The Weasel: Channel hopping

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The Independent Online

We have just spent a week lolling on beaches, disturbing the innocent rest of periwinkles in rock pools, relishing the eggy pong of ageing seaweed and eating unfeasible quantities of crustaceans. Nothing so unusual about that, since the Weasel household normally passes August on the Yorkshire Riviera. Except we weren't. Our littoral rambles took place on a nibbled triangle of granite 75 miles from Weymouthand 40 miles from Cherbourg. It may seem strange to take a holiday from a holiday, but I was summoned to Guernsey to act as witness at the wedding of dear friends. After my onerous matrimonial duties ("Can you ensure that no confetti is thrown? Rose petals and rice, yes! Confetti, no!") and droll speechifying ("Act in haste, repent at leisure"), we tacked on a few days to explore an island that, according to Perry's Guide to Guernsey, "was voted in one international survey 'the happiest place in the world'."

Though it's a very pleasant spot, this seems to be overstating the case. Guerns (as they call themselves) do not pass their days in a state of blessed-out ecstasy. This is evident from their driving, which singularly fails to accord with another statement in Perry's paean: "Guernsey ... manages to avoid any emphasis on 'life in the fast lane'." Au contraire, as they would once have said, the fast lane is exactly what most islanders desire. Tooling along the byways of Guernsey in a hire car, identified by a large yellow "H" reminiscent of the red "A" worn by adulteress Hester Prynne in The Scarlet Letter, the visitor inevitably finds his titchy Fiesta or Focus pursued by a massive four-wheel drive (their ubiquity suggests that the island's winters must be akin to Alaska) about three inches from his rear bumper. Guerns always seem to be in a tearing hurry to be somewhere else in paradise. On the few straight stretches of road, residents try to double the top speed limit (35 mph). It seems a safe bet that if someone proposed the construction of a six-lane motorway to slash journey times on this rocky outcrop, nine miles by 12 miles at its widest points, the response would be a big YES or, in a few cases, OUI.

One of the nice things about Guernsey is "hedge veg", the rickety serve-yourself stalls at the edge of the road, where you can stop and buy toms, spuds and cucumbers – or at least you could if you didn't have a Jujitsu Sumomobile racing up your backside. The quality of the island veg is excellent, though commercial growers are in decline. At one time, 7 per cent of the island was under glass. Guernsey greenhouses successively grew dessert grapes, ornamental ferns and tomatoes. Now they are trying melons and capsicums, but many greenhouses are occupied by gigantic, triffid-like weeds, while others have lost their glass entirely, their white frames remaining like dinosaur bones. What Guernsey mainly grows these days is banks.

Their employees whiz round in Mercedes sports models and dine at such eateries as Le Petit Bistro in St Peter Port. Judging by the ear-splitting hilarity from an adjoining table, which prevented me giving an excellent coq au vin the attention it deserved, Guernsey bankers have avoided the dire results recently reported by their colleagues on the mainland. It was more like an AGM of laughing sailor automata. So incessant was the cackling that it would have been not too surprising if the most humour-smitten of the party had laughed his head off, which doubtless would have continued howling with merriment while it rolled into the gutter outside. Still, what else would you expect from "the happiest place in the world"?


Personally, I would not regard the influx of financial institutions as being an unmixed blessing for the island. If you're an incomer, the average price of a house on the open market is £970,000. The average price for a house on the "restricted market" (natives only) is £370,000. On the plus side, the GNP of Guernsey (pop. 65,573) was $3bn in 2005. This torrent of wealth has resulted in such benefits as free parking in St Peter Port. (Well, it is for most people. We managed to get a £30 fine because we presumed all parking places have a two-hour limit. They don't.) Unfortunately, other possible areas for state spending have been overlooked. This is most notably the case with the island's excreta. Though the Absolute Guernsey guide boasts that "the island prides itself on clean clear waters", the Marine Conservation Society points out that the same proud, clean island pumps 16,000 tons of raw sewage into the English Channel every day. The drawback of such blasé flushing became apparent earlier this month when an outlet pipe cracked.

Bathers and surfers were warned off and a water sports festival was cancelled. The spillage even affected the celebration we attended. The oysters that my Guernsey friend had been fattening for his wedding festivities were declared persona non grata. Overcoming prejudices carefully nurtured over a lifetime, the groom ordered oysters from Jersey, a community he cannot normally bring himself to name. Needless to say, I had more than my fair share of the bivalves. Oddly for an insular race, Guerns are not much drawn to oysters, rather like the residents of a larger island 75 miles to the north-west. Despite their provenance, the Jersey oysters were excellent, but I felt obliged to refer to the excluded Guernsey molluscs in my congratulatory toast. Well, it's traditional to remember absent friends.