British Islets

The Isles of Scilly and the Channel Islands have the virtues of England--and some of their own.

ONLY a few Americans seem to find their way to either of the two granite archipelagoes in the English Channel, clusters of tiny windswept islands that lure vacationing Brits by the thousands. Situated on the edge of the Atlantic as if they'd been kicked southwest by the sharp toe of Land's End, the Isles of Scilly--chiefly, St. Mary's, Tresco, Bryher, St. Martin's, and St. Agnes--belong to the Duchy of Cornwall, which is to say, to Prince Charles. The Channel Islands--principally, Jersey, Guernsey, Alderny, Sark, Herm, and Jethou--huddle in a French gulf eight miles off the Cherbourg peninsula and are loyal to the British Crown but self-governing. Bathed in relative warmth by the Gulf Stream, both groups of beach-ringed islands boast more-temperate climates and longer growing seasons than mainland (as it were) Britain. And because they lie beyond casual reach (the Scillys are twenty-eight miles off the English coast, the Channels a hundred), they aren't as trampled or as commercialized as many of England's seaside resorts have become.

flower picture

I've seen a lot of the English countryside by car, from the Devonshire moors east to the hops fields in Kent, from Cumbria's scree-scarred mountains south to the orchards in Dorset--mostly by meandering at random. It's quite different getting to the Channel's holiday islands (and off again). You have to plan, to book a crossing by water or air. In olden days, with limited navigational aids and in seas rife with marauding cutthroats, either trip was risky business. Always politically vulnerable, the Channel Islands have suffered foreign invasions forever, from bloody Viking attacks to a five-year occupation by the Germans during the Second World War. With a walloping 800 shipwrecks on record, the Isles of Scilly are just plain a geographical menace. (On one stormy night in 1707 more than 1,500 men, from a merchant fleet, were dashed to their deaths off the islands' westerly shoals.) Even as we weighed our options for travel to the Scillys last year, my mother cautioned, "Helicopters don't glide, dear. They plummet."

daffs picture COUNTING on the Scillys to be awash in yellow and white daffodils, the islands' uniquely early export to international flower markets, my mother and I planned a late-February trip. As I rode the train five hours west from London to Penzance, snow dusted the fields, shrouded church steeples, and glinted off Cornwall's towering mounds of china-clay waste. In my hand luggage I had stuffed gloves, a scarf, and an extra sweater at the last minute, and I carried a heavy-duty windbreaker, even though the guidebooks promised a balmy welcome. (The Isles of Scilly Standard Guidebook and an informative history, The Fortunate Islands, both by R. L. Bowley, are available from the Isles of Scilly Tourist Information Centre; call 44-1720-422536.) I met Mom at the Penzance heliport for the noisy forty-two-mile, twenty-five-minute hop to St. Mary's over opal-green seas. The air was indeed soft when we stepped out into the salty breezes, but billowing purple clouds gathered in a gray sky.

At not even three miles long, St. Mary's is the largest of the five inhabited islands among fifty-some rocky spurs that peek above a rising sea. Toward the end of the last Ice Age, around 10,000 years ago, rivers sliced the edges of Europe and Britain on the way to meet a swelling ocean that, over the years, flooded coastal valleys and marooned the highest reaches of ground. Thus were the Scillys and the Channel Islands shaped. By modern calculations, nine inches of the Scillys' shoreline are swallowed every hundred years. Some islanders say it's only a matter of time before the capital, Hugh Town, is swept away, settled precariously as it is on a sandy isthmus between two raised plateaus.

hotel picture Our taxi driver gave us a quizzical look when we asked to be dropped at the inn where, a week earlier, we had confirmed a reservation for two nights. It was boarded up, not a soul in sight, and we never did find out why no one was expecting us. The cab carried on to the single open hotel on the island; this was adequate as a stopover before ferrying to Tresco. The Scillys' population numbers just 2,000, with many Scillonians being employed by the tourist industry in the warmer months. From November to March, though, everyone is busy picking and packing daffodils. More than 400 tons of boxed flowers (is it easier to picture 30 million blooms?) are readied to fly to Covent Garden, Scandinavia, Europe, even Japan. When we were in Hugh Town, keys dangled in shop doors all afternoon beneath signs that read BACK LATER.

A daffodil-based economy certainly sounds charming, but in order to make a living in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries Scillonians gathered a sinister harvest: cargo from wrecks. According to island rumor, the trick was to entice ships into seeming safe harbors. Farmers hung lanterns around their cows' necks, intending the swinging lights to be mistaken for boats swaying at anchor at night. Jagged reefs greeted the bewildered skippers instead. While splintering hulls spilled cargo into the waves, local plunderers helped themselves from their longboats. A gasping sailor was more likely to get a blow to the head than a helping hand. At the Bishop and Wolf pub one night I was told that a man on Bryher was completing an extension to his house with lumber that had recently floated ashore. The bounty keeps rolling in.

beach picture For visits to the dentist, bank, drugstore, library, or clothing store, residents of other islands must ferry to St. Mary's. Mom and I sought sandy beaches, heather-covered moors, surf-sprayed cliffs, and golden fields fragrant with soleil d'ors--walking country. We found it on Tresco, a private estate leased since 1834 to the Dorrien Smith family. Rent for the island, once measured in plump little puffins, is paid into Prince Charles's deep pocket. Robert Dorrien Smith, the present incumbent, oversees the management of upscale time-share vacation apartments, including garden-enclosed stone cottages lulled by the waves; a cozy old inn; and a chic seasonal hotel. Also open to visitors (some 30,000 a year avail themselves of the privilege) are the Abbey Gardens, the remarkable terraces next to the manor house. Here twelve acres of subtropical plants thrive at an unlikely latitude. The 120 year-round residents of Tresco make up a friendly community in the off-season; one Sunday noon we drank a pint with the Abbey Gardens' curator, his wife and two daughters, the primary school teacher, and a fisherman.

Wherever you go on Tresco, it's on foot (although a tractor-drawn wagon will deliver bags to you at the inn, the hotel, or a rented cottage). When we set off to walk every day, I learned to hook my arm decisively through my mother's. She would scan the sky for approaching storms, but by the time she had persuaded me that the menacing black front on the horizon had to be taken seriously, I would already have steered her across the island, through glossy hedges of pittosporum and purple hebe in bloom, past a small stone Anglican church set on a hillside of green pastures, north to the wild, wind-blasted moors. Mom was right, of course. We endured daily deluges. There among the sixteenth-century granite castle ruins and Bronze Age tombs, or between fabulous yellow fields of frenzied daffodils, a cloudful of marble-sized hailstones would burst on us. I lowered my head under the gale one day, wondering if the force of the ice pellets might actually chip the enamel on my teeth.

walk picture A thin sun combined with roaring winds to dry us off between barrages. With our snug New Inn--actually a warren of charming old rooms--to warm up in, we wouldn't have traded a single day of the wild weather. We fantasized about which of the delightful stone houses we'd rent (call the Holiday Cottage Department of the Tresco Estate Office, 44-1720-422849, for information) and in what month we would return. The showy South African protea ($10 a stalk at a florist at home in Boston), deliciously fragrant yellow acacias, and exotic banksia were blooming in profusion--but April would be even more spectacular. July and August are the best beach-sprawling months, and then the island is packed with vacationing families. The off-season promises quieter lanes and deserted bays. It takes only a plane, a train, a helicopter, and a ferry to get there.

YOU can fly directly to the two largest Channel Islands, Jersey and Guernsey, from any big airport in the United Kingdom. Pack a coat and tie or your best earrings. These are sophisticated islands, more continental than windblown. As extraordinarily prosperous international finance centers, the Bailiwicks of Jersey (consisting of one populated island, 85,000 residents) and Guernsey (five populated islands, 55,000 residents) enjoy strictly upper-class standards: the sparkling clean towns are studded with well-stocked leather, jewelry, and china shops, brass-plaqued brokerage houses that sport window boxes overflowing with bright flowers, picturesque pubs, tony restaurants serving fine wines and delectable French dishes, good theater, courteous indigents, and shockingly polite drivers. The downside of this well-behaved affluence is the number of cars crowding the narrow lanes (Jersey has the largest number of cars per capita in Europe), creeping consumption of open land by golf courses, and the disappearance of the native Norman-French patois.

hughtown picture I admit, I expected more cows. A herd of Guernseys, those pretty, pink-nosed red-and-white milkers, had warmed my grandfather's long barn in New Hampshire when I was little, and on the trip that I took to the Channel Islands, with my husband last September, I wanted to see where they came from. The islands' most far-flung ambassadors, Jersey and Guernsey cattle have been raised on their respective (and rivalrous) islands since the 1700s. In 1930 my grandfather paid a handsome $5,000 for his first Guernsey bull. Today a shot of semen costs less than $20 and is shipped by air in a vacuum flask packed in liquid nitrogen. The number of herds is shrinking on the six inhabited islands, which collectively cover 100 square miles. On tiny, carless Sark, a three-mile-long feudal state ruled by a seigneur, who inherited the title and pays the Queen 1.79 pounds a year in rent, the cattle range in the pastures. Visitors, tractors, and horse-drawn carts share Sark's dusty lanes. These lead to the dramatic coastal footpaths past the seigneur's splendid walled garden (open to the public), fields of sheep, a sixteenth-century windmill, and the comfortable country-house hotel where we stayed, in a wooded valley (Stocks, telephone 44-1481-832001). Hurrying to catch the ferry on our last afternoon, after poking around abandoned silver mines for too long, my urban-reared husband and I took a shortcut across a field. "Wait a minute--those are bulls," he said, retreating over a stile. "Don't worry about Guernseys," I said, marching on briskly. "They won't bother us." Later I discovered that these animals have ferocious tempers and that farmers have been chased, even killed, by their own bulls. Hazards do lurk on these tame islands.

As the ferry brought us back to Guernsey's main harbor, the view of St. Peter Port was picture-perfect. Elegant Regency and Georgian townhouses shingle the steep hillside down to the medieval waterfront, with its cobbled streets, stone piers, and thirteenth-century castle set above marinas packed with jangling masts. It's no wonder that Victor Hugo chose this panorama in the mid-1800s for most of his nearly twenty-year exile from strife-ridden France. He wrote Toilers of the Sea and Les Misérables in his eccentrically decorated four-story house, which looked over the harbor to hazy France--and directly across the street into his mistress's windows.

It was a book that first brought Guernsey evocatively to life for me: The Book of Ebenezer Le Page, by G. B. Edwards, a fictional reminiscence of the island from about 1890 to 1970, published with an introduction by John Fowles. Even before I arrived, I could see in my mind the island's acres of glass houses for growing tomatoes (now cut flowers), treacherous forty-foot tides, granite quarries, stone churches, walled narrow roads, and steep pocket harbors protecting a few brightly painted fishing boats. And I had gleaned something of the complicated relationship with the Germans that obtained during the Second World War, when the islands were under occupation. Ebenezer talked about the interactions between the soldiers, many of whom simply wanted to go home to take care of their families, and island civilians, who hated the German presence but also came to know individuals as decent human beings. (In fact, the talk of London this past fall, when new documents from that period came to light, was the extent of the fraternization and the surprising number of half-German children born.) On a cool, bright morning a representative of the Guernsey Tourist Board (44-1481-723552) drove me around the island pointing out landmarks from the book, and we chatted about the fictional characters as if they were members of a family we both knew well.

While Guernsey and Jersey insist that they are very different, each claiming vast superiority over the other, a visitor will see similar geography, learn of shared history, and experience an overlapping ambiance. The coast of Jersey, like Guernsey's, is fortified to the hilt, with castle foundations from the 1300s that have been added to by succeeding generations, round Martello towers to discourage Napoleon, massive German concrete bunkers and gun emplacements to ward off the Allies. Holding Jersey's shifting sand in place, the Hottentot fig has spread like a thick rug along the dunes. Thickets of yellow-flowered gorse and blackberries loaded with tart fruit protect the open headlands (and rampant colonies of bunnies) from the incessant winds. Inland the rolling farmland is lush, with fields of potatoes and cabbages divided by hedgerows of red-berried hawthorns that turn the roads into shady tunnels.

But for all the bucolic views, Jersey's international banks (whose deposits total around $145 billion) are in control of the economy, and this spells the end of a way of life based on farming, fishing, and unspoiled land. New residents are kept to a handful a year: among other restrictions, newcomers must have assets of at least $15 million. Perhaps best known as a tax haven (income tax is 20 percent, and there's no inheritance tax or VAT), Jersey has a Board of Tourism (my host on the island, telephone 44-1534-500700) that is working hard to publicize the island's many other merits. Indeed, there is a lot for visitors to see, and much of it would be of particular interest to families: ancient burial sites, a working vineyard, a lavender farm, potteries, museums, a conservation center, and extensive orchid greenhouses. My husband and I wallowed in luxury at Longueville Manor, an elegant thirteenth-century residence where each exquisite hotel room is decorated in miles of beautiful chintz (call 44-1534-25501 for more information). Channel Islands, in the Insight Guides series, offers a lively picture of the islands and complete lists of restaurants, lodgings, and sights.

At the top of my list of things to see is the Jersey Zoo, headquarters of the Jersey Wildlife Preservation Trust, established by the author and naturalist Gerald Durrell. In this handsomely landscaped twenty-three-acre park endangered animals are being bred to return to the wild. If you leave it with a new appreciation for some of the ugliest creatures you may ever see, such as beady-eyed lemurs called aye-ayes, skinks, geckos, big black fruit bats, Partula snails, and bald-headed ibises--and you will--the zoo will have accomplished an important part of its mission: to make people care about any animal facing extinction. Lee Durrell, the honorary director of the Trust and also a zoologist, believes that all we need is an explanation. Her late husband put it best, she says: "The world is as delicate and complicated as a spider's web. If you touch one thread you send shudders running through all the other threads. We are not just touching the web, we are tearing great holes in it."

A sensible New Englander once told me he felt sure he was going to come upon ambergris someday on a beach in the islands in the English Channel. I looked for it too--waxy gray gunk from the intestine of a whale, used to make perfume and worth a small fortune. There are lovelier treasures scattered on the sand: I picked up tiny sun-bleached limpets, pointed pink top shells with red stripes, and a turreted pelican's foot with mauve whorls. All these months later I keep finding them in the pockets of my windbreaker--much nicer than a glob of forgotten ambergris, I'm sure.

The Atlantic Monthly; March 1997; British Islets; Volume 279, No. 3; pages 36 - 41.