The Channel Islands’ surviving lore

Discover the surprising history of this well-kept archipelago; situated between England and France is a land rich in legend and lasting tradition.

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.

Alderney: Legends of the sea, and a festival of fire
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 windswept landscapes.

Unlike 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.

Even today, 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.

After the 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.

Only 2,400 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.’

The 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 that.

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.

‘It’s 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.

Every star 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.

Halfway 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 angry pixie
‘Nothing is 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.

Guernsey’s 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.

For all 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.

Le Grand 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.

In 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 under.

Well into 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.’

Sausmarez 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.

Now Peter’s 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 the time.’

Indeed, 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.