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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Alderney: Legends of the sea, and a festival of
During WWII, the Channel Islands were the only British soil occupied by Nazi
forces. Their malevolent influence is still most visible in Alderney, where
disused bunkers and tanktraps line every beach. Removing these would be
dangerous and expensive: the thick walls can only be blown up with great force.
Stuck with the bunkers, creative islanders have transformed them into party
venues and summer cottages. They contrast strangely with some of the island’s
more attractive architecture, but have become part of the fabric of the place –
acting as striking punctuation amid Alderney’s mostly treeless, wide and
Jersey and Guernsey, where the inhabitants had to live under Nazi occupation,
Alderney was evacuated before the Germans invaded. After the war, the
population returned. ‘I was the first boy brought back in 1945,’ says Raymond
Goudion, born in exile in Plymouth. ‘My father made me a pram out of German
ammunition crates.’ Since he was 11, Ray has been a fisherman. His wooden hut
is a landmark of the harbour, with an impressive pair of lobster claws crossed
over its door.
mariners take superstitions seriously. When Victor Hugo noted that, ‘The Norman
fishermen, who frequent the Channel, have many precautions to take at sea,’ he
could have been writing about Ray.
‘The one we
all stick to is that we won’t mention the four-leggers,’ Ray mutters. ‘You
know, the underground racehorse.’ He means rabbits – a word it is best to avoid
saying out loud near the harbour. Channel Islands fishermen consider rabbits to
be the worst omen, for reasons unknown. Last year, a marine survey team from
the mainland sailed out with some Alderney fishermen. ‘Listen to me rabbiting
on,’ said a mainlander, innocently. Outraged, the fishermen turned the boat
around and returned to port. ‘Why put another risk on something?’ Ray growls.
‘I did once, and something went wrong.’ He won’t say what.
island was repopulated in 1945, a celebration was declared to bring the
community back together. Alderney Week remains the biggest and most anarchic
party of the year. Its landmark event is the Man-Powered Flight, for which
contestants build rudimentary wings and propellers and hurl themselves off the
harbour wall, flapping wildly. There are also sandcastle competitions,
all-night parties in disused bunkers, and pig races. (The winner this year was
Squealer; Chunky came second, and the ominously named Sausage a poor third.)
The culmination of the week is a torchlit procession to a bonfire by the sea.
people live on the island all year round, but many more have gathered tonight.
Torches are lit in the town square. Dressed in a gown and a diamanté tiara, the
woman chosen to be Miss Alderney leads the way down the high street, followed
by a raucous stream of people all brandishing foot-long tapers of unguarded
flame. ‘I’d love to see the health and safety assessment,’ remarks one
spectator to his companion. ‘It does look scary, actually,’ his friend replies,
as a five-year-old boy waves his flame alarmingly near some bunting.
‘Beautiful, though. Like a river of fire.’
procession moves to the bonfire ground, where revellers form a ring around a
stack of wood. In turn, each hurls his or her flaming torch onto the pile. A
wall of fire crackles into the night sky. The scene is so much like the finale
of ’70s horror film The Wicker Man that it could be unnerving. The worst these
islanders are likely to do to visitors tonight, though, is encourage them to
drink too much. Judging by the number of people who can be seen staggering
blearily out of disused bunkers the next morning, quite a lot of them did just
Sark: Headless horsemen and phantom hounds
One of the Channel Islands’ loveliest sights is La Coupée, a high land bridge
linking Big Sark and Little Sark. On the outcrop above the bridge, a low wind
ruffles the grasses and fronds of ferns. This is a sensational place for a
picnic, except for those afflicted with vertigo. Gulls swoop off the sides of
the winding path, down the sheer drop to the white sand and turquoise sea
hundreds of feet below. A horse and cart clop across the bridge, though the
driver has some difficulty persuading the horse to walk on. There are no cars
on Sark. If no horse is available, you’ll have to travel on a bike or on foot.
rather like a little Enid Blyton lifestyle,’ says Elizabeth Perrée, owner of La
Sablonnerie, the small hotel and restaurant on Little Sark, and one of only 600
Sarkese, the island’s residents. Sark is the most unspoilt of the Channel
Islands, and utterly enchanting, with dramatic cliffs, secluded beaches, and a
magical, otherworldly feel. It is like a fairy kingdom somehow separated from
modern times. ‘When we were growing up, there were all these stories about
witches flying down unguarded chimneys and so on,’ Elizabeth continues. ‘That’s
why some of the chimneys here still have caps on. They took it very seriously
in Guernsey. But one’s parents were quite sensible, you know.’
In the cosy
front room of La Sablonnerie, Elizabeth is happy to share some of her homemade
sloe gin as well as a few ghost stories. It is all too easy to stay until long
after the sun has gone down. Most of Sark has no street lighting and crossing
back over La Coupée to Big Sark in the pitch dark is a real challenge. Railings
were installed on either side of La Coupée in 1900. It is remarkable to think
that, before then, people often crawled along this slender bridge on their
hands and knees, gripping tightly in high winds and trying not to tumble
hundreds of feet down to the rocks and sea below. ‘Do watch out for the
headless horseman,’ Elizabeth says as she waves goodbye. A ghostly rider is
supposed to pursue late-night travellers across La Coupée.
in the Milky Way glimmers with perfect clarity in the cloudless sky: diamonds
flung across black velvet. The headless horseman is not the only demon to haunt
this perilous bridge. According to 19th-century Sarkese legend, travellers who
are seriously out of luck may see the Tchico. This is a phantom hound the size
of a calf, with eyes that burn red in the night. If the Tchico chases you, it
is an omen of certain death.
across the bridge, there is a distant clip-clop. At the other end, it’s just
possible to make out the shape of a horse. The warm summer night temperature
seems to drop several degrees. Is this the headless horseman, come to claim
another victim? There is no way off the path: no choice but to face the ghoul.
As the horse closes in, its outline becomes clear: thank goodness, it is
attached to a cart, and the driver is fully human and has a head. ‘Evening,’
she says cheerfully. ‘Just on my way back from town. Isn’t it a lovely night?’
Guernsey: Witches, a friendly ghost and an
commoner than sorcerers in Guernsey,’ Victor Hugo observed. Though that would
now be something of an exaggeration, the island does have a magical history.
During the witch craze that swept Europe in the 16th and 17th centuries, 103
people were found guilty of witchcraft on Guernsey alone. There is a plaque
commemorating a witch-burning in Guernsey’s capital, St Peter Port. The town is
arranged higgledypiggledy up a steep hill, with narrow flights of steps between
streets, and it is rumoured that some of the flights are haunted by those
witches who met their end in the flames.
alleged witches were accused of communing with the island’s pixies and were
thought to congregate at prehistoric burial sites. The most notorious pixie was
Le Barboue, or Old Bluebeard, said to wheel a barrow of parsnips angrily around
the parishes of St Pierre du Bois and Torteval. To appease the pixies, Guernsey
folk would leave a bowl of porridge out at night. Mostly, this seems to have
worked. Reports of pixie attacks have decreased since the 1600s.
their magical and mystical needs, Channel Islanders had two illicit books: Le
Grand Albert and Le Petit Albert. These had their origins in the 13th century,
though they were republished in the 17th and 18th centuries. The Priaulx
Library in St Peter Port keeps a few tattered Alberts among its collection. It
is considered terribly bad luck even to touch these volumes, but some of the
less superstitious librarians can be persuaded to retrieve them.
Albert is an encyclopedia of medieval and early modern medicine, including
homemade remedies involving herbs, precious stones and animals. It is Le Petit
Albert that causes the real trouble. This is a how-to manual of witchcraft and
wizardry, filled with talismans, horoscopes and recipes for love potions.
Anyone brave enough to delve into its spells may learn how to use magic to
manufacture fake gold, calm a wild horse or ripen a melon.
17th-century Guernsey, Le Petit Albert was much feared. Throwing it away was
said to be impossible. One reformed wizard tried drowning his copy in the sea
but by the time he arrived home it was back in its usual place on his
bookshelf. Then he tried to burn it. Again, it returned. Finally, he gave it a
formal burial, with full religious rites. After that, it remained six feet
the 20th century, the Channel Islands retained medieval structures of society
and government. In recent years, this has changed – though some traditions
remain. There is, for instance, a seigneur (or lord) on Jersey whose duty it
has been to present visiting British monarchs with two dead mallards. ‘What
does it mean to be a seigneur now?’ says Peter de Sausmarez, the seigneur of
Guernsey’s charming Sausmarez Manor. ‘Practically nothing, actually.’
history goes back to the Middle Ages. ‘We moved here about 1205 or 1220 or
something like that,’ he says, waving a hand at hundreds of years’ worth of
family portraits on the dining-room wall. Now, his hobby is conducting ghost
tours. Sausmarez Manor is thought to be full of ghosts, notably the Nanny of
the 28 Children.
‘One of my
ancestors had 28 children,’ Peter explains. He first encountered this nanny
when he left his two small sons alone in the house one evening. He returned to
find the boys perfectly calm. ‘A lady came to read us a story and tuck us into
bed,’ they said. The lady’s identity was a mystery, until one relative said
that the ghostly Nanny of the 28 still turned up to comfort frightened
children. ‘My wife said, “My God, if we could get hold of her, we could have
free babysitting forever!”’ says Peter.
children are grown up, the Nanny has returned. She was recently heard singing
to his infant grandson over a baby monitor. ‘My brain says it’s not possible,’
says Peter, ‘but one’s got so much evidence that things like this happen all
strange things do seem to happen in these curious islands. Just outside St
Martin’s Parish Church is a mysterious 4,000-year-old stone statue of a woman
known as La Gran’mère du Chimquière, or the Grandmother of the Cemetery. Even
now, locals leave flowers and coins for her. Was she a pagan goddess? An
ancient queen? Or – according to one local story – Julius Caesar’s granny? (Caesar’s
grannies were, of course, younger than the statue; but the Gran-mère was
recarved in the time of Caesar, 2,000 years ago, to give her a Roman makeover.)
Historians and archaeologists aren’t sure. Today, La Gran-mère has been offered
a white cyclamen, three daisies and £1.87. As the Alderney fisherman so wisely
said, why put another risk on something? The angry parsnip pixie might be
lurking nearby. I place 50p on top of La Gran-mère’s head, and it must have
been a trick of the light – she almost seemed to wink.
The article 'The Channel Islands’ surviving lore' was published in partnership with Lonely Planet Traveller.