by Lesley Bellew
From windswept cliffs and ghostly tales to gorgeous gardens, Lesley Bellew discovers some of the natural beauties of Guernsey and Sark.
In centuries past, when the winds were high, children from Little Sark would crawl across La Coupée – a narrow causeway that was their only route to school on the main island of Sark, in the UK’s Channel Islands.
At 80m above the sea, braving this crumbling ridge would have been scary enough without the fear of ghosts and stories of drowning sailors’ screams in the caves below.
Many islanders believed La Coupée was haunted and sightings included a headless horseman, a floating coffin and a slavering witch’s hound that sniffed out vulnerable prey.
Fortunately, railings were fixed along the 100m causeway in 1900 and a concrete path was laid in 1945 by German prisoners of war. Today, La Coupée offers visitors a wonderful walk on the wild side with dramatic views across the turquoise sea to Jersey.
On the return walk from La Coupée to Stocks Hotel, hedgerows are filled with three-cornered leeks which release a light waft of garlic – perhaps to ward off those ghosts!
Stocks Hotel, in the heart of Sark, dates from 1741 and is reputed to have its own ghost – a woman who creeps along the corridor and into the heavily beamed Smugglers’ Bar. Our Royal Horticultural Society group did brave the bar but witnessed only spirits in the shape of the local Wheadons gin.
The hotel’s ethos is to serve locally sourced produce and its attractive grounds feature a two-acre permaculture garden alongside a newly planted orchard. Eggs Benedict is the breakfast speciality, thanks to the well-fed chickens, and more home-made delights include butter, chutneys, wines and brandies served by a team of friendly, knowledgeable staff.
The hotel has been sympathetically extended with tastefully decorated bedrooms and public areas bathed in light and all dressed in fragrant blooms of the season.
Guests enjoy peace and tranquillity because the island is one of the last places in the world where cars are banned from roads. Sark sits in its own a charming timewarp; the doctor uses a tractor to call on patients while visitors to the island have three transport options; to take a horse-drawn carriage from above the quayside, hire bikes or simply walk the two-square mile (5.44sq km) island.
There are no street lights and, in 2011, the island was designated a Dark Sky Community. Stargazers can spend an evening in the cosy observatory run by volunteers in a corner of a field, about 15 minutes’ walk from Stocks Hotel. Bookings are required via the hotel and admission is through a £5 (A$8.80) donation.
Finance for the observatory and a 10-inch telescope was raised by locals through jumble sales, quiz nights and donations. In fact, a sense of community runs through the island and the school building combines as a meeting centre and coffee shop.
Sarkees, as the 600 islanders are known, have also pulled together to help restore La Seigneruie Gardens. La Seigneruie is the oldest property on the island and home to Sark’s Seigneur – the Lord of the Manor.
There is no entry to the house but La Seigneruie’s tranquil walled garden is not to be missed in summer when it bursts into colour with a magnificent display of pink roses, Guernsey daisies and purple salvias.
Garden lovers on the Brightwater holiday also visit Saumarez Park Walled Garden in Guernsey. Here, volunteers grow heritage plants from the Victorian era including Guernsey tomatoes, which were once a top export before the industry fell into decline. A maize maze makes for a fabulous family outing in this welcoming patch.
One of the high-profile supporters of the walled garden is clematis grower Raymond Evison OBE.
Raymond moved from Shropshire in the 1970s to take advantage of the island’s milder climate and a visit to his greenhouses is the pièce de résistance for keen horticulturalists to see more than two million plants being grown at his Guernsey Clematis Nurseries.
Raymond, a 29-times RHS Chelsea gold medal winner, gives visitors a tour of his four-acre greenhouses where 25 per cent of the world market in clematis are grown.
Private garden visits are also on the itinerary and at Petite Vallee, Jennifer Monachan demonstrates that a sharply sloping site is no barrier to exuberant gardening, while at Grange Court in St Peter Port, Pat Johnson’s 19th century villa makes a perfect canvas for colourful planting which includes 550 red Ernest Moore and 50 gold Whisky Mac roses.
A dazzling array of flower-filled troughs, baskets and beds transform St Peter Port into one of the prettiest towns in the Channel Islands every spring and summer but, like Sark, it is the natural landscape that steals the show.
Walking the granite cliffs, with fields of wild orchids vying for attention against the backdrop of a sparkling sea, is the true joy of visiting Guernsey.
A round-the-island walk along the cliffs is about 64km long, but the route can be broken into sections for all abilities. The well-maintained paths, where frothy white blackthorn blossom gives shelter to clumps of white sea campion and pink pom-pom heads of thrift, lead to valley roads and peaceful bays for perfect picnic stops.
With the wind in your hair and sun on your back it is hard not to succumb to the wild allure of Guernsey. French author Victor Hugo, who spent 15 years in exile on the island from 1855, described being struck by ‘the breath of the flowers’ and would meet his lover, French actress Juliette Drouet, for secret liaisons in Candie Gardens’ Victoria Tower.
Collect the key to the tower from the Guernsey Museum, in Candie Gardens, take a walk to the top for panoramic views over St Peter Port and listen for a whisper of romance.
A five-day Private Gardens of Guernsey and Sark holiday with Brightwater Holidays starts from around $2500, departing May 31 and September 13, 2018. Price includes flights from London Gatwick to Guernsey; return ferry crossings from Guernsey to Sark; four nights’ dinner, bed and breakfast, three nights at La Barbarie Hotel and one night at Stocks Hotel, Sark; visits to selected private gardens and the services of a tour manager.
More information from brightwaterholidays.com or call UK 01334 657155