A few miles from France and way out of the ordinary

 
 

Worried that the world is turning into one depressingly homogenous and bland global village where local traditions and cultural differences are rapidly disappearing? Escape to the Old Government House on Guernsey, and discover a community where time stands still and eccentricity, parochialism and individuality are still celebrated in their own quiet and unassuming way.

 
Andrew Chantrell

Andrew Chantrell

The great thing about Guernsey (and the even smaller Channel Islands, like Sark) is the fact that life here is almost entirely untouched by events in the wider world. Their most recent claim to fame was the fact that they were occupied in the Second World War by the Nazis. The battle was brief – Stukas dive bombed the harbour at St Peter Port mistaking a few lorry loads of locally grown tomatoes for munitions…and that was about it.

Name one famous person from Guernsey. Even the Belgians do better on that score – they have Tintin, Snowy, Captain Haddock, Professor Calculus… Great writers? Well, Victor Hugo lived here, briefly, writing “Les Miserables” while on the island. The book “The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society” has been a modest success in recent years. The best-known novel by a Guernseyman is The Book of Ebenezer Le Page. Renoir painted a couple of beachscapes on holiday.

The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society

The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society

There have been many spectacular shipwrecks over the years, but these only serve to remind us that people regularly forgot the island was there! The wreck of the “Briseis” on a calm October day in 1937 left the most lasting impression – and mass hangover. The ship was carrying 7,000 casks of Algerian wine. The result, according to the local newspaper, was “amazing scenes of drunkenness, free fights and encounters with the law”.

So, a major part of the island’s appeal is the fact that life here is relatively peaceful. If you don’t believe me, consider two highlights of the local social, cultural and sporting calendar.

On Saturday 30th and Sunday 31st July 2011 is the 7th Torteval Scarecrow Trail. Torteval is one of the 10 parishes on the island. The trail is an easy stroll taking about an hour and a half, with over 60 scarecrows on display. Morris Dancing and an Old Tractor demonstration will also take place, with refreshments and licensed bar available throughout the day.

If this sounds a little too sedate for you and you need more of an adrenalin fix then you’ll just have to take a short boat trip to the neighbouring Island of Sark for the annual sheep racing festival.

This takes place over the weekend of July 22nd to 24th. Friday night is Party Night with live music, including City Limits, from 7 p.m. Saturday starts with the Fancy Dress Parade. The last race is around 4.20 p.m. after which there will be more live music into the evening. Racing continues on Sunday.

If you think Guernsey sounds like a curious little place then Sark will strike you as genuinely wacky. A high point in the island’s recent history occurred in August 1990 when an unemployed French nuclear physicist named André Gardes attempted a singlehanded invasion of Sark, armed with a semi-automatic weapon attempted a single-handed invasion. He put up signs declaring his intention to take over the island the following day at noon. He was arrested while sitting on a bench, changing the gun’s magazine, by the island’s volunteer constable.

Many of the laws, particularly those related to inheritance and the rule of the Seigneur, or feudal ruler, have changed little since they were enacted in 1565 under Queen Elizabeth I. The Seigneur retained the sole right on the island to keep pigeons and was until 2008 the only person allowed to keep an unspayed bitch. In 2008, the latter privilege was abolished supposedly because it did not comply with the European Convention on Human Rights.

Among the old laws of the Channel Islands is the old Norman custom of the Clameur de Haro. Using this legal device, a person can obtain immediate cessation of any action he considers to be an infringement of his rights. At the scene, he must, in front of witnesses, recite the Lord’s Prayer in French and cry out “Haro, Haro, Haro! À mon aide mon Prince, on me fait tort!” (“Haro, Haro, Haro! To my aid, my Prince! I am being wronged!”). It should then be registered with the Greffe Office within 24 hours. All actions against the person must then cease until the matter is heard by the Court. The last Clameur recorded on Sark was raised in June 1970 to prevent the construction of a garden wall.

So, Guernsey and Sark remain delightfully eccentric in a world that is becoming all too bland and predictable. If you’d like to attend either of these unique events then take advantage of our Sheep and Song package or our Scarecrow and Shrew package.