I had set my new alarm clock for 4:50 and my phone for 5 a.m. I’m not used to getting up at this time! I set off at 5.25 and the taxi across the street was waiting for me. It took exactly 55 minutes to Manchester airport. There was no traffic as we passed through streets lined with frost covered cars. Most of the houses were still in total darkness. It was really nice being dropped off at the terminal. It’s the first time I’ve used a taxi, and like going business class for the first time it’s something I could get accustomed to! It took 45 mins to get through security – after they had tasered my 4 tubes of watercolour paint. It was probably a busy day for people to travel, the day after New Year’s Day and even at this time the airport was bust but there was no line at Guernsey Airline check-in desk. A was surprised, a little aghast, and rather excited to see that I was to fly on a plane with propellers for the first time. A tiny little plane, 3 seats per row, one bathroom and two flight attendants. Even the pilot was female! Apart from the noise level as we took off and landed I didn’t find any significant difference in the flight. I know Rachel has taken propeller flights on her travels but ‘no vom-vom’ as Sarah so succinctly put it.
We flew over Wales where it was less cloudy and the mist hovering about the rivers in the frosty countryside was very beautiful. The next thing I could see was the rocky coastline as we came to land in Guernsey. There was no time to look at the little airport as my host, H, was waiting with my name on a sign. It was about 20 paces to her car – so different from the big airports like Manchester and San Francisco where you have to take a bus to the parking lot. She took me ‘the long way round’ to Vazon cottage, meaning that it took about 25 minutes. The roads were very narrow and when two vehicles need to pass one automatically pulls onto the sidewalk continuing at the same speed. There are no street lights, so they are not in danger of running into a light! The road hugged the coast the whole time and then the first thing H did on arrival on my new home for 4 nights was to make me tea while I made friends with Jasmine, the friendly kitty. H had bought the house in 2007 and had added an addition. She had worked in a ceramic business and she’d made the flooring herself from concrete and recycled coloured glass – quite unique. Her son, who I met, works in China teaching English and her daughter is in the UK working as an upper class Mary Poppins. She invited me to walk around the reservoir (where she picks up litter) but I was in need of some food so I wandered over to the busy Vista café on the sea front for a delicious crab sandwich. Feeling much refreshed I headed out along the headland towards the German bunker. The Channel Isles were the only British territory to be occupied by Germans during WWll.
I had the beach entirely to myself, and though heavily overcast it wasn’t too cold, or windy. I found the bunker very disturbing – this concrete monstrosity in this beautiful coastal landscape. As I looked around I could see dozens of these German fortifications built during World War 2. I noticed signs everywhere on the island. There seemed to be a lot of rules – about everything. There was up to a £1000 fine for not cleaning up after your dog. After an hour or so exploring, and finding cuttlefish skeletons (thank you Michael) I jumped on a bus to ‘town’ as St Peter Port is known as. There were lots of shops on the cliff above the harbor but at this time of the year there were no ships sailing, just row upon row of docked yachts. I could see the castle on the rocky promontory and I took a little look in the church that was decorated in dozens of Christmas trees just like Halifax minster. Someone was practicing the organ but the console was curtained off otherwise I would love to have played. I popped into the Visitors’ Centre and though the lady was very helpful it was disappointing to find that many of the attractions are closed for the winter season. I got a take-out coffee from a tiny coffee house where I was the only customer and then, seeing M&S I popped into to buy food supplies.
I took the bus back and despite it only being 3.30 I had to really fight to stay awake. I read the brochures I’d picked up to get the lie of the land and ate some cocoanut prawns in an effort to wake up. H has a roommate, L, who has been there a couple of years. I asked L if there was a friendly local pub I could walk to later that evening and she offered to go with me! H and her son were going out for an Indian before he flies back to China so he dropped L and I off at a hotel in the town to our north, Cobo. As we drove there it seemed an awfully long way to walk back after our drink. There was a public bar showing the footy and the lounge bar which was packed with family groups at long tables with children glued to ipads to keep them quiet. I had a sample of a couple of the local ales and L got stuck into the gin and tonics as we secured comfy chairs by the fireside. L had worked in a Guerney knitwear factory knitting and finishing Guernsey jumpers, and she’d recently completed a complicated cross stitch picture.
Our walk back was in the total darkness, there being no street lights, and we used our phone flashlights to assist. We took a short cut over the hump of the hill rather than going back along the winding coast road and we were back in no time. I couldn’t believe it was still only 8.30 but I went up to my room to explore it. In the bathroom were the usual supplies of soaps and shampoos that previous guests had left for other guests to use, but this was the first time I’d seen a foil of durex in an Airbnb. I joked with my daughters about this thinking about the song by Gabriel Kahane. Anna said wouldn’t it be embarrassing because the host would know who had used it. I relayed this to H and L later, and H commented that she hoped whoever used it looked at the expiration date: it’s been there a while. I recalled leaving something important – a set of keys? – in the bedside table at the Izaak Walton on my honeymoon and asking if they’d mail the contents of the drawer back to me – completely forgetting that the drawer also contained some little foil packets! One episode of QI was enough to send me straight to sleep by 10 p.m.
I was up at 8 to make a cuppa and begin reading Engleby that I’d borrowed from the library at Northlight Studio. Then I painted for an hour in the kitchen overlooking the bird feeder and the pond and then headed up to explore. First on my list was the chapel of St Appoline on La Grande Rue. So far I’d come across very little in the way of history predating WWll but this little chapel seating just 14 people was constructed in1392 by Nicholas Henry and contains a 14th fresco of the Last Supper. It was an hour’s walk, first along the beach but then along little lanes, bust with traffic. I found it absolutely impossible to tell the dates of the house. They are almost all single storey detached bungalows, stone built, some with the stone left exposed and others in which the stone has been painted delicate pastel colours – quite unlike the fishermen’s cottages in Ireland and Scotland where strong vivid colours are the order of the day. But on Guernsey some houses dates from the late 1770’s while others were from the 1970’s the I couldn’t tell one from another. Vazon cottage had outer walls 2 feet thick but was built in the early 1900’s. It gives the impression of being much older. Of course, I was the only visitor at the little church, and neither H nor L had been there. It’s dedicated to the patron saint of dentists, and since two of my Hebden bridge Gibson ancestors were dentists I thought it very fitting that I should visit this church.
Leaving the church I headed back towards the coast. All the roads are lined with houses. There is no open space apart from fields for cows and greenhouses, so apart from the bit of land close to the cliffs there are no viewpoints. I waited for a bus and, without a timetable I just jumped on the first that came by. There’s a great system of any bus rid being 55p and since there are many bus routes that both criss cross the island and go all the way round the coast road you can pretty much get on any bus and end up at the town Terminus at St Peter Port. This articular bus was going to the north of the island which is basically one huge golf club.
After a late lunch in a café of a cheese toastie in a café overlooking the jetty with the castle at its end I walked out on the jetty. The castle, which was first built to protect the island from Napoleon was closed for the season but there were several fishermen who had caught long eel looking things that were gasping for air on the jetty. Rachel send a photo to Michael and he identified them as needlenoses. One of them squirmed away as I was taking a video. I guess he was camera shy! I could see France from the lighthouse at the end of the jetty.
Next I headed inland to try and find the Guernsey tapestry museum. H had made several quilts entirely by hand including the one on my bed, and she had a quilting frame in a corner of the living room with another one on the go. She told me it takes about 4 years to create one. I was in a much older part of town here with nooks and crannies set at odd angles rather like Hebden Bridge. It was growing dark by this time and so I changed my goal to that of finding Victor Hugo’s House. I did find it but it’s now a private house and he only lived there for a year or so. I learned later that there’s another house he lived in but that’s closed for extensive renovations at the moment. I passed some terraced gardens on the steep hillside that must look wonderful in the summer time. There were even a few daffodils out in full bloom. In Hebden Bridge the spring flowers are just beginning to poke their heads through the soil. It probably looks quite like the Amalfi coast in the summer.
I was quite thirsty with all that hill climbing so I took the bull by the horns and entered into the semi darkness of the Albion Bar. It’s in the Guiness book of records as having the closest bar to a church. There was only me, one man and the bar tender in. I thought it would be busy with holiday visitors as the street seemed to be. I ordered a Thatcher’s Haze, which I actually enjoyed better than my usual order of Thatcher’s Gold (I found it at the Co-op when I got home). As I left the music on tap was the Eagles’ Hotel California – how appropriate.
A couple of minutes away was the bus station with various destinations written on the bus stop. I boarded a bus that came to the ‘Grand Rouques, Cobo, Vazon’ stop and followed the route (it was now entirely dark) on my GPS. It took 45 minute to get to Cobo on the North West coast (where I’d walked home from the pub) but then imagine my surprise when it headed NOT to Vazon but back to the bus station. But now the castle was looking splendid in its floodlights. Arriving back there an hour later I saw that the places written on the bus stop had a tiny ‘OR’ between them. I inquired of people waiting at the bus stop what time the next bus to Vazon was and they assured me it would be at 5:30. It was now 5:00. Just to be on the safe side I crossed to the bus inquiries office and they told me there would be a bus to Vazon at 5:15. So back outside I went. It was very cold waiting. 5:15 came and went but no bus did the same thing. I went back into the office. They tried to reach the driver of the 5:15 on the walkie talkie but he didn’t answer. Then the guy on the front desk said ‘Hang on a moment. I can hear him. He’s in the canteen.’ He should have been driving the 5:15, so he came running out, picked up a parked bus and soon we were on our way! Oh, well, I wasn’ t in a hurry to get to anywhere and it had only cost me £1.10!
Because there are no street lights even when I got off the bus in Vazon bay (I could see Vistas bistro lit up) I couldn’t actually see my road but with the help of my phone flashlight I got back safely. I ate my frozen dinner and spent the evening looking through the books in my room tucked up in another handmade quilt, and was in bed again by 10pm.
I started the morning by painting again. Why can’t I do this at home? Then I got the 10.25 correct bus (!) to the German Occupation museum. I’ve done very little in the way of museum visiting during the last few years but the impression of these German bunkers along the entire coastline of this island had got me intrigued. And what an amazing place it was. I think I expecting some modern steel framed glass affair but no, this was in a typical Guernsey farmhouse. I was one of 3 visitors and the man who took my £6 was the owner and curator. He opened the museum in 1966. I watched 2 short movies about the occupation of which I knew nothing until getting to the island. St Peter Port had been bombed with the loss of 33 civilian lives and the following day the Germans had invaded. Over half the population had been evacuated. During the 5 year occupation both the people of Guernsey and the German soldiers had faced starvation. All cars and radios were taken by the Germans and so only horse drawn carts were available for transportation. The Germans brought in ‘slaves’ ie prisoners of war to build the bunkers, lookout towers, batteries and underground hospital and these men lived on the brink of starvation too. There was a women’s bicycle on display with the tires made from hose pipes, and people had to get written permission to purchase anything, even such a small thing as a bar of soap. The upper floor had been turned into a Guernsey Street with mannequins – all quite realistic. Much of the German clothing on display had been left behind in situ when they signed the armistice and the soldiers left. The building was incredibly cold and I was looking forward to a free cuppa and mince pie in the little tea shop, just to warm up. But the owner introduced me to a man and his wife, also having a cuppa. He was 90 and had lived through the occupation and he spent the next hour telling me first hand about his experience being 9-14 years old including how his family had befriended a German soldier whom he had kept in contact with for many years after the war was over. Boiling broccoli stumps to stave off starvation, making a crystal radio, finding his dad’s gun hidden under some hay in the barn – all the while the soldier saying ‘Verboten.’ I think that was the first word I learned on my first trip abroad to Switzerland in 1975! It was very visible on the trains.
By now I was seriously hungry – and cold – so I asked for recommendation for somewhere to eat. They suggested The Deerhound in the village. He even offered me a ride. 90, and still driving on these roads?!? Hot soup and a pear cider were just the ticket, though I did send the ice in my glass back to the bar. I chatted with the French bartender who has a friend in Bradford.
Next stop was Moulin Huet, bay that Renoir had painted several times when he’d stayed in St Peter Port for a month. There was a real windmill minus its sails where I got off the bus, and, following my GPS I headed along a lane in the direction of the coast. I soon found myself at the end of the lane and in the garden of an enormous mansion. As luck would have it someone was just taking their car out of the property and a young girl was holding the gate open for the car to pass through. I asked for directions which she gave me in great detail and off I went. The path followed a small stream, walled in on both sides, and was muddy, slippery and very steep in places. I met another path, turned left at the toilets that were, of course, closed for the winter (as if no-one needs to pee when it’s winter!) and headed down into the bay. It was a lovely scene with jagged rocks littered in the bay. Three pastel coloured cottages made the scene quite idyllic even in the gathering gloom of a wintery afternoon. I followed an easier path back to the bus stop and found myself in Iceland – well, at ‘an’ Iceland. I’d never been in to one of these chain stores and since I needed food for dinner I went in to explore and came out with a frozen dinner. I got a bus back to St Peter Port and since I had a little time to wait for the bus I called in at the beer and wine store that L had recommended beneath the Albion Hotel where I managed to find a couple of tiny bottles of Jack Rabbit Chardonnay from California. Just the ticket for the next two evenings at home. I did some more painting and then H and L invited me to share in the crab dinner they were preparing together. Apparently H has taught L to cook, and delicious it was, with roast potatoes cooked in some special electric contraption, and avocado salad.
I’d purposefully left my final day on the island open. I painted in the morning and then L offered to take me to the fairy ring, After a little drive we parked in a bay close to a lighthouse. Above us was a lookout point where the lighthouse keeper’s wife would communicate with him by semaphore. The fairy ring itself was constructed in the 17th or 18th century. I commented on the lack of boats around the island but L pointed out that in the winter most of them are taken indoors. We could see two tractors doing just that. Then we drove to the Tiny chapel built by a monk. There was a large a catholic school close by where the monks had taught and one of them set up this tiny chapel constructed from broken pottery and clinker (what’s left when you burn coal to heat a greenhouse. It looks just like lava). One million pounds needs to be raised to preserve the site, give wheelchair access, add café and toilets.
Home for lunch and then some more painting. I was just about to go out for another walk before it started to get dark when H asked me if I’d like to accompany her on a trip to the north of the island. She collects litter on open spaces and so I went with her to the Common. On the way back we stopped at a farm to pick up some bags of logs and I ended up chatting to the farmer about the ruined greenhouses. There are 4 acres of glass that used to be a freesia farm until the farmer died and his wife could no longer carry on the business and so they just got overgrown. Back home I was invited to have dinner. A friend, Maxine, was picking up a Chinese takeaway in St Peter Port and they knew it would be 12 minutes before it arrived! I’d already purchased my dinner but we all ate together. Maxine was French and Judith had met her last New Year. After dinner we all played Jenga and I pinched myself as to how much fun I was having – 4 divorced ladies of a ‘certain’ age playing games. After they went to watch Bargain Hunt where they make it into a game between them but I need to go and pack for my journey home.
I slept til 4 a.m. but I know I never sleep properly before a journey if I have to get up very early. H was ready and waiting to take me to the airport at 7:30. It seemed really weird to think that we were leaving the house only 15 minutes before check-in time at 7:45, but I put myself in her hands and we made it. It’s a tiny airport with two conveyer belts at security, and only one was in operation. I bought a cup of tea but then found that I wasn’t allowed to take it on the plane. The lady at the check-in desk suggested I just stay in the lounge until I’d finished my tea and then I’d see the people in line beginning to go out onto the tarmac and I could join them. Fair enough! I found myself sitting next to someone on row 7 and since the window seat in row 6 (the one I’d sat in on my outbound flight) was available I asked to move. Fine. Now I had that perfect seat to watch the propeller.
Flight time was an hour and 10 minutes so I was in Manchester by 10 a.m. How weird is that! For most of the last 30 years every flight has been across the Atlantic, being in the air at least ten hours.
Manchester airport, train to Piccadilly, tram to Victoria, where, with a little run I made it to a train earlier than the one I expected to catch. It was raining, of course, as I walked from the station in Hebden Bridge but I was back in my apartment by 12:30. I spent the rest of the day resting, washing clothes, emptying my case and writing up my journal.