Journey back in time

If you're after a British holiday the way things used to be, head for Alderney, says Andrew Hasson
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The Independent Travel

Where can you go for the perfect old-fashioned beach holiday, with long sweeps of dune-backed white sands, tiny lanes lined with overgrown hedgerows and sleepy little towns? The answer is the South Coast, and more specifically Brighton, Southampton or Bournemouth. But such nostalgia-tinted ideals are not to be found on this side of the English Channel - instead you must keep going, and catch a flight to a fragment of Britain only eight miles from the coast of Normandy.

Where can you go for the perfect old-fashioned beach holiday, with long sweeps of dune-backed white sands, tiny lanes lined with overgrown hedgerows and sleepy little towns? The answer is the South Coast, and more specifically Brighton, Southampton or Bournemouth. But such nostalgia-tinted ideals are not to be found on this side of the English Channel - instead you must keep going, and catch a flight to a fragment of Britain only eight miles from the coast of Normandy.

Alderney is the northernmost of the Channel Islands, and while it is tiny compared with Jersey and Guernsey it is at least big enough to have its own airport. And the range of flights to Alderney has increased this summer, including one from a place that became a city only four years ago yet already has a City airport. Brighton City is better known as Shoreham Aerodrome, but whatever its name it provides an excellent alternative to the stress of flying from larger hubs. You can park 20ft from the front door of the terminal and be taxiing down the runway 15 minutes later. The whole airport experience is utterly effortless.

Fifty minutes after taking off from "Brighton", our plane touched down in Alderney. Fellow passengers waved out of the window at relatives on the ground as we drew up next to the tiny terminal building. Five minutes later, I was handed my bag by the baggage handler and was on my way.

Alderney is the third-largest of the Channel Islands yet its dimensions are modest (three and a half by one and a half miles), as is its population of 2,400. On a clear day, which it has to be said are not guaranteed in the summer, the Cotentin Peninsula with Cherbourg at its head is easily visible, the Cap de la Hague shimmering in the distance.

The island's capital, St Anne, is a pleasant ten-minute stroll from the airport - in other words, you can be in the heart of the town within an hour of leaving the mainland. And the walk is a perfect introduction to the different pace of life here. After leaving my bag in the guesthouse, I hired a bike and set off down the hill towards the sea.

St Anne aside, Alderney is sparsely populated. There is evidence of habitation here since Neolithic times, traces of life going back to 8,000BC. Roman remains have also been found, but the greater part of the island's history revolves around its position between Britain and France. September 2004 will see celebrations marking 800 years of independence from the latter. When William the Conqueror became king of England in 1066, he took over the title and duchy of the Duke of Normandy, which included the Channel Islands. As a result, all subsequent monarchs, regardless of their gender, are known in Alderney as the Duke of Normandy.

In the mid 19th century, a massive building programme was launched to fortify the island against a perceived threat from France. For more than two decades the island was gripped by construction frenzy; a dozen or so forts were built, an enormous sea wall appeared at Braye and even Queen Victoria paid a visit to see the work in progress. The intention was to create a refuge for Britain's Channel Fleet should the need arise. It did not, and 16 years later, in 1886, all but one of the fortifications had been decommissioned.

During the Second World War, many of Alderney's residents fled when the Nazis invaded. The island was of great strategic importance to Hitler's Atlantic Wall, and German forces (using foreign prisoners) rebuilt the fortifications. Signs of the occupation still litter the land - on the beach at Saline I cycled past tank-traps and an anti-tank wall. Bunkers are dotted across the island and some of the islanders now live in them. In the summer, bunker parties are thrown in one of the larger ones.

I left my bike unlocked at the side of the road and wandered onto one of the beaches to swim in the shallow, clear water. Generally the broad, fine-sand beaches at the northern end of the island - Longis Bay, Corblets Bay, Braye Bay and Saye Bay - are the safest, and are practically deserted - a marked contrast to the beaches of southern England in July.

Longis is sheltered from the wind by the enormous German anti-tank wall. Saye is backed by dunes that protect the island's only campsite, and many of the beaches are perfect for rock pooling. It's all very Famous Five, and a fantastic place for young children to go exploring.

The beach at Saline, despite its beauty, is not recommended for swimming, for this is where the Swinge flows. This strong, heavy tide rushes along at times like a fast-flowing river. For centuries, ships have foundered in the waters around Alderney. Occasionally, goods from these wrecks would mysteriously find their way ashore and, according to a friend who lives on the island, "things would sometimes disappear".

On a bicycle it was easy to go from beach to beach in minutes. Paddling, building sand castles, sun bathing and nature watching are all uncomplicated options. Just out to sea on the west coast lie Ortac and Les Etacs, two rocks teeming with gannets. A little further out is the tiny, uninhabited bird sanctuary of Burhou, just half a mile in length.

I cycled past the Channel Islands' only working railway line, which was built to bring stone from the quarry to Braye. These days it carries visitors on the 20-minute ride in what must be the strangest railway sight in Britain: passengers are conveyed in an old Northern Line tube train, destination Golders Green.

On the way back to St Anne I stopped at the simple, touching war memorial dedicated, "In memory of all foreign labour who died in Alderney between the years 1040-1945. They also served." There were other plaques, presumably saying much the same thing in Polish, Hebrew, Russian, French and Spanish. It is still not known how many people died in the concentration camps that were built here during the Second World War.

Arriving back in St Anne on two wheels, I found the cobbled streets were less kind to the cyclist than the rest of the island's roads, so I left the bike at the guesthouse and explored on foot. Picture-perfect, the town looks a little French but feels very English. There are more than a dozen pubs in St Anne, some open all day, others until 1am.

The islanders are also very friendly. Everyone I passed said hello and I was even stopped by one old woman who asked if I was enjoying my visit. "Oh, that is good," she said, when I replied that I was. "I hope you come again, dear." "So do I," I said, and shook her hand.

TRAVELLER'S GUIDE

GETTING THERE

The author travelled with Rockhopper (01481 824567; www.rockhopper.aero) from Brighton City airport. The usual fare is £109 return. Rockhopper also flies from Bournemouth. Aurigny Air Services (01481 822886; www.aurigny.com) flies from Southampton. Alderney has sea links with Guernsey, Cherbourg and Dielette.

GETTING AROUND

Andrew Hasson hired a bike from JB Cycle Hire (01481 822294) although there are other cycle-hire companies. Car rental is possible, though given the size of the island it would seem to be an unnecessary luxury - taxis

are widely available.

ACCOMODATION

The author stayed at the Farm Court Guest House, where rooms cost between £32 and £42 per person, based on two sharing. Room rates vary depending on the time of year and all prices include breakfast

MORE INFORMATION

Contact the Alderney Tourist Information Centre on 01481 823737 or go to www.alderney.net

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