Trail of the unexpected: Victor Hugo’s Guernsey

The author of 'Les Misérables' relished exile in Guernsey. Nick Boulos traces his steps

Not everyone starts their day with two raw eggs washed down with a cup of cold coffee and an icy strip-down wash in full view of their neighbours. But then, not everyone lived life like Victor Hugo did.

The 19th-century French poet, playwright and novelist was an arch- republican during the time of Napoleon III. Because of his outspoken political views he was exiled from his homeland. He fetched up in Jersey in 1852, and moved on to Guernsey in 1855. He spent 15 highly productive years there, the island's "severe yet gentle" beauty inspiring him to write Toilers Of The Sea.

Hugo didn't have the most auspicious arrival: his unfinished manuscript of Les Misérables was almost swept overboard into the choppy Channel following his stormy crossing from Jersey. But during his time on Guernsey he roamed the clifftops and bays, strolled the cobbled streets of the capital, St Peter Port, and browsed in the antiques shops. As a result, the island lists more than 40 points of interest to Hugo enthusiasts, and a guided walk of St Peter Port is good way to tick off a fair few of them.

My guide, Gill Girard, leads me from a medieval harbour where Hugo first arrived and into deserted, cobbled backstreets in the Old Quarter. This is where the writer had his hair cut daily. Before reaching Hugo's imposing Victorian home, we pause at a more modest property several doors down.

The terraced house at number 20 was home to Juliette Drouet, Hugo's long-term mistress, who joined him in Guernsey following his exile.

"His wife, Adele, knew all about it. There was a mutual understanding," says Girard. "The couple would communicate to each other by tying coloured hankies to the railings outside their homes: white if they'd slept well; black if they hadn't."

Hugo's three-storey Hauteville House, easily the grandest on the street, is now owned by the City of Paris. We are shown into the hallway, which is surprisingly dark and oppressive. A creaky wooden staircase spirals out of view; heavy doors and intricately carved wooden panels line the walls.

According to Girard, the property, with its secret doors and bold interiors, was designed to intrigue and challenge visitors, reflecting Hugo's view that knowledge leads one into the light. His glass, rooftop lookout, reached via the third-floor library, allows a column of sunlight to illuminate the length of the staircase. A simple, drop-down table in his study is the place where Hugo put the finishing touches to Les Misérables. This room was a haven; he would sleep, write and (much to the dismay of his neighbours) wash up here, savouring sea views over the neighbouring Channel islands of Sark, Herm and, on a clear day, France. He likened his house to "a seagull's nest high above the immense foam of the waves".

Later, I retrace Hugo's footsteps on a walk he described as a "spectacle full of enchantment". Having worked all morning, the author would often spend an afternoon on the pebble beach at Fermain Bay.

The coastal trail weaves its way along towering granite cliffs before descending into a hushed, lilac landscape of bluebell woodland. Before long, Fermain Bay appears far below, surrounded by lush trees clinging to the cliffs that jut out into the sea. A solitary boat rocks amid the blue water, which fizzles over the large, grey pebbles where Hugo would read his mail and write love letters to Drouet in between taking dips in the Channel.

The next day I stroll along the succession of long, sandy bays around Port Soif on the north coast. It was here – somewhere – that Hugo made the ultimate purchase: his very own island. The exact location of his rocky atoll is a mystery, but Hugo's private getaway is known to be one of the many nutmeg-brown isles along this shore that are accessible only at low tide. Necker Island it isn't – but the coast is striking nevertheless. Surfers brave the biting waters as families walk among the rolling caramel sand dunes that border the beach, seaweed strewn across it like emerald ribbons.

Hugo became utterly consumed by the "wild and picturesque" nature of this part of the island, often identifying strange shapes in the rocks – his "lion and camel" can be found at Cobo Bay.

Back in St Peter Port, I let myself into another must-visit spot. Ask nicely at the Guernsey Museum and you are loaned a long, iron key to Victoria Tower.

I climb the twisting stairs to the top for views over the city, sea and countryside. Hugo and his lover stole precious moments here. Like lovesick teenagers, they were said to have carved their initials somewhere in the tower, though no one has ever found them.

Travel essentials: Guernsey

Getting there

* Sail from Weymouth, Poole and Portsmouth to Guernsey with Condor Ferries (0845 609 1024;

* The writer travelled with Aurigny Air Services (01481 822886; ), which flies from Gatwick, Stansted, East Midlands and Manchester. Flybe (0871 700 2000; ) has links from Belfast City, Birmingham, Edinburgh, Exeter, Manchester, Gatwick, Newcastle, Norwich and Southampton – the last of which is also served by Blue Islands (08456 20 21 22; ).

Staying there

* Doubles at Bella Luce (01481 238764; start from £130 per night.

Visiting there

* Local guide Gill Girard (07781 104094; leads 90-minute Victor Hugo walks for £5.

More information

* Guernsey Tourist Board: 01481 723552;

The Independent travel offers: Discover a world of inspiring destinations

people'It can last and it's terrifying'
Danny Welbeck's Manchester United future is in doubt
footballGunners confirm signing from Manchester United
footballStriker has moved on loan for the remainder of the season
footballFeaturing Bart Simpson
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
New Articles
Olivia Colman topped the list of the 30 most influential females in broadcasting
Kelly Brook
peopleA spokesperson said the support group was 'extremely disappointed'
The five geckos were launched into space to find out about the effects of weightlessness on the creatures’ sex lives
Life and Style
techIf those brochure kitchens look a little too perfect to be true, well, that’s probably because they are
Andy Murray celebrates a shot while playing Jo-Wilfried Tsonga
TennisWin sets up blockbuster US Open quarter-final against Djokovic
Arts and Entertainment
Hare’s a riddle: Kit Williams with the treasure linked to Masquerade
booksRiddling trilogy could net you $3m
Arts and Entertainment
Alex Kapranos of Franz Ferdinand performs live
music Pro-independence show to take place four days before vote
ebookHow to enjoy the perfect short break in 20 great cities
news Video - hailed as 'most original' since Benedict Cumberbatch's
Life and Style
The longer David Sedaris had his Fitbit, the further afield his walks took him through the West Sussex countryside
lifeDavid Sedaris: What I learnt from my fitness tracker about the world
Arts and Entertainment
Word master: Self holds up a copy of his novel ‘Umbrella’
booksUnlike 'talented mediocrity' George Orwell, you must approach this writer dictionary in hand
Independent Travel Videos
Independent Travel Videos
Simon Calder in Amsterdam
Independent Travel Videos
Simon Calder in Giverny
Independent Travel Videos
Simon Calder in St John's
Independent Travel Videos
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

ES Rentals

    iJobs Job Widget
    iJobs Travel

    Marketing Executive / Member Services Exec

    £20 - 26k + Benefits: Guru Careers: A Marketing Executive / Member Services Ex...

    Sales Account Manager

    £15,000 - £25,000: Recruitment Genius: A fantastic opportunity has arisen for ...

    VB.NET and C# developer (VB.NET,C#,ASP.NET)

    £30000 - £45000 per annum + Bonus+Benefits+Package: Harrington Starr: VB.NET a...

    Business Development Manager / Sales Pro

    £30 - 35k + Uncapped Comission (£70k Y1 OTE): Guru Careers: A Business Develop...

    Day In a Page

    'I’ll tell you what I would not serve - lamb and potatoes': US ambassador hits out at stodgy British food served at diplomatic dinners

    'I’ll tell you what I would not serve - lamb and potatoes'

    US ambassador hits out at stodgy British food
    Radio Times female powerlist: A 'revolution' in TV gender roles

    A 'revolution' in TV gender roles

    Inside the Radio Times female powerlist
    Endgame: James Frey's literary treasure hunt

    James Frey's literary treasure hunt

    Riddling trilogy could net you $3m
    Fitbit: Because the tingle feels so good

    Fitbit: Because the tingle feels so good

    What David Sedaris learnt about the world from his fitness tracker
    Saudis risk new Muslim division with proposal to move Mohamed’s tomb

    Saudis risk new Muslim division with proposal to move Mohamed’s tomb

    Second-holiest site in Islam attracts millions of pilgrims each year
    Alexander Fury: The designer names to look for at fashion week this season

    The big names to look for this fashion week

    This week, designers begin to show their spring 2015 collections in New York
    Will Self: 'I like Orwell's writing as much as the next talented mediocrity'

    'I like Orwell's writing as much as the next talented mediocrity'

    Will Self takes aim at Orwell's rules for writing plain English
    Meet Afghanistan's middle-class paint-ballers

    Meet Afghanistan's middle-class paint-ballers

    Toy guns proving a popular diversion in a country flooded with the real thing
    Al Pacino wows Venice

    Al Pacino wows Venice

    Ham among the brilliance as actor premieres two films at festival
    Neil Lawson Baker interview: ‘I’ve gained so much from art. It’s only right to give something back’.

    Neil Lawson Baker interview

    ‘I’ve gained so much from art. It’s only right to give something back’.
    The other Mugabe who is lining up for the Zimbabwean presidency

    The other Mugabe who is lining up for the Zimbabwean presidency

    Wife of President Robert Mugabe appears to have her sights set on succeeding her husband
    The model of a gadget launch: Cultivate an atmosphere of mystery and excitement to sell stuff people didn't realise they needed

    The model for a gadget launch

    Cultivate an atmosphere of mystery and excitement to sell stuff people didn't realise they needed
    Alice Roberts: She's done pretty well, for a boffin without a beard

    She's done pretty well, for a boffin without a beard

    Alice Roberts talks about her new book on evolution - and why her early TV work drew flak from (mostly male) colleagues
    Get well soon, Joan Rivers - an inspiration, whether she likes it or not

    Get well soon, Joan Rivers

    She is awful. But she's also wonderful, not in spite of but because of the fact she's forever saying appalling things, argues Ellen E Jones
    Doctor Who Into the Dalek review: A classic sci-fi adventure with all the spectacle of a blockbuster

    A fresh take on an old foe

    Doctor Who Into the Dalek more than compensated for last week's nonsensical offering