Cycling in Jersey

On a cycling tour of Jersey Anthony Lambert discovers historic fortresses, beautiful birdlife, seaweed buns - and a fierce local brew
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The Independent Travel

The tyres whipped up a fine spray as I scorched across the beach, bum a few inches off the ground with one hand on the steering column and the other on the sail rope. For my introduction to blokarting (like go-karting, but using a sail), I had chosen a quiet Monday and the three-mile-long arc of Jersey's St Ouen's Bay.

With only three people and two dogs on the entire beach to witness my initiation into the sport, my instructor showed me how to adjust the speed - pulling on the rope to tighten the sail, or to release it. The acceleration when the wind catches the sail is exhilarating. The tricky part is tacking and turning: lose momentum and you may have to rotate the wheels by hand. But once the skill is mastered, you can fly up and down the beach.

To explore the island further, however, I opted for a more traditional means of transport: bicycle. You might think it would take no time to cover an island nine miles by five, but it has 350 miles of roads with a 96-mile signposted cycle network. I hired the bike in St Aubin from Jersey Cycletours, which occupies one of the tunnels built during the German occupation.

You can never be seriously far from where you think you are, but the warren of lanes calls for careful map reading. Heading for the scenic bay at Grève de Lecq on the north coast, I careered down the steep hill to the tiny harbour and scattering of houses beyond one of the island's 24 circular Jersey towers, which were built from 1778 until superseded by the cam-shaped Martello tower in 1794.

Fortified by a fresh crab sandwich, I turned inland, pausing to admire the 18-tonne waterwheel beside Le Moulin de Lecq, now a thriving pub. It was soon after passing the National Trust for Jersey's Morel Farm and granite cider press that I saw the sign: "Danger: Kamikaze squirrels". The embowered lane with steep banks was the perfect place for rodents to ambush unsuspecting cyclists, but I emerged unscathed and never discovered what perils prompted the notice.

Excavation work on the scale of Tolkien's Mines of Moria was undertaken by the Germans to create underground fortifications, and I stopped to see the Ho8 underground hospital started in 1941 by 5,000, mostly Russian, workers. Today, as the Jersey War Tunnels, it is used to tell the story of the occupation through film, oral recollections and photographs. Off its cold, whitewashed tunnels are an operating theatre, dispensary, staff quarters, kitchens, telephone exchange and boiler room, with uncompleted tunnels illuminated to show the grim conditions in which the forced labour worked.

Cycling parallel to the north coast and its idyllic footpath, I reached the east coast at Gorey, the harbour dominated by Jersey's strongest medieval fortress, Mont Orgueil Castle. The headland on which it stands has been inhabited since Palaeolithic times, but the jumble of stone towers and crenellated walls dates from the early 13th century, successively modified to take account of artillery.

The perfect place to watch the castle darken as the sun sets, and lighten as the floodlights take over, is on the balcony at Suma's restaurant, which has some of the most enticing dishes on the island. If foie gras crème brûlée with pumpkin jam and an orange salad sounds too much like a Heston Blumenthal experiment, there's local scallops, pea purée and pancetta with a shellfish sauce or local brill in a shellfish chowder.

The following day I joined Mike Stentiford for a walk west around St Aubin's Bay from Noirmont Point, which was bought by the state in memory of the islanders who lost their lives in the war. Mike is one of many guides who lead a programme of more than 750 walks a year, with themes ranging from the round towers, farming, ghosts, harbours and havens to Lillie Langtry, the actress and mistress of Edward VII who was born at St Saviour's rectory on the outskirts of St Helier.

Beneath a cobalt sky, the headland covered in gorse, broom and evergreen oaks had a Mediterranean feel. The common gorse once provided grazing for cattle and fuel, but its greatest value now is as a habitat for linnet, stonechat and the rare Dartford warbler, whose screechy cry we heard moments before a pair took to the air. As we walked across Portelet Common overlooking St Brelade's Bay, a flash from the heather betrayed a blue-winged grasshopper: the insects burrow there during the spring and summer.

At the western end of the bay is St Brelade's church. It incorporates the oldest Norman stonework on the island, and the adjacent 11th-century Fishermen's Chapel has some exceptional 14th-century wall-paintings that looked down on cannons and weapons when the chapel was used as an armoury.

On my last night, I booked a "Moonwalk". This extraordinary experience is made possible by the expansion of Jersey from 45 to 116 square miles when the tide is out. Only the Bay of Fundy off Nova Scotia and Mont St Michel have a tidal reach of comparable size. Guided walks take place during the day, but monthly night walks close to the full moon are much more atmospheric.

We met by the slipway at La Rocque, built for horses and carts to reach the beach to gather seaweed for fertiliser. It was near here in 1781 that French troops invaded, surprising the lieutenant-governor in his bed. He surrendered, but 24-year-old Major Pierson defied orders and rallied the troops to defeat the French in the Royal Square at St Helier, at the cost of his life. John Singleton Copley's painting of this event in the Battle of Jersey hangs in Tate Britain.

The three-hour walk was led by Andrew Syvret, a marine biologist whose uncle is the lighthouse-keeper at Corbière. This stretch of coast is renowned for its exceptional diversity of sea life, with 160 types of seaworm and 165 kinds of mollusc. There were about 20 of us, and those without wellingtons soon regretted it as we sloshed across rivulets and channels. The movements excited phosphorescent pinpricks of light from the tiny single-celled Noctiluca scintillans, carnivorous jellyfish-like creatures that swarm in their millions and can sometimes be seen in the wake of boats at night.

Pools of water were spangled by the light of the moon as scudding clouds briefly darkened our progress towards an outcrop and the isolated Seymour Tower. Built of granite in 1782 to deter a recurrence of French aggression, the square tower was named after the island's governor, General Sir Henry Seymour Conway. Short straws must have been drawn among German soldiers for the duty of garrisoning the dank tower after D-Day, to stop islanders attempting to row to nearby France.

A restorative Calvados and vraic (seaweed) bun were issued as we sat on the wall of the tower's platform and learnt the historic importance of the 240 species of seaweed. We heard the story of the missing rock with the letter P: six rocks were carved at low tide to mark the area given to the Payn family in 1747 for the exclusive harvesting of seaweed. Only five have since been located. The danger of searching for the missing rock was apparent from the laddered pylon and platform at the half-way point; it has saved many lives when the tide came racing in to catch the foolhardy unawares.

As the sound of banging drifted across the sea, I wondered about the strength of the local brew. However, the noise was caused by fishermen banging boxes to frighten fish into their nets. I wonder what explanation those on the ghost walks are given.

TRAVELLER'S GUIDE

GETTING THERE

Condor Ferries (0845 345 2000; www.condorferries.com) sails to St Helier from Poole and Weymouth. You can fly from the mainland on FlyBe (0871 700 0535; www.flybe.com), Bmibaby (0870 264 2229; www.bmibaby.com), British Airways (0870 850 9850; www.ba.com) and Atlantic Express (08703 304748; www.atlanticexpress.co.uk).

STAYING THERE

Les Burins Guest House, rue du Croquet (01534 746777; www.lesburins.co.uk). B&B starts at £90.

VISITING THERE

Blokarting costs £32 for two hours with Pure Adventure (01534 769165; www.activejersey.com). Bike hire: Jersey Cycletours, St Aubin (01534 482898): £13.50 for the first day, £6.50 thereafter. Tours from £239.

Mike Stentiford Wildlife Walks (01534 861114). Andrew Syvret's summer moonlight walks are now fully booked. However, the tourist board lists various guided walks on the island: www.jersey.com/walking.

German Underground Hospital, St Lawrence (01534 860808; www.jerseywartunnels.com).

Mont Orgeuil Castle, Gorey (01534 853292; www.jerseyheritagetrust.org).

EATING & DRINKING THERE

Café de Lecq, Grève de Lecq (01534 482682).

Suma's, Gorey Hill, St Martin (01534 853291).

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