Eight hundred? What's there to celebrate in the number 800? One hundred, yes. One thousand, sure. But 800? Beats me. Yet that's the number they're celebrating in Jersey this year - 800 years of allegiance to the British throne. Some
ambitious tourist officer obviously wised up to the fact that (roughly) 800 years ago Jersey was given the choice of allying itself with either Normandy or England and chose the latter. Suddenly it's party time!
Anyway, in the spirit of pointless excuses, I'm hopping on VLM's first flight to Jersey to find out just what it is about this little island off the north-west coast of France and its penchant for numbers. (Perhaps it's a size thing?) And an hour later, I'm on the road with Christopher Journeaux, marketing manager of Jersey Heritage, notebook at the ready.
"So, Christopher, just how big is Jersey?" I ask, licking the tip of my pencil, reporter style. "Just nine miles by five. But we have 500 miles of road. In 33 years, I still haven't driven down every one of them." (I believe him: it's taking an awfully long time to get to our first port of call, Grosnez Castle, just five miles from the airport.)
"My family are one of the original six families of Jersey," Christopher continues. "Though others might tell you different. No one's quite sure where these original settlers came from - Normandy, Brittany and England are the likely starting points. We think my family arrived in the 14th century." (Hmm, these numbers are getting a bit vague.)
"We've got three accents on the island - St Ouen, spoken on the west side, St Martin's, in the east, and Trinity, to the north and the east - they're also the names of three of Jersey's 12 parishes." (I'm glad this guy's showing me round - he's a mine of information.)
"Yes, we have our own language - Jerriais. But by the early 1970s there was so much emigration to Canada that more people spoke it there than on the island. You see, we have strong links with Canada because it was part of the Cod triangle, except it has four sides: Jersey, Newfoundland, the Caribbean and the Mediterranean."
Well, one thing's for sure, they like their numbers on Jersey. (Their favourite is zero - the amount of income tax they pay.)
Christopher stops the car in front of Grosnez Castle, a pile of granite dating from the 1300s which sadly doesn't translate as "big nose". We're only going as far as the headland but he locks the doors. (After all, Bergerac had to solve at least 100 crimes a week here, remember.)
"Is there much crime on Jersey," I ask as we pass through the ruined castle gate.
"No," confirms Christopher.
"But didn't you have a riot after Portugal beat England in Euro 2004?" I venture.
"Oh yes," he replies. "Well, we called it a riot. The BBC called it a disturbance. I accidentally walked into it. They were attacking a Portuguese restaurant - we have a big Madeiran community on the island - and I heard this voice shout: "F**k off back home." It was ironic really, because the bloke had an accent from the north-east of England."
On the headland, we look out at the other Channel Islands - Alderney, Sark, Brecquo, Herm and Guernsey.
"My Dad used to tell me you have to have £20,000 in the bank to be able to live on Jersey," I tell him.
"No, you have to rent here for 16 years to be eligible to buy land," he corrects me. (Sixteen? Now that's another funny number.)
Back in the car, we head across the island to another castle, Mont Orgueil. "Are there any more castles," I ask. "No," says Christopher "but we have four museums, an art gallery and an archive. There are three cinemas on the island, too. That's more screens per capita than anywhere else in Europe." (Never mind the numbers game. We're playing recordbreakers now.)
Half an hour and many more stats later we arrive at Mont Orgueil. "What are the island's main industries?" (I feel strangely compelled to keep up the tally as we head into the fort.)
"Finance is the No 1 industry," confirms Christopher.
"What about spuds - is that number two?" I ask.
"No," he shakes his head. "Probably tourism. And knitting used to be big."
"Knitting?" I'm confused.
"Yes, knitting Jerseys." (Jerseys, of course.) "They made it illegal to knit during daylight hours, in an attempt to encourage the men to do agricultural work. And it was also illegal to knit in church, to stop the clicking of needles drowning out the vicar's sermon." He laughs: "My grandmother used to say that if your Jersey went wrong, you should call it a Guernsey."
From inside the castle walls, we look out at the Royal Bay of Grouville. "It gets the fourth largest tidal flow in the world." (I can't get enough of these numbers.) "At low water, you can sometimes walk almost two miles out to sea over at La Rocque. This is where we held the Jersey Revels in June to celebrate the 800th anniversary."
Back in the car, we're off for our last port of call, the capital, St Helier. (I must say, I am disappointed - I haven't seen one brown Jersey cow to say "how now" to.) "A colleague of mine described Jersey as Surrey-on-Sea," I tell him. "But it doesn't look like Surrey to me. I mean all the street names are in French. And it's got better beaches." But then we pull into St Helier, and it really could be Guildford or any of its suburban neighbours.
It's Surrey in spirit, too; we're here to see the first full-size holographic portrait of the Queen (actually, there are two - one's in Buck House). It's as odd as the celebrations of which it's a highlight: a giant postage stamp, glowing blue in the half-dark, Liz's eyes following every step you take. "Are you all royalists?" I ask.
"Oh yes, we take our allegiance to the throne very seriously. You see the Queen's our Duke."
They're strange these Jersey folk. But it seems to me there's plenty to recommend their island without resorting to dubious anniversaries.
Kate Simon travelled to Jersey courtesy of VLM Airlines (020-7476 6677; www.flyvlm.com), which offers return flights from London City to Jersey from £56.20 in August. Connections are also available from Manchester and Liverpool. For further information on Jersey contact Jersey Tourism (01534 500700; www.jersey.com).