Game on in a feisty Guernsey

The island may have a sleepy reputation, but a football derby tells the real story, says Chris Leadbeater

There is tension on the air – a tautness to the morning that speaks of big-match nerves. Sipping a coffee over breakfast in the Duke of Richmond Hotel, I dissect the pre-game analysis in the local paper. It is a picture of worry. One columnist frets that the hosts have not beaten their opponents on home turf in 12 years. Another says that the visiting coach is indulging in "mind games" with his claim to underdog status. Statistics are produced, prior fixtures digested. Outside, St Peter Port slips down to the Channel, all anticipation.

The Guernsey Press is not obsessing about a far-off Premier League tussle. This is the final of the Muratti Vase – a football tournament that has been contested by the Channel Islands of Guernsey, Jersey and Alderney since 1905. And today will see the two largest Channel Islands face each other on Guernsey soil in a derby that will mimic the fire and feistiness of any played in Manchester or Liverpool.

Of course, feistiness is not an attribute that one normally associates with Guernsey. Here is a sea-swaddled enclave that is usually considered in a more sleepy light, all waterfront teashops and sliced cake, gentle B&Bs and autumnal holidaymakers dozing on benches.

Yet a visit to this island of 65,000 people reveals an independence of spirit; a sparkiness that is born of location. Guernsey stands guard 75 miles below the English south coast, 31 miles west of Normandy and 28 miles north-west of Jersey – a relative isolation that has long given it the liberty to cherry-pick its allegiances.

As a British Crown Dependency it is loosely tied to London, but is part of neither the UK nor the EU. It has its own parliament and has enjoyed the right to self-government for more than 800 years. In 1204 France seized the Normandy lands that had pertained to the English throne since 1066 – except Guernsey (and the other Channel Islands), which, espying an opportunity, vowed fidelity to the flailing King John – rather than his French foe Philip II – in exchange for greater control of its own destiny.

It has remained fiercely individual ever since, supporting the Parliamentarian cause in the English Civil War when Jersey flew the Royalist pennant. It adopted its own flag in 1985, adding the gold cross of William the Conqueror to the red cross of St George, forging a banner that flutters readily in gardens. This jumbled identity is further blurred by word of mouth. Older residents speak a Norman-French patois, impenetrable to non-islanders – and street names are often inscribed in both French and English. Even now, Guernsey likes to keep an even-handed distance from both the big Channel nations.

Its independence was most notoriously put to the test between June 1940 and May 1945, when Guernsey bridled under the yolk of Nazi Germany. Exploring the south-western corner of the island, I am surprised at the lingering visibility of this era, gun placements and watch towers still appraising the sky for Spitfires. Pleinmont Tower adds grim concrete to the yellow and green gorse of the headland, while Fort Saumarez offers five-storey brutality as it rises over Rocquaine Bay, overlooking the smaller Fort Grey. The German Occupation Museum at Les Houards, in the south of the island does an excellent job of acknowledging a dark half-decade. The devil, though, is in the little details. On one wall, a copy of the Guernsey Evening Press "celebrates" the second anniversary of invasion in 1942, choking on its propaganda as it declares that "... the soldiers, in their dealings with locals, have conducted themselves immaculately. They are friendly and honest, generous and understanding".

The editor, Frank Falla, would later be deported to Germany as a punishment for placing real news of the war in the Press's sister paper, The Guernsey Star.

Other elements of the island are rather less hidden. Hauteville House, the epic four-floor mansion that was the home of the French novelist Victor Hugo between 1856 and 1870, is the main landmark in the capital St Peter Port. Now owned and operated from Paris, it is accessible via tours where French guides eulogise its ornate décor in awed tones. Candie Gardens, meanwhile, stretch out above the harbour, clinging to that quaint, unflustered idea of Guernsey in their flowery prettiness. At the top of the slope, a statue of Queen Victoria glowers in the direction of the water.

But there are also dashes of the modern. On the port-side street of North Quay, Tapenade is a stylish delicatessen that revels in local produce, including golden bricks of Guernsey butter. Restaurant Le Nautique serves gourmet seafood (a half-dozen Herm oysters costing £8.50). And, on the north shore of the island, Vistas proffers roasted pavé of salmon (for £14.75) in sight of the surfers on the grand arc of Vazon Bay.

The Duke of Richmond Hotel fits into the 21st-century version of Guernsey. It was bought by Red Carnation in 2011 and upgraded from traditional three-star to boutique four-star. From my balcony, the view takes in the neighbouring isle of Herm, three miles away, a vista that also encompasses the Old Government House Hotel, another Red Carnation property, refitted in 2008. A more conventional five-star, it has a flamboyant "secret". A framed panel on the wall of the Centenary Bar recalls the night in the early Eighties when an inebriated Oliver Reed took a running dive from the window of his top-floor room, landing with a mighty splash (and, remarkably, safely), in the courtyard swimming pool.

I have a chance to emulate the hell-raising thespian – not in drunken derring-do, but in leaping from unlikely heights. The south coast (especially in the parishes of Forest and St Martin) throws out towering cliffs and granite ridges that are ideal for "coasteering" – the curious pastime where you follow the line of the shore, clambering up rocky nuggets and jumping from others, plunging into the blue-green depths beneath. In my case, the contrast between wan May sunshine and the sudden cold of Petit Bot Bay is exhilarating, my wetsuit only vaguely dispelling the chilliness of the Channel's embrace.

This intriguing afternoon activity means that I do not hear the roar of the crowd – but it is impossible to miss the result. Guernsey wins the Muratti Vase 2-1, to evident jubilation.

Arriving at the airport that evening for the 45-minute hop to Gatwick, I find myself checking in behind the Jersey team. There are glum expressions above the tracksuits and the mood is not aided when the defeated players receive a mild ribbing from two young women in the air-side café.

"Would you like a glass of champagne?" one asks in genial fashion, but with a knowing grin, holding forth a small bottle of sparkling wine. "No thanks," replies the Jersey coach – in good humour. "It would have a rather sour taste."

Precious little else about this island of splendid self-determination has the same effect.

Travel Essentials

Getting there

Flights to Guernsey are operated by Aurigny (01481 822 886; aurigny.com), Flybe (0871 700 2000; flybe.com) and by Blue Islands (08456 20 21 22; blueislands.com) from a wide range of UK airports. Condor Ferries (01202 207 216; condorferries.co.uk) also sails to the island from Portsmouth, Weymouth and Poole.

Staying there

Duke of Richmond Hotel, Cambridge Park, St Peter Port (01481 726 221; dukeofrichmond .com). Double rooms from £135, including breakfast.

The Old Government House Hotel, St Ann's Place, St Peter Port (01481 724 921; theoghhotel.com). Double rooms from £170, with breakfast.

More information

Visit Guernsey (visitguernsey.com).

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