Like most people, I suspect, I knew nothing about Guernsey. It was only when I was appointed General Manager of the island’s best loved hotel that I became better informed about the twists and turns of its curious history.
When William the Conqueror defeated Harold in 1066 the Channel Islands, part of the Duchy of Normandy, were transferred to the English Crown. For the next 350 years Guernsey was repeatedly invaded by the French, but for the past 500 years islanders quietly minded their own business, which largely consisted of smuggling, privateering and growing tomatoes.
They received a rude awakening in the summer of 1940. On the 15th of June the British Government, reeling from defeat at Dunkirk, decided the islands could not be defended. The Germans did not know this, and as I look out from the hotel terrace I can see the spot on the quayside where German bombers attacked lorry loads of tomatoes, mistaking them for troop or ammunition carriers. Two days later, on the 30th of June, the Germans accepted the surrender of the inhabitants.
Although the subsequent occupation, which lasted until the 9th of May 1945, was traumatic for the islanders, their story was largely overlooked, dwarfed by larger events on the world’s stage.
However, all this began to change in 2007 with the publication of “The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society”. This modest and unassuming novel is an unlikely candidate for international success, yet it struck a powerful chord with many readers around the world, selling more than 3 million copies to date.
The story begins in January 1946 with writer Juliet Ashton receiving a letter from a stranger, a founding member of the Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society. As their correspondence develops she becomes increasingly intrigued by the remarkable tales of survival during the German occupation, and of a society as extraordinary as its name.
The book itself has had a similar effect on all who have stumbled across it, with many readers eager to find out more. If you are one of them you’ll be delighted to discover that a special interactive map has been created to identify the fictional places mentioned in the book and link them up with the actual locations.
This in turn has encouraged hundreds to visit the island in person and experience for themselves the magic which encouraged Juliet to pay a visit, then settle down for life. You can visit the countless German bunkers, gun batteries and fortifications, as well as their underground hospital and a host of fascinating museums giving a real sense of what life was like in the occupation.
The little chapel that Juliet visited with Dawsey, constructed entirely from fragments of broken crockery, is easy to find, as are the cliff paths, Sausmarez Manor and Candie Gardens. The homes of the main characters, such as Dawsey’s Farm, the home of Sir Andrews, and Ebden Ramsey’s, are fictional, so impossible to pinpoint exactly – however you can identify their locations to within a few hundred yards using the special interactive map. Sausmarez Street is easy enough to locate in St Peter Port, but I am told that the brothel used by German soldiers is long gone!
If you are one of those readers eager to follow in the footsteps of Juliet, Elizabeth, Dawsey, Kit, Eli, Isola and all the other extraordinary characters who wander in and out of this captivating book there’s nowhere better to stay than the Old Government House. Recently voted “Guernsey’s Leading Hotel” at the 2010 World Travel Awards it is very much at the heart of the story, in more ways than one.
As the name suggests it became the official residence of the Governor way back in 1796, becoming the island’s most historic hotel about 150 years later. When the Germans invaded on that fateful day they immediately commandeered it and turned the building into their headquarters. Although no trace of their tenure remains we have created a special “Guernsey Literary Potato Peel Pie Society” package to help readers immerse themselves in the world so vividly evoked in the book. Although this includes a specially themed commemorative Potato Peel Pie dinner guests will be delighted to discover that the islanders, starved for all those years, love nothing better than excellent food!