It’s no surprise that, as a long-time cycling campaigner, my favourite of the Channel islands is Sark, where the only motor vehicles are a few tractors, but there’s more to it than that. People who choose to live on Sark (and almost everyone does make a positive choice, given the multitude of opportunities to leave the island, from school onwards) are all committed to its relaxed lifestyle where everyone has time to talk (often in the middle of the road) and to pursue slightly offbeat interests – I came across enthusiasts for astronomy (the island became Europe’s first Dark Sky Community, in 2011), sustainable agriculture, and sloe vodka and gin. Happily, someone has also set up a microbrewery.
Archeology is another local enthusiasm – it’s often said that Sark was uninhabited until Helier de Carteret arrived from Jersey to settle here in 1565, but it’s now clear, thanks to the work of Professor Sir Barry Cunliffe (the great expert on the prehistoric Atlantic world and the Celts) and fellow Oxford archeologists who have been working here for 15 years, that Neolithic farmers were here by 5,000 BC. The first settlers would have been hunter-gatherers but farming would have been introduced by about 4000BC, and sheep were raised from around 1500BC. The finds remain on the island and can be seen in the Heritage Room (open on weekdays from 11.00 to 13.00), next to the Sark Visitor Centre.
The painter and writer Mervyn Peake lived here for a couple of years from 1933 and likewise from 1946, pretty much exemplifying the island lifestyle. As a young artist in the 1930s he was known for painting naked (or wearing just a sombrero) on the cliffs; when he returned after the war he had a young family and rented the house previously occupied by the commanding officer of the German occupation force. The broadcaster Kate Humble is someone else who was partly formed by childhood summers on Sark.
It seems to work, as the island’s permanent population is a self-sustaining 500 to 600, with just enough incomers to replace those leaving for study and work elsewhere. It’s the world’s newest democracy (subject to correction), with the seigneur’s feudal powers replaced in 2008 by a semi-democratic system. The seigneur still owns the island (holding it as a fief from the Crown), but Christopher Beaumont, who inherited the job from his father in 2016, is a modern-minded chap (previously an officer in the Royal Engineers) who is restoring his house, the Seigneurie, and backing other projects for sustainable development of the island. However this was apparently not democratic enough for the twin Barclay brothers, owners of the Daily Telegraph and various lucrative property interests in London, who own the island of Brecqhou, just off Sark, and built themselves a château where I picture them stroking white cats while chuckling at their dastardly plans for world domination. They tried growing grapes for wine, which failed as the soil is too acidic, and proposed a funicular from the harbour and other ‘improvements’ which weren’t really wanted; then when their candidates were not elected in the new democratic elections they closed both their hotels on Sark in pique, instantly reducing visitor numbers by about 40%. However, the two other hotels on Sark, Stocks and La Sablonnerie, are both superb, and there are some B&Bs and self-catering options too. The French ferry company Manche-Îles, which links Sark with Jersey and the French mainland, also had engine trouble on one of its boats for much of 2018, providing a further hit to the economy.
Of the other islands, Herm is a little like Sark, with an even smaller population (just 60-65) and no cars, but it’s really just a hotel business with a small island attached, more like Tresco in the Scillies. Like the Île de Bréhat in Brittany and Padstow in Cornwall, both of which I visit most years with hiking groups, the ferries have different landing spots depending on the state of the tide. It was settled in Neolithic times, by Saints Tugual and Magloire in the 560s, and again by Norman monks in the tenth century. Jersey, Guernsey and Alderney all have their own charms but they’re much bigger and more populous, and maybe I’ll write about them separately some time.