‘La Gran’mère du Chimquière’, a statue menhir outside St. Martin’s parish church on Guernsey. It was perhaps first carved in 2500 BC, and has since been split in half by huffy priests and draped in garlands every year. I wasn’t anywhere near as observant.
You take a gamble walking a coastline. I always feel sure that gravity works differently there, that my feet are biased down the gentle shelf that forms everywhere that creatures do not have legs to fight it. The wind blows inland, making of you a billow, but you feel that it is only a clumsy old thing, and will soon remember itself and with a little ah! it will suck you out and lose you. I suppose that we all have family in the sea, but that’s no consolation; I am worried that I won’t recognise them.
Your health is uncertain too. Even though that philtre they called “sea air” made stencils under the hats of all those Victorian smokers, you are not sure that it will revitalise you. It certainly did not me. It gave me a chest infection that it had sharpened on Guernsey’s hundreds of drowning-rocks. I am not one for souvenirs, and I have certainly had better.
Visitors to the Channel Islands, spat out by Europe when it still blew its nose on the ice sheets and then pocketed them embarrassed, often say that it feels lost in time, just a half-step out of sync with the rest of us. Ignoring the ecstatic choirs of web servers buried like long-ago tenors all over the island, the preys of nodding lawyers in St. Peter’s Port whittled clever by tax cuts, and the airport built ten years ago with more charm than Gatwick has miles of filthy corridor, you could still say that it is a little… … … slower than other places. I spent a day walking covering more than a third of the coast, and I saw the same three bus drivers a dozen times, swapping routes like actors out of beloved roles. One of them certainly knew that he was famous for his shrill manner, cajoling passengers and traffic as if he was jousting. I have also read that people on the mainland are baffled by the island tradition of setting up roadside stalls full of vegetables without any attendants, relying on honesty boxes and an earnestness which that sea wind cannot dig out. How can you trust people to just pay without anyone watching them? What a simple life! They’re lucky that they do not know what it is really like!
What simple life? There’s nothing simple about it. You quickly realise that, if you were to steal some tomatoes or a pot of chutney (and I certainly did not), that nobody would chase you, or take your name. You would walk away, looking up at that sky which cannot decide whether this surprise birthday cake of fields and rock wants to be a paradise or a crag, and feel very stupid.
It’s the sea that sets things back a little. There’s only so much that progress can do to an ocean. We can go beneath it, or on it, or forsake it all together and just watch it twinkle dangerously as we come into land. The ferry is a curmudgeonly way to get to the south of France, and I stood and watched it heft itself up and out of the shallow harbour as if it were rising out of an armchair, trying not to spill the cold mugs of tea gathered on its arms. Guernsey faces two smaller islands on its southern side, Herm and Sark, and the former is so close to that harbour that I thought I could see people, mirroring myself, walking its mantling paths. I never really lost this perspective, in all my walking; the two islands, the sea cushioned between them, and then the hundreds of drowning-rocks, blotting that sea into something more like a dropped glass. On the other side of the island, near Vazon Bay and the Nazi concrete, they come before the tideline in a great jumble of ellipsis, tempting you to find out what comes next. Let me spoil it for you… it is Canada.
While the sea might keep some things ancient, or just dated, other things blow over it with the speed of sunlight. A whole drift of undesirables have come to Guernsey to pave this broad avenue that leads out into the world; Germans, French, and especially the English. The delicious bistros is which we ate gaze past those heavy little islands back towards the gargantuan shadow of France, proud of how far they have come. They are the product of striking out, as are the road-signs, the churches that sit a little squatter than those in Kent or Wiltshire, and the argot that only a few of the islanders still speak. People sailed here, thousands of years ago, in little boats that we cannot even begin to diagram. They found an island bouncy with sweet grass and wheat, squeezed by a belt of fish so thick that each swim was maybe a crunchy affair, tipped with creamy waves chubby with krill. On my walk I found two of these glutton’s tombs, seven thousand years old apiece.
At the first I met two Americans, who kindly told me where to find the council-installed light switch inside, as if we were queuing for a toilet. I certainly wasn’t, though I can’t say what they did in there. The space inside was low so that I had to crawl, and when I stepped out of the wind things got old once more. There was a spicy smell of earth that slipped into every sense. One of the vast boulders which formed the ceiling had a man’s face carved into it, mouth pursed, surprised to find himself hauled up from where he had used to stand as a god of small realms by the door. When I climbed back out into the sharp sunlight, the Americans were standing on the grass dome of the tomb, twirling bronze aerials as lazily as I would look for phone signal. I left them to it, and walked on.
The second tomb had grown a golf course around itself like a pringled beard. Two bank managers ignored me as I trod across the green up to the Millennium Stone, a far more modern attempt at lithomancy. The tomb, entrance overgrown, again forced me to bend and smell the soil, and as I climbed in I almost bottled it; there was only a rent of light from an opening above me, and one of the two pillars holding up the ceiling had the year “1898” chiseled proudly across it. It was certainly very impressive, but venerability is not what I look for in something holding up several tons of rock.
I clumped across the bowl of L’Ancresse Bay, in the very north of the island, buffeting across the leavings of low tide in Ladies Bay, letting the water spill over the top of my boots and keeping an eye out for ormer, that little ocarina of a mollusc that you will not find in England. The weather just tripped across the whole island and I think only one night passed without a storm. Guernsey changes all the time, and stays the same as well. My body cannot handle it, and I’m still sipping Benylin as I write this.
I think the moment when it really got into me, right down into my lungs, was at Fort Doyle. Originally a defense against the French navy, the raw brick, mimicking the lining of my throat, was pebbledashed by the Third Reich. It strikes out to the north, into the Channel, and I approached it as would many of the men who had worked there, from inland, though in my age I emerged from amongst tomato hothouses and mussel restaurants serving hot, limp dill to tourists.
I could feel my trachea narrow with the land. The rain came as I approached the redoubt of the front entrance. I climbed breeze block stairs to a roof which will celebrate its hundredth birthday very soon, still held up by the tricentennial clay that will scoff at kids these days. The rain worsened, and a cloud larger than the island itself, stretching up into space, shouldered its way to us, having finished with England. It hit me so hard I nearly sailed off that roof, and it put something into my lungs that has stayed with me, even though I am now many miles from that sea, and that wind.