Saving the Best for Last: Island of Jersey
Here’s the last of long list of geography lessons I have learned in these three months of travel:
If there’s a NEW Jersey, it stands to reason there’s an old, original, Jersey out there somewhere. But admit it, like me, as soon as you read Jersey, you thought of the Garden State and/or Bruce Springsteen!
We found the original Jersey floating in the English Channel just off the coast of France. And by the end of our first day on this magical island, both Joe and I were smitten.
It was everything we hoped Malta would be for us but wasn’t — a people-friendly, community-focused country we would seriously consider moving to if we could find a way to cut through the red tape that helps keep the island’s population at a level its public services can support. About 100,000.
From the kindness and easy openness of every single local we encountered to the island-wide network of green lanes (meaning pedestrian and bike priority) to the delicious milk from doe-eyed purebred Jersey cows we were utterly in love by that first night. And then our wonderful host Victoria proffered a plate of nutty, buttery Jersey Royal new potatoes that were just coming into season. At that point we were goners.
I can’t seem to find any other word but “openness” to describe what it was that hooked us so deeply. We felt immediately and intimately welcome, at home, at ease, connected. That was, of course, due in large part to our great hosts Victoria and Steve (another thumbs up to AirBnB. I cannot recommend this awesome family guesthouse more highly). Victoria was born and raised on Jersey and for history buffs like Joe and I, she and Steve were the absolute perfect people to guide us.
For one, the Channel Islands were the only lands outside the European mainland countries to be occupied by the Nazis during World War II. And they were the last place to be liberated. One of the most fascinating, eye-opening and emotionally challenging museums we visited during our travels was the Jersey War Tunnels. Walking through underground tunnels carved out by Nazi-held Russian slaves, visitors are each given the identity of a real Jersey resident who lived through the occupation — and asked to make decisions like they were forced to. Humanitarian decisions that might (and did) jeopardize lives during the five years of occupation. The woman, Sarah, whose shoes I was invited to walk in, hid an escaped Russian slave and during the last weeks before the Nazis surrendered she was sent to a concentration camp and gassed.
Our host Victoria’s granmother and grandfather also hid a Russian slave worker — a man named Charley. What an honor it was to attend a screening of the film “Another Mother’s Son” with Victoria and Steve. The film tells the story of yet another Jersey resident, Louisa Gould, and the slave she saved at tremendous personal cost.
Jersey is a Crown dependency of the United Kingdom and was once part of Normandy, France. The dukes of Normandy eventually became the kings of England and in 1066 and the Channel Islands were allowed to choose whether to stay with France or remain aligned with their now-English king. They chose England with a special deal: The islands would remaina self-governing parliamentary democracy under a constitutional monarchy. Today they continue to have their own financial, legal and judicial systems. That means they are not a member of the United Kingdom or the European Union.
How Brexit impacts them is still anyone’s guess.
Through the centuries the island has been sustained by a variety of industries including agriculture, dairy, and woolen goods. Steve, our host, summed up Jersey industry with perhaps the best quote I’ve ever included in an article:
“First they were pirates and then they discovered knitting!” he told us. Between piracy and knitting, farming became a major industry.
“But in fact the men liked knitting so much they had to make a law limiting how much time men could knit because they were neglecting their farms.”
Joe and I spent several days biking the island on its network of pristine bike and walk paths. They took us from sandy beach to rocky cliff, from moonscape-like low-tide flats to mystical caves, from a lighthouse surrounded by water to a medieval castle.
In fact we made the news at La Corbiere, the island’s iconic lighthouse. During low tide you can walk a path all the way to the lighthouse. But when the tide comes in that path is covered in 40 feet of water, making the lighthouse its own island. On the first day we visited, I noticed a strong smelling white blob on the beach. Joe thought it was sea foam. The lighthouse keeper who ambled down with his dog thought it was a cuttlefish from a distance. Turned out it was beached decomposing whale! The first whale to land on Jersey shores in 40 years (see article). You can’t take the news out of the journalist!
At the other end of the island we took a moonlight low-tide walk with Walk Adventures to see the island’s famous bioluminescent worms. Our guide Trudie was incredibly informative and for two hours we were wowed by a twinkling night sky and twinkling worms in the sand. Encircled, it seemed, in stars. We may have even discovered a new bioluminescent creature — a glowing crab! Trudie and her marine biologist friends are looking into the find.
On our final day on Jersey we visited the last castle of our tour. We’ve been to A LOT of castles and like everything else on Jersey it was in pristine condition. But it’s not the stately rooms or interactive displays that I will remember most. It’s the Jersey flag that was flying in the courtyard.
During the Nazi occupation, island residents found ways to show their resistance, some large like hiding captive slaves, some small. Like the bricklayer who re-cobbled the main square in the city of St. Helier. As he laid the bricks he snuck a symbol, a V for Victory, into the road.
As I looked up at the flag, I found the universe — in the form of two airplane condensation trails — had snuck in another victory sign.
It was a reminder for me of many challenges my love Joe and I have overcome together and what a victory this journey has been.