Jersey, the largest Channel Island with just a 100,000 people, is only 9 miles long and 5 miles wide – smaller than the size of Greater London. Jersey has had a mixed rule over the centuries that crossed between the English and the French over time. Traces of both cultures can be seen today on the island – the road names for example all sound distinctly French, while the people and the spoken language are more English. It is also where the state of New Jersey gets its name from. King Charles II gave the then governor of Jersey, George Carteret, a large plot of land in the American colonies for all his help while the king was in exile in Jersey in the 1640s. It was George who then immediately named that plot of land New Jersey, now part of the United States.
The following day, we set off to Elizabeth Castle. This was first the home to a hermit called Helibert who was murdered in 555. It then became an abbey, built by monks to commemorate Helibert in the 12th century (who was made St Helier). Following this, it was transformed into a castle in 1594 by soldiers to protect Jersey against invasion.
An interesting fact I learned – Jersey has one of the largest tidal ranges in the world. At low tide the island nearly doubles in size, resulting in the transformation of turquoise bays to rocky lunar landscapes! It’s a feast for anyone who likes landscapes – the transformation is pretty incredible as the day progresses.
It’s because of this, that the Elizabeth Castle is a 15 minute walk from St Helier at low tide, but at high tide is cut off from the island as the pathway gets covered!
As you explore the grounds of Elizabeth Castle, you’ll soon come across Hermitage Rock – the hideaway of Hermit Helibert. Legend has it that the Belgian hermit Helibert lived on this rock for 15 years off the southern coast of Jersey – looking out for pirates and warning islanders if they approached. Helibert stayed here in isolation, starving and praying in the cold. It felt like one of the houses you’d expect to see in Snow White & the Seven Dwarfs.
Given the rainy, grey weather, there wasn’t a single other soul walking along Plemont Bay at the time. Wandering through the hidden rock pools and caves with only the sounds of the sea somehow is incredibly therapeutic. And when the trek leads you to hidden treasures like a waterfall inside a cave, you forget all about the rain and instead just take in the majesty of the natural landscapes of this tiny little island that seldom falls on many people’s holiday hit lists.
Back on the mainland, it’s hard to miss St Thomas’ Church in St Helier – the largest Catholic Church in the Channel Islands. Originally built in the 19th century for the French community that were fleeing the revolution to the island, today it is the spiritual home of the Jersey’s large Portuguese and Polish communities. It’s also hard not to reflect on Jersey’s fairly painful past (especially during World War II) as you imbibe the calmness surrounding the church. It was the only British territory to be occupied by the German forces. Upon the impending threat of German invasion, the British government decided that the Channel Islands were lower down the strategic priority list of areas to be protected, and so demilitarised the Islands. All those who wished to be evacuated were allowed to travel to England. Given the last minute nature of this decision-making, and the limited time and spaces on vessels departing for the UK, not everyone left Jersey. It wasn’t long before German forces occupied the Islands (summer 1940). A tough several years ensued for the residents of the island as the occupation posed severe restrictions on the island’s people. Several camps were built with the aim of using forced labour to build concrete fortifications, bunkers and air raid shelters. Given the remote nature of these islands, food supplies dwindled and both the residents and occupying forces alike were on the brink of starvation by August 1944. It took months of long-drawn out negotiations before the Red Cross was allowed to bring much needed relief supplies to the island in December that year.
There was no specific effort to regain the Islands back from the occupying forces – the liberation of the islands happened only at the end of the war in May 1945, where the islanders were informed by the German authorities that the war was over. Despite the British Government’s efforts at post-war restoration of the Islands, the Home Secretary’s in-person visit to explain why the UK did not defend them and did not use force to liberate them, and a subsequent royal visit, it did leave me feeling that the Islanders must have been left with a very bitter feeling about the UK. Especially for the generations that lived through World War II – both for those who had to flee their homeland in a rushed evacuation, and those who had to endure life through the occupation.