I’m not even sure how Jersey surfaced on my radar. Maybe after Sara and I had survived Baltic February in Orkney, we had thought, “Which island can we visit where we can be guaranteed warmer weather, whilst still being in the British Isles?”. I didn’t know anything about Jersey – I wasn’t even 100% sure of its geography in relation to the UK – but I was pretty sure it was in the British Isles. I was right. And that was the only qualification I needed.
So what’s the deal with Jersey, anyway?
(1) History lesson
Jersey is 19 miles from France and 85 miles from the southern coast of England. Despite its proximity to our French neighbours, Jersey is part of the British Isles. However, it’s not part of the UK.
Ok, what? You’re going to have to explain this, Cat, it makes no sense. Ok, let me try.
Jersey, along with the other channel islands Guernsey and Alderney, once belonged to Normandy, now a region in the north of France, then a kingdom of its own. In 1066, the Norman army invaded England and Normandy and England were united, with William the Conqueror ruling the joint-kingdom superpower. The Channel Islands, as part of Normandy, were included in this unification.
However, in the 13th century, Normandy was lost to France, At this point, the people on the Channel Islands were given the consequential option to remain loyal to France or loyal to the King of England. They chose England.
I have a number of unanswered questions:
(1) Why were the islanders given this choice?
(2) Why was it decided that the islands would only be loyal to either the UK or France, rather than be a fully-fledged part of either country?
(3) Why did the Channel Islands choose to be loyal to the UK? A resident Jersey man whom we spoke to in a pub claimed that it was because by being loyal to the UK, the Jersey people could get away with doing more before the UK actually found out due to being located so far away, compared to France who are located so close. Sneaky.
Eight centuries later, the Channel Islands remain part of the British Isles, loyal to the UK but with their own government, tax arrangements and laws. However, they use the pound sterling (though print their own money), the official language is English, and the island is defended and internationally represented by the UK government. Its official status in relation to the UK, like all of the Channel Islands, is ‘British Crown Dependency’.
Despite Jersey’s choosing to remain loyal to the UK, in World War Two, the UK decided that Jersey was not strategically useful and so made no attempt to defend the island. The citizens of Jersey had to decide overnight whether they would flee to the UK mainland to a land of strangers but potential safety; or stay put in their homes and face whatever adversities confronted them. No big deal, just a completely life-altering decision, guys. The Nazis later arrived on the island, thinking they would have a fight on their hands but soon realised there was no opposition at all. They went on to occupy Jersey for five years.
Five years. I don’t know about you, but I was far from impressed when I learned that the UK had essentially abandoned the island. Gradually, new laws were introduced by the Germans, ranging from simply changing the time zone to be in line with German time, to declaring that any UK-born resident on the island was to be deported to a camp in Germany.
We learned this context and history almost wholly in the Jersey War Tunnels, built in the war by POWs to house an underground hospital that was never used. The tunnels have now been made into a series of exhibitions and displays, detailing Jersey’s history and providing visitors with an insight into the experiences of those POWs recruited to build the tunnels. It’s a harrowing history lesson but a must-visit for any trip to Jersey.
(2) Jersey today
From the Normans, to the English, to the Germans, and then to the British: has Jersey’s turbulent history and ever-changing administration had an impact on the island today? From my brief stint on the island I would say yes. However, I wouldn’t say the present effects are necessarily negative. An interesting French/British mix is definitely evident. For example, when you’re driving on the country roads, you could almost mistake yourself for being in the French countryside. I’m largely basing this on Sara’s fun fact about the location of doors on the front of houses: apparently, in traditional French houses, the doors are located in the middle of the wall, rather than on the left hand-side, as in the UK. To be honest, I’ve never really noticed this but it was interesting to see that the doors were indeed in the middle, confirming the historic French influence. Personally, I was most intrigued by the street names which, outside of the capital St Helier, seemed to be largely in French.
Generally though, I felt like I was in a slightly quirky extension of the UK. Tudo bem? I was surprised to see that it wasn’t just the French that had left their mark on Jersey, but more recently, the Portuguese. We were intrigued to see that there was a Portuguese food festival taking place in the capital, St Helier, on the weekend of our visit. Turns out this wasn’t some random coincidence; the Portuguese form the largest immigrant community on the island. Who knew?
(3) Things to do
So you’ve established the history – there’s a lot to learn – and you’ve studied the location of the doors and the foreign-language street-names. What else should you do on the island?
So in case you missed the memo: Jersey is beautiful. We hired a car for our weekend trip and took a leisurely jaunt from one end of the nine-mile-wide island to the other. Our highlights included hanging out at Plémont Bay in the north of the island and doing a cliff-side walk at the Devil’s Point. At these locations, I experienced the Jersey I had imagined and hoped for – turquoise green, transparent water, combined with a stunningly dramatic coastline. If only there wasn’t so much to explore, I’d have happily remained at either of these spots all day long.
Because Jersey was made for exploring.
Roll up, roll up! Get your Jersey potatoes here! So it turns out that Jersey potatoes are actually from Jersey. Got to love accurate marketing. If you’re driving about, you may see them on the other side of the road and attempt some alarming 10-point turns in order to take a photo.The things I do for this blog.
Along with Jersey potatoes, we were repeatedly served Jersey butter, Jersey milk, Jersey cream. With so much dairy, you’d think we’d have been overrun with cows on our driving around the island. However, on the first day on the island, we were convinced it was one big lie. No cows to be seen. Fortunately, we made a point of seeking out a farm on our second day, and I am pleased to confirm that there are at least seven cows on the island. Phew. Didn’t want to have to accuse the Jersey people of being liars.
(4) Top tips for Jersey
- Be warned: if you’re travelling from the UK, the 3G on your phone may (Sara) or may not (Cat) work. I can’t explain this, though theorise that it may be dependent on your phone network.
- Parking is a mission. The freedom that you gain from having a car is worth it, but be prepared to circuit numerous times in the larger towns. If you do choose to drive, go to a newsagent at the beginning of your trip and get a booklet of parking tickets – you will need these to park in many parts of the island. The good news is that parking is free at the weekend.
- It’s always fun to see your own currency in a different format (yes, Scottish notes are legal tender). However, please note, while you can use UK-printed notes in Jersey, you cannot use Jersey-printed notes in the UK.
- Jersey residents are able to spot the tourists a mile away thanks to the hire cars all having a glaringly obvious ‘H’ marked before the numberplate. I was convinced this stood for ‘Holidaymaker’ until the wise man in the pub confirmed it stood for the much more obvious ‘Hire car’.
So would I go back to Jersey? If I could be guaranteed the good weather, definitely. There are so many beaches, coves, abandoned forts, castles and cliffs to explore, which are not just beautiful but incredibly peaceful – and this was us going on the August bank holiday weekend. However, I would argue if the weather hadn’t been on our side, I think we may have been at a loss. Very similar to islands in Scotland, if the weather isn’t good, there isn’t a lot else you can do. Still, remember it’s practically France. Worth the risk!
Credit to Sara Yoshino for another set of beautiful photos.