Sark: The island where time stood still ... until now
This little Channel island's first elections disrupted its peaceful atmosphere. But tourists will now find the place as serene as ever, says Steve Usher
Sunday 12 July 2009
You see the shadows first, rippling across the hard ridges of sandy beach before accelerating skyward, soaring above the cliffs, where they arc back on themselves, crying and shrieking.
The wide-winged guardians of Gulls Chapel and Pointe Derrible seem to want to keep this beautiful idyll to themselves. This is Sark, smallest of the British Crown Dependencies, standing proud in the choppy English Channel like a giant oyster shell lushly topped with gorse and honeysuckle.
Bottle-nosed dolphins guide us into Maseline Harbour, where we wave goodbye to the Bon Marin De Serk, which has ferried us from St Peter Port on Guernsey, just 50 minutes' sail away. We climb on to the back of a tractor and pay £1 each for the ride up Harbour Hill. Sark is car free as well as carefree – no need for Sark-Nav.
Red Admirals and Jersey Tiger butterflies lead the way to the Bel Air pub, where Smudge, the short-eared old moggy, keeps a watchful eye on locals and visitors enjoying tax-free beer and cider at half mainland prices. The wind sweeps in from across the sea like an invisible hairbrush combing fields and woodlands bursting with wild garlic, borage, and briar rose, and forcing the children, playing in La Seigneurie Gardens maze, to duck down and hide.
Meanwhile, in Sark's "other" pub, The Mermaid, the talk is of getting the island's cider production going again. Ian Cunneen, 49, is a perfect example of how to survive on Sark. The tourist season is all too short and islanders must have more than one string to their bow. He does drains, he does sewers, he fixes boats, and he runs a publishing company. Oh, and he is planning to restart cider-making on Sark with an organic version weighing in at about 9 per cent strength.
"It will be organic cider. Nothing added, nothing taken away, just apples fermented twice. Me and some friends made cider last autumn and brought it up for people to try, but you need a production licence now. We are required to pay a small tax but not enough to put you off," he says, making do for now with a bottle of Rocquette cider shipped in from Guernsey.
Laws and licences are a new experience for people here. Until recently, an Elizabethan constitution allowed Sarkees to do pretty much what they wanted. Sark sets its own laws, its own tax regime and its own regulations through its parliament, the Chief Pleas. But Brussels Eurocrats want changes to make Sark's governance "human- rights compliant". So, Sark is tangled up in talks on revising a system that most of the 600 islanders know and trust.
The island held its first elections in December, becoming the last European territory to abolish feudalism, but it is still recovering from the well-documented turmoil those elections caused. When the preferred candidates of the Sarkees' Brecqhou neighbours, Sir David and Sir Frederick Barclay, failed to win seats, the businessmen shut their operations on the island resulting in lost jobs for a sixth of the community. But almost all the hotels and businesses are now open again. The Sarkees have a history of repelling unwanted influences that goes back to the Vikings. They can be choosy about who they welcome in.
A reminder of a true invasion is La Coupée, a sliver of dirt track connecting Big Sark to Little Sark, with 260ft drops on either side. It was rebuilt in 1945 by German prisoners of war following the Nazi occupation of the Channel Islands. Cyclists must dismount and cross on foot. Holidaymakers in carriages disembark until the horse and carriage are safely over to the other side. It is no place for the faint-hearted in a gale.
Little Sark enjoys breathtaking views from its rugged cliffs. There are also the shimmering clear waters of the Adonis and Venus pools to swim in, not to mention the sandy beach at La Grande Gréve.
It is also worth crossing La Coupée to Little Sark to dine on dishes such as fresh Sark lobster grilled with a lime and ginger butter glaze at the award-winning hotel and restaurant La Sablonnerie, run by Elizabeth Perrée, whose family has been in charge here for more than 300 years.
Our host at La Vaurocque, a family apartment on a private estate back on the main island, is the affable John Donnelly. He speaks with passion of the island he has lived on for 33 years. In the wake of the Barclays' investments and failed attempts to gain power in the recent elections, the notion that islanders are always engaged in petty squabbles has taken root in some quarters, but he says this is far from true. "We are all in it together here and everyone accepts that."
John's 19-year-old daughter, Olivia, appears with her Connemara pony, Prudence, and invites my daughter, Dorothy, to go for a ride through lanes lined with ragged robin and foxgloves. Sark is only three miles long and a mile-and-a-half wide, yet it offers great opportunities for riders, walkers, cyclists, sailors, scuba divers and fishermen. Wrasse, grey and red mullet, pollock, bass and bream can be landed from the rocks with rods. Mackerel, flatfish, dogfish, conger eel and whiting are plentiful further offshore.
As the sun sets over the Barclays' Brecqhou Bastille and the lights of St Peter Port in Guernsey twinkle away to the west, a party out on an evening bat walk pass by as we stand astride our bicycles at the foot of the Pilcher Monument, overlooking Havre Gosselin and enjoying the moment. The pace of life here is so relaxing that a week on Sark is worth two weeks anywhere else.
How to get there
From Guernsey, the Isle of Sark Shipping Company (01481 724059; sarkshippingcompany.com) has returns from £25. From Jersey, the Manche Îles Express ferry (01534 880756; manche-iles-express.com) offers return fares from £33. La Sablonnerie (01481 832061; lasablonnerie.com) has B&B from £30 per person per night.
Sark Tourism (01481 832345; sark.info).
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