Family impressions of Guernsey – French, English, neither or both?
In early June I spent a few days with the family on Guernsey, an island that’s closer to the coast of France than England, yet has been loyal to the British Crown for centuries. We found an island that’s compact and easy to get around, with a culture that is familiar yet with its own special flavour. Here’s what the family thought of Guernsey and the nearby island of Sark…
What Kit (aged 15) thought of Guernsey
Is Guernsey British or French? This is the first question I asked myself as I stepped out of the tiny yellow plane onto the island. The answer, in fact, is neither. And both – let me explain.
Guernsey has been host to human life for thousands of years, many neolithic remains have been discovered on the island and we have old records of it. It was part of Normandy in 1066 when William the Conquerer invaded England and when King John lost Normandy in the thirteenth century, John promised Guernsey autonomy if it stayed British. The island remained British – well sort of.
Guernsey is a crown dependency, meaning it is not part of the United Kingdom but is still subject to the Queen. It has its own currency and even parliament, but Union Jacks still lined the streets for the Diamond Jubilee. There is not just British influence in Guernsey – the street and family names are indisputedly French. Furthermore Guernsey is only 20 miles from France compared to 78 miles from Britain. Until recently the first language of the island was Guernsey French, a strange and wonderful version of the language of France.
So British or French? The truth is Guernsey is a compelling twist of both, embracing the influence and culture of both countries. However, Guernsey maintains a fiercely independent identity, separate from both French and British culture. There are things in Guernsey that you never see in either England or France. So neither. And both.
What Sophie-Anne (aged 17) thought of Guernsey
Guernsey struck me as quite relaxed and this was emphasised by the calm airport environment. A calm airport? Who’d have thought!
The scenery was absolutely beautiful especially because the day we arrived the sun was shining and the water was clear blue. Guernsey is very much alive with wildlife and I soon found myself picking wild flowers to arrange in my hair. Sark was quite surreal as there are no cars and it felt like you were visiting a set of a film about a quaint English village. As a get-away I imagine it’s lovely but I don’t think I’d have liked to stay more than a day as I imagine it can get boring being a teenager there.
Both Sark and Guernsey are British but have French inheritance and it’s odd as both feel particularly French in setting but the people are more English. I wouldn’t recommend visiting Sark or Guernsey in the winter months as on days when it rained, Guernsey was dull and grey compared to when it was sunny and the setting was almost magical. In Guernsey there is a lot on offer and I’m certain you could fine tune your holiday to your family’s need, perhaps some water sports or maybe you’d prefer to explore the museums on the island.
I especially enjoyed cycling around the island of Sark on a beautiful day and admiring the island wildlife and the tranquil feel – doing something active definitely made the sightseeing more interesting. I think the best way to see Sark is sailing around the island and I imagine it’s a yachtsman’s paradise with plenty of coves to explore.
What Guy (aged too old to worry) thought of Guernsey
French road signs, house names and a banner “Dieu Sauve la Raine”. This is odd because I heard no French accent and saw no French flag and Guernsey has been loyal to the English crown since William of Normandy became king in 1066. Sark was different and quirky – we passed a number of attractive hotels and yet it was empty once we cycled towards Little Sark. The glades and wooded areas hide well kept houses but I can’t help wonder why on earth anybody would want to live there with tourists passing your door. Again we found the French names but no French.
We had a superb lunch including lobster, venison and Sark lamb at La Sablonnerie sitting in the sunny, rose-filled garden. The house wine is fabulous and French and all delivered by tractor. I’d definitely like to spend more time here and for choice I’d camp at one of the two camp-sites. I’d have long lazy lunches before settling down under the stars for a long sleep. We found a bay where the crews of two yachts were playing cricket on the beach – that would be a perfect place for a driftwood beach BBQ.
I very much enjoyed the coastal walk from Fermain Bay to Jerbourg Point. The boat trip from Sark was interesting too as you get a real sense of just how remote it is despite being close to the UK and France. The German Occupation Museum is a must. It makes you realise how important was the winning of World War 2 and what the shadow of Hitler meant to the ordinary people of Guernsey.
What Heather (aged forever 40) thought of Guernsey
Before I visited Guernsey I had an image of an island that was pretty and picturesque and a little bit stuck in the past, the kind of place where you might still have a nosalgic buckets-and-spades family holiday untroubled by the less pleasant aspects of modern life. On the first day, we drove around pretty villages with beautifully kept stone farmhouses, decorated with union-jack bunting and the red and yellow cross of the Guernsey flag, put up for the 9 May Liberation day and kept up for the Queen’s Diamond Jubilee.
The coastline reminded me of Cornwall, the coastal path winding around the rocky southern coast line while the northern coast has broader sandy beaches ideal for surfing and swimming. On sunny days, I’d have loved to have tried some kayaking amongst the crab-pot buoys bobbing on the surface of the sea and we enjoyed stopping at the different beach kiosks for a crab sandwich or an ice cream.
Once I’d seen a bit more of the island I realised that there was much more going on below the surface in Guernsey than its picturesque outlook might suggest. The German occupation of the islands during the Second World War made a deep impression and you can’t go far without seeing a concrete bunker or hearing stories of the near starvation that the local people experienced. The French influence is there in the place names and yet I heard little French spoken except by French tourists, or was that a lilt of Guernésiais that I caught a snatch of waiting for the ferry on Sark?
More things to see on Guernsey and Sark
Thanks to Guerney and Sark Tourism for hosting our visit to Guernsey and Sark
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