An intriguing mix of military history and sunny beaches gives Tim Hughes plenty to do on the island of Guernsey
"We are free!” screamed the headline, in Guernsey’s Daily Star newspaper. “Food, fuel fags are coming!”
The date is May 9, 1945 – the day after VE day. And while mainland Britain celebrated, 75 miles away in the Channel Islands, victory was especially sweet – ending five years of German occupation.
That legacy of Nazi rule still looms large over Guernsey. Literally. The second largest of the Channel Islands may appear on the map as a speck of rock – not much more than 24 square miles large – but it still resembles a fortress. Among the 18th century flower pot-like loophole towers built to keep on eye out for Napoleon’s men, the cliffs and shoreline bristles with a clutter of bunkers, gun emplacements and fortifications, part of Hitler’s Atlantic Wall, designed to protect the Reich and its possessions from Allied invasion.
Once a symbol of oppression, this jumble of concrete has been preserved – a reminder of an episode which continues to fascinate. Among the most impressive reminder of Guernsey’s wartime past is rugged Torteval – dominated by the sinister slotted concrete Pleinmont Tower – a direction finding tower perched on a rocky headland, which, like the neighbouring Batterie Dollmann and Gun Pit is restored, in the case of the gun pit, with camouflage netting and field gun pointing out at the ocean. It could have been abandoned by the occupying army yesterday.
Among those dedicated to keeping alive the wartime legacy of this most beautiful of the Channel Islands are Paul and Peter Balshaw. Between them, the brothers have amassed a mountain of memorabilia – much of it left behind by the occupiers in the bunkers and tunnels which still honeycomb parts of the island.
Using one of those tunnel complexes, facing a rocky beach and open air bathing pools on the edge of Guernsey’s pretty capital St Peter Port, they have built one of the most eye-popping museums in Europe.
Petit Bot Bay and tower
La Valette Underground Military Museum contains the island’s largest cache of First and Second World War memorabilia – from medals and uniforms to heavy machine guns, small arms and reconstructions of German command posts. One end of the tunnel remains partially excavated – loose rock lying beneath a rough-hewn roof which would have been worked by POWs. It’s a creepy place.
“This stuff was lying around all over the island after the war,” Paul tells me. “It’s a reminder of a dark period in the island’s history and one many people who are not from here still know little about.”
The Balshaw brothers at their La Valette Underground Military Museum
One can take home some of those reminders by picking up a bargain in what must qualify as one of the planet’s quirkiest souvenir shops.
If you’ve ever hankered for an Iron Cross, a British or French army infantry helmet, Red Army cap or a gas mask, this is the place to come. Most interesting of all are the Channel Island coins and Reichsmarks used as currency under occupation.
For a more detailed taste of life under the Nazi jackboot, head to the German Occupation Museum in the heart of the island in what is misleadingly, referred to as The Forest – most of the trees today being part of the thick hedgerows over which peer the island’s eponymous cattle, famed for the richness of their milk.
Field gun, German Occupation Museum
The museum is quirky but fascinating, with whole rooms, and even streets, reconstructed with a canny eye for detail. Most interesting are the newspapers and propaganda sheets distributed by the invaders in a vain attempt to win the islanders’ hearts and minds.
One urges locals to celebrate Hitler’s birthday under the heading “The Fuehrer is 55.” It goes on: “In the fifth year of war, he remains as calm and determined as he was on the first day he was forced to draw the sword by the British.”
Another, under the catchy heading “Orders of the Commandant of the German Forces in Occupation of the Bailiwick of Guernsey Dated the 2nd Day of July, 1940,” lists regulations and threats in the turgid language of the petty bureaucrat – including an order to turn all clocks an hour ahead to match German time and another allowing the use of places of worship – but not to pray for the overthrow of the new regime.
News of liberation, at the German Occupation Museum
St Peter Port itself is a charmingly old-fashioned place, which – traffic aside – feels like England ought to have looked half a century ago. Yet even this quintessentially British town is dominated by fortifications. These though, date not to the 1940s but to the 12th century. Castle Cornet rambles along a rocky headland jutting out from the town’s quay. Within its ramparts sit five museums including displays on the island’s maritime history and own RAF Squadron – 201.
Get there for midday and you’ll catch the Noon Day Gun Ceremony, in which a Napoleonic cannon is fired by castle keepers immaculately dressed in the period uniform of the Guernsey Militia.
Castle Cornet, St Peter Port
At times it can feel like the whole island is a fortress, but between the castles, Martello towers and gun emplacements lie the real charm, and major draw – the beaches.
From tiny sheltered bays in the south, to the broad sweep of sand which runs along the west coast, this is a beach lover’s paradise – Vazon Bay in the north, we discovered, being best for sandcastles; nearby Rocquane Bay for its cup and saucer-shaped castle - Fort Grey; Léree – with its spectacular tidal reach and low tide causeway out to tiny Lihou Island – best for rockpooling; while the stream running across pocket handkerchief Petit Bot Bay in the lush and rugged south, is surely best for building dams.
German navigational tower, Pleinmont
The island may be less than ten miles across in parts, but it feels like a small country – and is more diverse than many fully-fledged nations. The best way to get a handle on all that history, culture and geography is by spending half a day with a guide. Ours, Gill Girard appeared to be something of a local personality – she seemed to know everyone we came across, though on an island of just 60,000 residents that’s perhaps understandable.
“It may be small, but you can never get bored here,” she declared proudly as we made our way along a precipitous clifftop trail, near the island’s craggy south east tip – the bright yellow of tall wild flowers standing out against the blue sea beyond. “If you want tiny beaches and dramatic scenery you can come to this side, but then if you feel like long flat beaches and lovely sunsets, you can hop over to the other side of the island – just a few minutes away.”
Hitting the surf on the island's west coast
Adventurous souls can properly get stuck in to that scenery by taking to the waves in a kayak or by literally throwing themselves in on a coasteering expedition.
For us, though, the most fun came from soaking up the charm, sunshine and creamy Guernsey ice cream on this uniquely quirky, friendly and affordable outpost of the British Isles, with its tantalising mix of the familiar, the foreign and the downright odd.
Further information: go to Visit Guernsey: visitguernsey.com
- Aurigny flights are available from Gatwick, Stansted, Bristol and East Midlands with return Gatwick flights starting from £79.
- Blue Islands flights are available from Southampton and London City with return Southampton flights starting from £78.
- Flybe flights are available from Birmingham, Norwich, Southampton and Exeter with prices starting at £80 return from Birmingham.
- Three-hour Condor ferry crossings from Portsmouth, Poole or Weymouth start from £253 return for a car and four passengers.
Stay: St Pierre Park. Overnight stays start from £111.50 per night including breakfast. Visit: stpierrepark.co.uk call 01481 728282 or email firstname.lastname@example.org
What to do:
- Outdoor Guernsey: Coasteering and kayaking trips cost from £30 per adult and £15 for under-16s and last for 2.5 hours. outdoorguernsey.co.uk or call 01481 267627.
- Guided tours: Gill Girard, Accredited Tour Guide – Public walks start from £7.50 per person and private tours from £120 per half day. Call 01481 252 403 or go to gillgirardtourguide.com. For other guides see guernseyguidedtours.com
- German Occupation Museum: Les Houards, Forest. Open daily until Oct, from 10am-5pm germanoccupationmuseum.co.uk
- La Vallette Underground Military Museum: La Valette St Peter Port, Open until mid-Nov lavalette.tk
German coastal defences, Pleinmont