If you’re a middle child, you know the feeling. The oldest gets the money, or the influence, or the responsibility; the youngest gets the attention and the special treatment. Alderney, caught between the larger, better-known islands of Jersey and Guernsey on one side, and cute little Sark on the other, is the middle child of the Channel Islands family. Often overlooked, this is an island that nevertheless captivates and fascinates, with its relaxed atmosphere, its sense of space, the fierce pride of the islanders and a quirky – and sometimes dark – history.
Neil Matthews fell for its idiosyncratic charms…
The flight from Southampton puts you in the mood for a relaxed, small-scale break. You’re guaranteed a window seat, on a Trislander 14 seater where the passengers sit in rows of two, although it’s worth taking earplugs or an iPod, unless you particularly enjoy listening to plane engines at close quarters. Otherwise, all is calm as you fly to Alderney, ten miles off the coast of France.
The arrivals area at the island’s only airport is little more than an extra-large shed, and your luggage arrives there at the same time as you. Very novel. If you’ve booked accommodation in the capital, St Anne, you can stroll out of the airport to the end of the road, turn right, walk for 10-15 minutes… and you’re there.
Alderney is three miles long and less than two miles wide. You can walk anywhere on the island in little more than an hour. There are no steep hills, and few cars, and you may meet more goats and pigs than people. The thoughtful islanders have placed sturdy white benches at dozens of vantage points, so that you can pause and enjoy views inland or out to sea.
The island’s population is just over 2,000, and most people live in St Anne. A walk downhill along the cobbles of Victoria Street, in the centre of the town, gives quirky insights into Alderney life. You pass a bookshop where two dogs and a puppy curl up around the owner’s legs or the bottom of bookcases. ‘Please don’t let the puppy out,’ says a sign on the door. There’s an unusual chalkboard advertisement for a ‘Husband Crèche’ outside The Rose and Crown: ‘Is he getting under your feet? Leave him here while you shop. Free crèche, we only charge for the drinks.’
The blue-façaded grocery Arkwright et Fils proclaims itself Ne pas ouvrir toutes heures (‘Not open all hours’). Unlike the TV series it references, starring Ronnie Barker and David Jason, there is no owner with a stammer here, and the till doesn’t try to bite its operator. Arkwright et Fils gives a clue, though, that much residual French survives on Alderney, in the name of places and people, although Auregnais, the local version of a Norman dialect, is not spoken nowadays. The island was part of Normandy until 1204, when King John lost the mainland territory to France, but kept the Channel Islands.
Alderney encourages you to take your time. One shop sells clocks whose every hour is marked with ‘-ish’. This philosophy is everywhere; when I called in at the florist’s one afternoon, for example, the shop was still shut ‘for lunch’. A few minutes later, the assistant cycled up. ‘Sorry I’m late,’ she said. ‘I was having a swim and the water was so lovely it seemed a crime to get out…’
The nearby Arts Centre doubles as a cinema; every film has an intermission, during which the projectionist changes the reels and the audience nips across the road to the pub.
Behind the laid-back atmosphere is a fierce island pride. One unlikely, amiable symbol of this is the Alderney cow, whose history is a chequered story of identity and recognition. At one time, all Channel Islands cattle – whether from Jersey, Guernsey or Alderney – arrived in England from Alderney, the most northerly island, and therefore the last port of call. The cattle, hard to tell apart, were all known as Alderney Cows.
In the 1850s and 1860s Alderney imported more cattle from Guernsey, to provide for the extra workmen on the island at that time. This led to cross-breeding, and a new Alderney Cow, which became famous for its beautiful udders and rich milk. In 1910, though, Alderneys were re-registered as Guernseys, so that they could be sold back to Guernsey and on to US Farmers – who were only interested in cows if they were called Guernseys. The loss of the Alderney Cow is still keenly felt; despite its demise, islanders still have an obvious affection for it, judging by the display in the Museum and the painting of a cow on the Town Hall.
As you travel round Alderney, you’ll also find many traces of military history – some distant, some recent. The fortifications from the 1850s and 1860s – the building of which needed those extra milk-hungry workmen – were built as a defence against an anticipated invasion from France, which never came. Over a dozen sit, dotted around the coast, silent and defiant.
Then there’s World War II, the hole in the heart of Alderney’s history, when its entire population was evacuated. The Germans occupied the empty island in 1940 and set up three forced labour camps and a concentration camp (Lager Sylt, in the south-west). Slave labourers built bunkers, air raid shelters and fortifications; anything up to 700 captives died in the process. The German commanding officer burned down the camps, and destroyed all records relating to their use, shortly before the liberation in 1945.
A few hints remain: a telegraph tower, lonely against the sky; a couple of posts at Lager Sylt; a British-French war memorial near the lighthouse in the north-east; an old bunker which teenagers now use as a disco. They are haunting reminders of what was – and what might have been in Britain.
Traces of the occupation are still being uncovered. As you eat your dinner of prawns and rabbit cassoulet at the Belle Vue Hotel, the staff will tell you about the Luftwaffe using the hotel as their wartime base. Fifteen years ago while making some improvements, the hotel team found shelves still propped up by old German newspapers.
You might think that Alderney is a sleepy place: not a bit of it, as there’s a year-long programme of events. A New Year’s Day swim starts things off and other events include a horse show, a half-marathon, a motor sprint and hill climb and the Alderney Air Races – the climax of a larger competition, featuring two 100-mile handicap races for the title of British Air Racing Champion.
There’s plenty for lovers of wildlife, too. Puffins, fulmars, guillemots, Dartford warblers, peregrines and many other birds are regular residents. The island is famous for its seabirds, especially the gannets, of which about 7,000 pairs nest on two small rocks off the main island, Ortac and Les Etacs. If you’re lucky, you may also glimpse a blonde hedgehog – a common brown hedgehog with a recessive gene. The blonde became extinct on the island in the 19th century; five are rumoured to have returned in the 1960s, and been accidentally released, in a Harrods shopping bag.
The blonde hedgehog and Alderney have a lot in common: unusual, quirky, determined to survive… You might not see the former, but the latter is well worth a visit.