Miles From Anywhere
Jersey's Lost Centre
The intrepid Miles Kington journeys through a forgotten heartland
The Jersey people treated the Germans cautiously, knowing they would not be here for ever and might cut up rough if annoyed – nowadays they tend to treat British holidaymakers exactly the same way. The British storm the beaches after breakfast and occupy them till a bit after six, when they are sucked back into their hotels for a three course meal. For about an hour St Helier is loud with the sound of soup spoons, salt and pepper and Portugese waiters, and between seven and eight they are spat out onto the streets again, a whole evening in front of them. This they spend watching celebrities on stage whom they can see on TV at home or buying cheap cigarettes and drink, for Jersey is presented to the British as a duty-free area with a beach attached.
A Brief History of Jersey: The island of Jersey, which is about 20 miles from France, 60 miles from England and 3,300 from South Africa, has been subject to wave after wave of invasion. First, a thousand years ago, by the Duke of Normandy. Then, in the last century, by Victor Hugo and more recently by the Germans, who stayed for six years and built an Underground Hospital. End of brief history
What the British are never encouraged to do is to go and look at the interior. At most they may be permitted to do a tour of the coast or taken inland just long enough to be immured in the German Underground Hospital for an hour, but otherwise the interior of the island is definitely off-limits. I met a woman recently who had managed to find her way into the middle of the island.
‘What was it like?’ I asked her.
‘Frightening’, she said. ‘There were no sign-posts and I got terribly lost.’
This, on an island which measure barely 10 miles by 6. An unknown, unexplored territory only 35 minutes from Heathrow. The call was irresistible, and one weekday recently I took off on a scheduled flight to Jersey determined to see for myself. My hand-picked companion, to cover the artistic and pictorial side of the expedition, was Alain Le Garsmeur, a much-travelled Jerseyman who has been into the Gobi with Gore Vidal and up the Yukon with Simon Hoggart, but never deep into the interior of his own island. This, I think, confirms its inaccessibility.
As we landed I stabbed a finger at the map, a thing that all leaders do to try and establish their leadership.
‘This must be our destination’, I said, pointing a finger at a feature covered in gothic writing, a sure sign of antiquity. ‘The Centre Stone. The sacred stone that marks the exact centre of the island. You know of it?’
‘Never heard of it’, said my guide, consultant and interpreter. ‘All I know is that the interior is said to be occupied by a mysterious tribe of millionaires. Travelling by car would attract their attention. I think we should go on bicycles.’
‘Surely they will object to the presence of poor people.’
‘Then you should ride a bicycle wearing a dinner jacket.’
On the taxi ride from the airport I asked the taxi driver about the Centre stone. He ignored me and preferred to talk about Alain’s father, with whom he had been at school; soon they were off into a discussion of long-lost uncles and friends, which I suppose is an occupational hazard of all small islands.
At 9.30 am we hired bicycles and a dinner jacket and set off. Forcing our way casually through the holidaymakers being spat out onto the beaches, we headed north-eastish on the A3, a road full of juggernauts, coaches and Securicor vans, this last presumably ferrying millionaires’ pocket money into the interior. After a mile or two of non-stop commercial traffic, we came to a pause without a vehicle in sight.
‘Ok’, said Alain. ‘Nobody’s watching. Into the interior!’
Unobserved, we turned down a white, unnamed road, and pedalled into a different world. The change was unnerving. The people vanished, the noise vanished, the traffic vanished – all we could hear was the whirring of the tyres and the whining of the seagulls overhead. There were hedges bursting with honeysuckle and fuschia, cottages guarded by fierce-looking hydrangea bushes and fields full of jersey cows who look as if they were paying tax at a top rate. There was only one thing missing from the landscape.
‘Where is everyone?’ I said.
‘I don’t know’, said Alain. ‘Let’s read this notice. Maybe it will tell us.’
It was nailed to the side of a barn and said something like - I quote from memory – ‘If I find anyone shooting on my property, I shall assail him with the full force of the law, signed Lord Jersey.’
‘Can I help you, gents?’ said a voice behind us.
We whirled round. Lord Jersey was a short man in dirty clothes, his face tanned a light orange by the sun and the cream-rich diet, very like a whiskered Jersey cow.
‘Are you his Lordship?’ I said.
‘If so, be merciful’, said Alain.
‘Lord bless you, no’, said the affable apparition. ‘Lord Jersey found some people shooting the ducks on his pond a few years ago so he put that notice up and forgot about it. I’m the farmer from up the road.’
We asked him if many or indeed any tourists came this way. He screwed up his face as if searching his memory.
‘I remember one or two once, but they were always lost. Nobody ever seems to come up the interior on purpose, strangely, because there’s lots to see.’
Like what? His face screwed up again.
‘Well, like… the farmland. Oh, and there’s the Queen’s Valley down the road where they filmed Bergerac. You should go and see that. You should go and see it soon, in fact, because they are going to drown the valley for a reservoir.’
‘As a native of Jersey’, began Alain, and I could sense he was going to try to trace a family relationship with the farmer, so I threw him on his bike and off we went. It was significant, I felt, that whereas noble lords in England put up signs to protect whole woods full of pheasants, the Lord Jersey had put one up to protect his duck-pond. It suggested that Jersey was built on a smaller scale, somehow. And this was borne out by our first sight of the interior, which took us through lanes lined with tidy farmhouses, interspersed with other tidy farmhouses. They are all the same: five windows across the top, four and a door across the bottom.
But the occupants are not all the same. We were soon to establish that the interior of Jersey is occupied by two tribes: farmers and millionaires. In England the two may be indistinguishable, but in Jersey there is a sharp difference, seen most clearly in the way the two separate tribes decorate their farmhouses.
The Architecture of Inland Jersey: Brief Guide. Farmers’ houses have minimal gardens; millionaires’ houses have lovely gardens. Farmers use wells and wheelbarrows for water and transport; millionaires use them for decoration. Millionaires have pools, farmers have ponds. Both have drives in which the farmers keep well-used cars and the millionaires keep well-polished cars. If you stop by a farmers’ house he will probably come out and chat to you. If you stop by a house built on money, the gardener will come out for a chat, or the bloke building the extension will come out for a chat, or just the guard dog will come out for a brief word, but the rich owner will not. How sad, to be in a line of work which does not give you time for a chat. End of Brief Guide.
We found Bergerac’s house. It was up Queen’s Valley, which, after the scale of the farmland, seemed like a vast leafy canyon with towering woods on either side. There was nobody to be seen anywhere and the house itself looked slightly derelict, with unwashed curtains in a barn window and potatoes mouldering in a side store. It had the feel of a house which has recently been sold by a farmer and not yet bought by a millionaire. There were no tidy farmhouses in the valley at all, which makes it a unique part of Jersey - indeed, the only other house was boarded up and daubed with the following messages: DEATH LIVES HERE, DEATH TO THOSE THAT INTERFERE, LEAVE US WITCHES ALONE and SPURS. The valley seems ripe for flooding in my opinion.
‘Well, I wouldn’t exactly say we need water’, said a man in a field surrounded by cows and mending a wall. ‘This stream going through the field here, I’ve never seen it dry up, and there are plenty of springs this end of the island. I think it’s all because of them toffs watering their lawns, filling their pools and washing their cars.’
I haven’t heard the word ‘toff’ used in 20 years. He doesn’t seem to like the toffs much. He doesn’t seem to like the cows much, either. It was them butting the wall that started it falling down. Now they’re butting him in the same friendly fashion and he doesn’t like it. Is it true, by the way, that there are fewer Jersey cows around? He thinks about it and reluctantly concludes that there aren’t. Fewer herds, maybe, but bigger herds. He starts butting the cows back.
‘Come on’, says Alain, ‘it’s time to meet Mary Ann’.
‘No. The local beer.’
Comparing notes over a pint of lunch, we estimate that we have seen during the morning the following signs of life on the side road: no tourists, one hire car, three road signs and no telephone boxes. Even the road signs are not much help. The longest reads: ‘Rue de la Pouclée et des quatres chemins’, which is very picturesque but tells you only that there are four roads here, one of which goes to Pouclée.
‘Pouclée?’ said a man mending a millionaire’s house, when we asked him. ‘It’s a dolmen. It’s the old Jersey word for it.’
That still does not tell you where the other three go, and the more I think about it, the more I realise that the French written up everywhere only sounds French, it does not mean anything. Here is a house called La Choquetterie. There is a pace called La Caroline. Here is a photographer on a bike called Le Garsmeur. But what does it all mean? What did a garsmeur do? Did he garsme? Did he collect garsmes? I open my mouth, decide not to ask, and we carry on through the afternoon, through the lush hydrangeas, mombretia, figs, pears, sweet chestnuts, heading towards the Centre Stone. Some of the interior is sheer jungle, I swear, but so tidy are the Jersey people that even the jungle growth (mostly luscious cucumbers, tomatoes and courgettes) is housed in neat green houses. The going, by the way, has been uphill all the time, thanks to peculiar Jersey geography.
A Brief Guide to Jersey’s Peculiar Geography: Imagine a tray, 9 miles by 6, full of sand and houses. Imagine the tray being lifted on one side, 400ft in the air. All the sand and houses fall to the other side, except for those farmhouse strong enough to hold on. That’s Jersey. The beaches and accommodation have clustered along the south side and the north side has cliffs; the island slopes up from those beaches to the cliffs, and all the rivers from there to the south. End of Brief Geography Guide.
At 3pm we turned down a small lane, where the Centre Stone is marked and there before us, in all their glory, were several tidy farmhouses and nothing else. We hail a farmer standing in front of his house and ask to be directed to the centre.
‘You’ve just passed it’, he says. ‘See that little stone up against the next house? That’s it. I call it disgraceful. I keep saying that the island should put something up worth seeing, but they don’t.’
‘I didn’t know about it,’ says Alain, ‘and I’m a native.’
‘Really?’ says the farmer.’ And what name…?’
‘My father is Rene le Gasmeur.’
‘Really? I know him. My name’s Laurens by the way. In fact my wife’s daughter-in-law’s sister is married to…’
While they delve into the archives, I wander outside and watch the seagulls whine overhead. I’ve finally worked out why Jersey seagulls whine. Like all modern seagulls they are incredible cowards (most bullies are) and flee inland at the slightest sign of bad weather. But when you live in Jersey you cannot head inland very far and if you are a seagull you find yourself suddenly at sea again. If, however, you are on the ground like us, you can wander for ever through the countless, unmarked lanes of Jersey, where no vista is more than 100 yards, and where the next house is often invisible. From the air, Jersey is small and flat; on the ground it is big and remote. I would seriously advise all seagulls to walk.
I finally drag Alain from his warm reunion with the total stranger and we head off back to St Helier and the sun goes down; having located the Centre Stone and scratched ‘The Times was here’ on it, we feel our mission is done. On the way we meet the only fellow travellers we have seen since breakfast, two Dutch cyclists who have been looking in vain for a B and B and are reluctantly heading back to town.
It is true. We did not see any signs offering accommodation up country. And that is the real secret of the Jersey interior, perhaps. By day it is penetrable, but before dark everyone has to leave, leaving it to the farmers, the millionaires, and the disconsolate seagulls. A strange place, this hinterland, full of thin standing stones of great antiquity. They always come in pairs, these stones. And they all have little hooks on the inner side.
For hanging gates on, I suddenly realise. Nothing if not neat.