Sark: Times change, even on this tiny island

Sark has become a democracy. Is it any different, asks Adrian Mourby

At 8am the Bon Marin de Serk pulls out of Guernsey harbour in the cold, clear morning light. The sea is calm but I'm not. It's been 16 years since I last visited Sark. I'm worried that it will have changed and I won't like it any more.

There's a noise from the quayside. Six young men running and shouting, some still pulling on coats. Half the Sark football team work on Guernsey and they've got a match this morning. The captain curses but turns the ferry round to pick them up. Maybe not too much has changed after all.

"Aye, aye, where you staying?"asks a portly goalkeeper who joins me on the bow.

"Little Sark," I say. "La Sablonnerie."

He whistles. "That's a long way." It's three miles, actually. Forty minutes by pony and trap from the harbour. I think Goalie doesn't go down the south end if he can help it.

As we draw near there's one change I do notice. Ahead on the adjoining island of Brechou, once part of Sark itself, there stands what looks like a huge power station. As we get closer I see it's a beautifully constructed faux medieval castle with perfect lawns, two helipads and batteries of security cameras. I don't remember this. A helicopter swoops over us. "That'll be the Brothers bringing folk in for the weekend," says Goalie. "They say David Cameron was here last week."

The "Brothers" are the billionaire twins Sir David and Sir Frederick Barclay, who've been doing battle with the Seigneur of Sark for several years. They even petitioned the Privy Council to ensure that Sark's reforms properly embraced democracy in accordance with European law. This will be Sark's first tourist season since it stopped being a feudal state.

Helicopter flight paths aside, not much else seems different. At Maseline harbour luggage is still loaded on to your hotel's tractor and the walk up to the Avenue is no less steep. The Avenue is Sark's dusty main street. Here is where you hire your bike and, if you arrive in business hours, you can draw money out of the bank. (ATMs are yet to reach Sark.)

There are not many things to do on this green, farmer's island; that is part of its prelapsarian charm. You can visit the Seigneurie (where the Dame of Sark famously demanded that occupying German officers wipe their feet). You can take a boat trip round the island with George or a pony and trap ride with Danny or Norman.

Norman is as old as they come. He knows the story behind every building on Sark. I think he watched most of them being built. As we pass the junior school, Norman laments that some families send their children away to the mainland now. "An' once they go and see how the other half lives, they never come back." He gives me a meaningful look and I have the very definite feeling that it was Norman who took me around 16 years ago.

"They've plans for a five-star hotel over there," says Norman shaking his head. "Open all year round!" Such a thing has never happened on Sark. "But we don't want helicopters landing here. Sometimes we hear them all weekend ferrying folk to Brechou. No, Sark has got to change but there's change and there's change, if you know what I mean."

We get back to the Avenue in time for a quick lunch at Le Petit Poulet, a little licensed cafe which only opened last year. When the owner, Kristina, came to Sark 17 years ago, Le Poulet was a cafe. Since then it's been all manner of shops. "Now it's a cafe again," she explains. That's Norman's kind of Sark. Things can change as long as they stay the same.

I spend the afternoon with George Guille, who has been piloting his boat around the island's rugged coastline for decades. In his time he has grown used to whole cliffs collapsing and caves disappearing. "The sea is always changing things. But there's a stack I've been telling folk about for years. 'You take a photograph of that! It won't be here next spring!' And yet it always is."

In the evening I cycle to La Sablonnerie, a gorgeous little farm converted into a hotel and run by Miss Elizabeth Perree, descendant of one of the 40 feudal families that settled the island in 1535. "We must remember, Sark has worked wonderfully for 450 years. It's the outsiders who come to the island because they love it, and lo and behold they want to change things once they get here. It'll be a tragedy if it becomes like anywhere else in the world."

I find myself agreeing. I love this little rock caught in its time warp. It can change as much as it likes. As long as it stays the same.

COMPACT FACTS

HOW TO GET THERE

Adrian Mourby travelled with Flybe (0871 700 2000; flybe.com), which flies from Southampton to Guernsey from £64 return. Ferry crossings to Sark cost £22 return with Isle of Sark Shipping (01481 724059; sarkshipping.info). La Sablonnerie (01481 832061; lasablonnerie. com) offers b&b in a double room from £67.50 per night.

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