Islands are Britain’s French tie
Britain’s French Connection is otherwise known as the Channel Islands.The beautiful and tranquil Jersey, Guernsey, Sark, Alderney, Herm and three privately owned islands sit in the English Channel between Britain and France. Actually, the islands are much closer to France than Britain. Jersey, the southernmost and largest of the group, is 100 miles (160 km) from mainland Britain but only 14 miles (20 km) from the coast of France.
The names of many towns, streets and older families are French. And the French language, in both modern and ancient forms, is still spoken by many residents, although English is the official language for all the islands. In fact, the islands started out as French possessions.
While the Scots, Welsh and Irish agitate for more political freedom, the folks living in the Channel Islands couldn’t care less. They’ve shown great independence for almost 800 years when it comes to politics, other than the occasional feudal quirks, just to keep life interesting.
The islands were originally part of the Duchy of Normandy. When William the Conqueror, the Duke of Normandy, gained the English crown in 1066, the lands became part of the Anglo-Norman realm.
But when King John lost Normandy to the French in 1204, the islanders elected to stay with the English crown. For that decision they gained a bushel of rights and privileges which they enjoy to this today. For example: independence from British Parliament and British courts, plus freedom from British taxes and military conscription.
Nor do the islanders suffer from the nasty British VAT — the Value Added Tax that puts 17 per cent put on everything you purchase in the U.K.
While each of the Channel Islands is unique, they have much in common. Subject only to The Queen in council, they have their own independent legislatures — even the loyal toast given on special occasions is to “The Queen, Our Duke” or just “La Duc.” The islanders handle their own affairs, but Britain takes care of defence and foreign matters, and the British pound sterling is the common currency.
The weather is also much kinder than elsewhere in the British Isles — less rain, warmer temperatures and way more sunshine. The waters are warmed by the Gulf Stream and are a treat for swimmers, snorkellers and scuba divers during mild months.
Over the centuries, the islanders successfully fought off numerous invasions, but they were a nuisance to their neighbours, as they became centres for privateers (legal pirates) and smugglers.
The Channel Islands were the only part of the British Isles to be occupied by the Germans during World War II. It was a sometimes brutal occupation, lasting from 1940 to 1945.
Alderney, in fact, became home for three SS “death camps”, and all the islands were heavily fortified, making them the strongest sections of Hitler’s Atlantic Wall. The fortifications, including artillery and command bunkers, plus a massive underground hospital, are now popular tourist attractions.
Here’s my personal rundown of the islands, a destination you should include on future visits to Britain or France:
Transportation is not a problem — there are 350 miles of roads and oodles of cars, taxis and buses. St. Helier, the island’s capital, is a bustling place with good hotels and excellent restaurants. The island abounds in historic monuments, museums, gardens and parks — including Gerald Durrell’s world famous zoo — plus 50 miles of coastline with good, clean beaches on the south coast.
The north coast is dramatically different, its rocky cliffs a delightful area for cycling or walking. Bird watching is a delight particularly in autumn and winter.
The capital, St. Peter Port, bears a resemblance to nearby Norman and Breton seaports with its tall, narrow buildings spilling down the hillside to the busy harbour. Add to that its quaint cobbled streets, a seaside fort and a relaxed lifestyle, and you’ve got one of the most charming towns imaginable.
Victor Hugo, the famed French author and poet, lived in comfortable exile for many years on Guernsey. Major General Sir Issac Brock, hero of Upper Canada after his victory at Queenston Heights, was born on the island in 1769, and his memory is still revered there. The island, like Jersey, is a tax haven and an international financial centre
It’s a birdwatcher’s paradise with one of only three gannet breeding colonies in the British Isles. It’s also home to puffins, fulmars, kittiwakes and guillemots. Alderney is only nine miles from France.
The island, less than two square miles in size, is closed to visitors on Sundays.
Fifty people inhabit the island, which has a charming hotel and pub, as well as the smallest prison in the world — room for just one person.