The consolation prize was a good view out to the islet of L'Etac (picture 19), an important colony for sea birds.
The path along the clifftop soon runs into the obstacle of Port Gorey (picture 20), an inlet that cuts about 200 metres into the coast, and is forced to climb past the crumbling remains of mining buildings to a stile at the top of the inlet.
The path skirts around the top of Port Gorey and then resumes meandering along the gorse-covered clifftop and around the next headland, from which there's a good view of the island of Herm (picture 21).
The clifftop path soon reaches a kissing gate where the route turns inland, crossing a couple of fields and heading between the buildings of La Duvallerie Farm (picture 22) to return to the junction in front of La Sablonnerie. The Way then follows the road back to La Coupée (picture 23), crosses back over to Greater Sark, and continues up the road.
On the left, a few minutes along the road is Caragh Chocolates (picture 24), which has a cafe in addition to producing a fine range of hand-made chocolates. Several boxes of their product found their way into my luggage before I left Sark.
Continuing along the road (picture 25), the Way passes a turnoff on the right for the Stocks Hotel and a few steps later turns left along a track that follows a post-and-rail fence outside three fields (picture 26) before turning left into the yard of the thatched Beauregard Cottage.
The coastal path takes a track to the right of the cottage, but there is also a track going to the left that offers a diversion of about 400 metres each way to visit the Pilcher Monument (picture 27). The granite obelisk was erected by the widow of London merchant Jeremiah Giles Pilcher who was drowned along with four companions on 19 October 1868 when they attempted to sail a small gig from Sark to Guernsey in bad weather. The monument's position near the clifftop offers good views back to Little Sark (picture 28).
The path from the thatched cottage goes through a wooden gate and turns left, briefly under a short avenue of trees and then on a grassy track leading out onto the Gouliot Headland at Sark's most westerly point. The clifftop here overlooks the island of Brecqhou (picture 29), which is separated from Sark by a narrow channel.
The path turns right to run alongside a bank, going ahead through a gap and emerging between two benches. A sharp right turn takes the path through a metal gate, followed almost immediately by a five-bar wooden gate into a large meadow. The post-and-rail fence is followed along the left edge of the meadow to a second wooden gate, from which a track runs to the left of another post-and-rail fence. Halfway down the track is an old wooden signpost pointing left, but that path only goes down to the foot of the cliffs and is ignored by the coastal route. The gap in the hedge does give a good view along the next stretch of the coast, however, where the pretty bay of Port du Moulin lays beyond the next rocky point (picture 30).
The track turns right to pass a corrugated iron shed and then turns left again, later bearing left between a wooden barn and a steep roofed two-storey cottage. When the track bears right and begins to ascend, a derelict tenement house can be seen across the valley to the left (picture 31).
The track bends right past Le Port a la Jument — a large tenement house that was up for sale at the time of my visit — then proceeds inland on the Rue du Sermon, which soon passes by the Sark Methodist Church (picture 32).
The quiet lane continues inland past the Mon Plaisir Stores, between farmers' fields and along the side of the well-manicured cricket and football ptiches beside the Sark Island Hall (picture 33). At a crossroads, virtually in the centre of the island, the Channel Islands Way turns left along the Rue de la Seigneurie, but first I took a short detour to the right to see St Peter's Church (picture 34). A tall celtic cross stands in front of the church and bears the names of seventeen islanders who did not return from World War I.
The Rue de la Seigneurie heads north, past the front of the Island Hall and alongside the long stone wall of La Seigneurie (picture 35), which as well as being the residence of the Seigneur is also home to a large formal garden, a tearoom and the Isle of Sark Brewing Company, all of which I checked out the day after this walk.
At the end of the road several footpaths fan out across L'Eperquerie, a windswept moorland at the northern end of Sark. The Way takes a path on the left, initially enclosed by head-high scrub until it nears the gorse-covered clifftop, where one can finally see the northern tip of Sark (picture 36) and a little to the right, the island of Alderney is just visible on the horizon.
There's a good view back across Port du Moulin and Brecqhou (picture 37) before the path winds its way through the gorse and down onto the ever-narrowing tip of the island. Beyond a narrow fissure that almost cuts off the end of the headland is one last rocky hump topped by a mantlet half-tower (picture 38), where in the 19th century an unfortunate member of the island's militia had to take refuge after setting up targets for his colleagues to practice their shooting.
The tower is a good vantage point to see La Grune, a rocky islet just off the end of the headland (picture 39) as well as the view down the north-east coast of Sark, where the Way heads next after backtracking along the headland to a fork in the path.
The path forks left and climbs through the gorse to a clearing where an old cannon, cast in the 1790s, overlooks Les Fontaines Bay (picture 41). The trail through the gorse resumes on the other side of the clearing and soon makes two left-hand turns. At the second turn, the Way goes through a narrow gap in the bank on the right to take a narrow path down steps and along the clifftop above Les Fontaines Bay (picture 42). That turn could be easily missed however, and the more obvious path goes through a gap in an ivy-covered stone wall and descends to the Eperquerie Landing at the foot of the cliffs — the main landing point for people and goods before the harbours were built.
About 100 metres along the clifftop the path forks and despite there being a path further along the cliffs the official route of the Channel Islands Way takes the branch on the right, which climbs inland. Near this junction there were several plants bearing colourful flowers that I later identified as bell heather (picture 43).
The uphill path levels out at another junction and the Way turns left to return to the end of the Rue de la Seigneurie. The Way backtracks part of the way down the road to the first lane on the left, which heads for a group of houses. Reaching the houses, the Way turns right onto the Rue du Fort (picture 44), which eventually becomes the Rue Lucas as it enters the north-eastern quarter of The Village.
At a junction by a tall signpost with eight fingers, the Way turns left past a stone cottage, as signposted to Greve de la Ville and Lighthouse. At the next junction, signs stuck to a stone wall indicate a right turn for the same destinations, following a track into La Ville Farm, one of the original forty tenements. The track turns left past the stone tenement house, then right, left and right again as it snakes its way past other houses, eventually reaching a junction where the Way goes straight ahead but a track on the left allows a diversion of about 300 metres each way to a viewpoint overlooking the bay of Greve de la Ville (picture 45). One can also see the top of the Point Robert Lighthouse, but this is a bit disappointing as it's mostly hidden from view and one cannot get any closer to it.
After returning from the viewpoint, the Way continues past a few more houses to turn left at the end of a long stone wall. The track soon turns right then when it turns left a signpost for "Harbour" points along a narrow footpath separated from a large field by a post-and-rail fence. A bull in the field regarded me with polite disinterest as I passed by and disappeared into the trees at the far end of the field where the path descends steps (picture 46) to emerge on the hillside overlooking Maseline Harbour (picture 47).
The last stretch of the path has a few ups and downs before making the final descent to meet Harbour Hill just up from the cafe and storage buildings that serve the twin harbours (picture 48).
The official length of this leg of the Channel Islands Way is 19.4 kilometres, but with the various sightseeing diversions I had made along the way, my GPS reported that I had walked just over 22 kilometres for the day.
Having completing my circuit of Sark I still had time and energy for a little more exploration. After the arduous climb up Harbour Hill to The Village, I walked along the main street and past the Post Office, where the post box is gold rather than the usual red (picture 49). On Mill Lane I discovered that one of the property owners is a Star Wars fan (picture 50) .
At the end of Mill Lane I turned left for the fifteen minute stroll down the road to La Coupée (picture 51), where I hung around for about three-quarters of an hour to watch the sun setting over Guernsey (picture 52). Walking back to the village in the gathering darkness I got a much better view of the (almost) full moon and the Milky Way than I can ever hope to get in the light pollution of my native Brisbane.
After this walk I had two more full days on Sark. The island has plenty of places and paths to explore and I didn't run out of either.
North of the village is La Seigneurie Gardens (picture 53), which easily occupied me for a whole morning. West of La Seigneurie, and bypassed by the Channel Islands Way, the Window in the Rock looks out from the cliff above the rocky bay of Port du Moilin (picture 54). The window is at the end of a tunnel cut through the cliffs for smugglers to hoist contraband up from the shore below.
A path zigzags steeply down to the bay, which has one of the least visited beaches on Sark. It's a particularly good place to visit around low tide, when one can walk through several rock arches (picture 55) and scramble over the rocks for a closeup view of the sea stack of Les Autelets, just to the north of the bay (picture 56).
On the north-east side of Sark another steep path descends the cliff to the rock-strewn beach at Greve de la Ville (picture 57), where quite a few yachts choose to anchor on sunny days.
From the centre of The Village, it's only a little more than ten minute's walk south down the valley to Dixcart Bay (picture 58), where the wide shingle beach (picture 59) is more easily accessible than Sark's other beaches, making it the most popular on the island.
In between times I also made several visits to the Mermaid Tavern, which had beers from the Isle of Sark Brewery and a couple of Guernsey-based breweries.
It wasn't until I was on the ferry back to Guernsey that I got a proper look at the Point Robert Lighthouse (picture 60), which the ferry passes shortly after leaving Maseline Harbour. The lighthouse was built in 1913 and is perched almost seventy metres up the cliff.