Weaving our way between mist-shrouded islets, Guernsey slips quietly away from us as St Peter Port fades into the distance. We’re en route to Herm, one of smaller Channel Islands that brings a flavour of nearby France and gentle tranquility to the many tourists who come here throughout the year.
With some very careful manoeuvring the Travel Trident Ferry docks against a steep ramp – apparently there are two places to come ashore depending on the tide and weather. About 50 of us scramble up Rosaire Steps past succulent pink and purple flowering plants clinging to craggy rocks, the smell of seaweed , brine, herbiness and fresh air all around us.
On the rocky beach a couple of children in bright t-shirts and shorts, poke about in rock pools. At the top of the hill there is an elegant low-slung building, the White House Hotel, with an inviting blue pool and lush gardens. Here I meet Kirsten who has lived on Herm for 8 years and talks with an infectious passion about this idyllic place. “Life here is so peaceful. There are no cars, just a couple of quad bikes and tractors for local workers, the hotel has no TV, phones or clocks in the bedrooms and you can’t play a radio in the open air. Visitors come here to switch off from the world of technology and experience life at a slower, less hectic pace.”
Herm is the smallest of the inhabited Channel Islands, being only 1½ miles long and less than half a mile wide. Neolithic tombs date back to 3,500 BC. The first records of Herm’s inhabitants in historic times are from the 6th century, when the island became a centre of monastic activity; the name ‘Herm’ supposedly derives from hermits who settled there. In 933 AD the Channel Islands were annexed to the Duchy of Normandy. They have been a British Crown Dependency since the division of Normandy in 1204. During World War II the Germans made a propaganda film here and used the beach to practise landings in preparation to their never-to-be carried out invasion of England. After the war the States of Guernsey bought Herm from the Crown and now lease the island to a tenant, who is expected to maintain the island for the benefit of its visitors. (Adapted from Wikipedia)
Kirsten shows me round the hotel – it has a quiet, genteel air and I expect to see the Famous Five sitting in a corner playing Ludo whilst waiting for the sun to come out and escape to the beach. Tucked away in a corner of the grounds is Britain’s smallest jail, a domed, windowless granite building built in 1826, occasionally used to retain drunken quarrymen, now empty awaiting new use.
We pass the Head Gardener explaining to a group of attentive listeners how the temperate Gulf Stream climate creates the perfect conditions for the vast array of flowers and plants that decorate so much of the land. Passing the blue-painted Mermaid Inn, quaint cottages and well-stocked general store we arrive at the tiny hamlet of Le Manoir.
This is the heart of the island where the tenants live, work and play. I am charmed by the tiny school playground with its crescent-shaped stone flower garden and wooden hut. Kirsten tells the story of the slightly eccentric Prussian Prince Blucher von Wahlstatt, a wealthy German aristocrat who, in 1890, fell in love with the island and bought the lease. He spent a great deal of time and money building, planting and improving things here. He built the castellated tower and manor in which novelist Sir Compton Mackenzie lived as do the current owner tenants. We enter the tiny Norman chapel of St Tugual where all is quiet – with a slight hint of damp. The quaint garden is watched over by a lichen-flecked statue of Jesus and the 21st century world seems far, far away …
As we walk along a narrow lane bordered by high hedges and frondy ferns, the sun starts to filter through the grey clouds and colourful butterflies flitter their wings in readiness for a day of nectar-hunting. Kirsten points out a big green bin, artfully camouflaged in green with plants and grasses growing on the top – very quirky, very Herm.
We come out onto The Commons, an open area of sand dunes and coarse, tussocky grass, said to have over 500 wildflowers in bloom every summer; thyme, sea holly, foxgloves and prickly burnett roses surround us. We say goodbye beside one of the island’s many Neolithic tombs.
Kirsten points out the pretty turquoise signpost which informs me that the Harbour is 13 minutes to my left (how clever to know my walking speed) and Shell Beach is to my right. As I head off in that direction, a skylark soars into the sky, singing its haunting song and know that I am falling in love with heavenly Herm.
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