Travelling from the clifftops of Jersey to the lands of Guernsey laced with tales of witchcraft, delve into the bucolic life of the Channel Islands to discover a history riddled with ghost stories, legends and unusual traditions.
Jersey: Ancient pagans, lasting traditions
Walking along the clifftops of Jersey’s northwest coast in the early evening sun, there is no sound except that of the wind and the waves. Swallowtails and dragonflies skim over banks of purple heather. Towering ahead is a colossal obelisk of red granite, which appears to rise directly out of the ocean. On the hillside leading down to the cliff face, a swathe of green grass forms a natural amphitheatre. A sheer drop below, the cobalt waters of the English Channel foam white as they meet the rocks.
Le Pinâcle, as it is known, is a magical place and today’s visitors are not the first to notice. At the foot of the red rock, there are remains dating back thousands of years: a Romano-Celtic temple, Bronze Age walls and structures built as long ago as the Neolithic period. The granite is seamed with dolerite, chipped away by prehistoric Channel Islanders to make axeheads and arrowtips. Later, during the witch craze of the 16th and 17th centuries, it was said that covens met here to commune with devils.
These days, many people think of the Channel Islands as the location for ’80s BBC series Bergerac, or a place for wealthy people to put their money (the islands’ status allows them to control their own tax rates). Beyond that, though, is a remarkable history that stretches back to the days when mammoths and woolly rhinoceroses roamed these cliffs. When the sun sets at Le Pinâcle, the last of its rays making the rock glow red, it’s easy to see how this place would have inspired ancient pioneers.
It is not only the beauty of the islands that has appealed to their admirers, but their distinct weirdness. The writer Victor Hugo, who lived on Jersey and Guernsey for many years, was an enthusiastic chronicler of their peculiarities. ‘The rural and maritime populations are easily moved with notions of the active agency of the powers of evil,’ he wrote in Toilers of the Sea (1866). ‘Among the Channel Isles, and on the neighbouring coast of France, the ideas of the people on this subject are deeply rooted.’ Even now, the islands are rich in folklore, superstitions and traditions. These range from the benign – when you hear the first cuckoo of spring, you must put a stone on your head and run away as fast as you can – to hair-raising stories about witches, ghouls and demons, and mysterious fireballs seen rolling around megalithic sites.
Though it is the largest and most populous of the islands, Jersey still has plenty of open space. Walking the beautiful coast paths, with waves lapping on golden beaches, the powers of evil that Victor Hugo mentioned seem a long way away. Unless, that is, the unwary hiker stumbles upon Stinky Bay – so called on account of the large quantities of foul-smelling vraic (seaweed) that wash up there every day.
Fortunately, the rest of the bays smell only of fresh air and sea-salt. When the tide is out at the town of St Aubin, locals roam the shore for delicacies the ocean has left behind, as they have done for centuries. The prize finds are cockles and sand eels. ‘I used to do this with my father,’ says Robin Baudains, a retired builder, as he scrapes back the wet sand with a garden trowel. ‘We follow the tide out. See this little dark patch, here? That’s a good one!’ Another cockle clinks into his bucket, destined for tonight’s pot.