BBC TV sports reporter Hazel Irvine isn’t the kind of girl who likes to sit still. With her equally energetic Other Half, she spent an action-packed weekend in Jersey. It almost wore her out.
You can always rely on the good old BBC. About a week before The Other Half and I were due to travel to Jersey, Neil Oliver and the Coast team popped up on the TV with a Channel Islands special and a taste of what we might expect. We were intrigued. Unlike Neil, however, a quick, greased-up cross-Channel training swim was not on our agenda!
We had lined up plenty of other activities. The two of us love the outdoor life. So, whilst soaking up the commanding and expansive views overlooking St Aubin’s Bay from the balcony of the lovely Cristina Hotel, we planned how to best use every precious, fresh-air filled hour on this jewel of an island.
Helmets on, legs pumping, we were soon travelling by bike. Sure, Jersey’s narrow hedge-framed roads are easy to drive around. But nothing beats the wind-blown freedom of gambolling along under your own steam. In fact, we travelled ‘in the tracks of steam’, crunching through the gears along the old railway line that once ran from St Helier to La Corbière, linking the wide, breezy promenade along St Aubin’s Bay to the rocky south-western corner of the island.
If you’ve ever battled your way around London on a bicycle, or indeed any major city, you’ll certainly appreciate the non-aggressive, stress-free riding available in Jersey. You’ll find a large network of designated ‘Green Lanes’ where vehicular traffic is restricted to a maximum of 15mph. What a joy. Ken Livingstone, please take note.
As you pedal along, meandering through lanes and pretty villages, there’s plenty of time to muse on Jersey’s old Norman-French placenames and road signs. It all adds up to an appealing mixture of British home-from-home certainties and stimulating continental sophistication. The variety and quality of the food here underlines this happy cultural co-existence.
Once you reach the end of the old railway line, you’re rewarded by views of Corbière Lighthouse, one of Jersey’s most recognisable and photographed spots. When we arrived the narrow causeway out to the lighthouse was semi-submerged, waiting for low tide to link it once more to the island. It was a sight that gave us our first indication of the extraordinary tidal range around Jersey, something that we would experience for ourselves over the following days.
Huge 40ft tides – that’s about 15m – make Jersey’s coastline a constantly expanding and contracting wonderland, to be enjoyed and explored, but only with caution and respect for the power of the sea. Fortunately when we took to the water we were in the hands of an expert, the dynamic Derek Hairon who runs Jersey Kayak Adventures. A paddling Pied Piper, Derek guided us through one of the most memorable days I’ve ever spent anywhere in the world.
Leaving the breakwater at St Catherine on a sunny, flat-calm early morning we powered away on board our ‘mothership’, Equinox, a large RIB (Rigid Inflatable Boat) with Captain Dean at the wheel. We were bound for Les Ecrehous, a granite reef six miles off the north-east coast. So special is this place that I’m almost afraid to say too much about it lest it becomes overrun with visitors.
What a weird and wonderful sight these tiny islands are. At high tide all that’s visible of Les Ecrehous are a handful of rocky outcrops defiantly sitting above the water line. Upon them nestle a score of small huts, some of simple grey stone, others whitewashed. They were once fishermen’s refuges, which have been passed down through generations of families. Now they’re used as the ultimate in getaway holiday cabins. The scene reminded me of a curious collection of Monopoly houses and hotels… perched on a bit of real estate that money just can’t buy.
At low tide, things get even better. The surface area of the islands expands by around 80% as the sea drains away to reveal a stony, lunar-style landscape and spectacular crescent-shaped shingle bank.
We unloaded our kayaks from the RIB and settled into our sturdy, buoyant little crafts. With paddle in hand, we began to explore the ever-rising and falling waters around the reef. The Other Half and I are hardly Olympic kayaking material but this kind of waterborne adventuring was, whilst at times energetic, surprisingly straightforward and very relaxing. Pushing through the crystal-clear water I was struck by how peaceful a place this is.
Catching the swooping cries of curlews and oystercatchers, we paddled along the so-called ‘Suez Canal’ between islands that bear names such as La Marmotiere and Le Blianque Ile. We peered down into the lagoons. Below us long strands of black bootlace weed and fronds of pink feathery Sargassum were languidly going with the flow of the outgoing tide.
Les Ecrehous lies within virtual touching distance of the French mainland. Indeed fishermen and some French militants famously mounted a mini-invasion of the islands one morning in 1994, determined to wrest them from British sovereignty. They gave up on the idea around lunchtime, ate and went home.
Happily this place still feels like a treasured secret that is shared only by those ‘in-the-know’ from the two nations. Indeed there were as many Tricolours as Union Jacks flying from the handful of vessels anchored in the main lagoon that balmy Saturday afternoon.
After beaching the kayaks on the main island we enjoyed a well-earned picnic lunch on the shingle beach and wandered around on (then) dry land. Moving up and amongst the little huddle of huts on La Marmotiere we came to a tiny main square. A wall still bears the official Jersey States ‘Customs House’ sign sculpted into the stone.
I couldn’t help but wonder what it would feel like to be stranded there at high tide in an English Channel storm with the waters rising rapidly around you. A little disconcerting, I shouldn’t wonder. Indeed, as Derek regaled us with tales about the islands, I could empathise with one poor fellow who’d had to lash himself to the outside of his hut for survival during a particularly nasty night.
Fortunately for us the warm, serene conditions continued as we mounted an afternoon assault in our kayaks on the now incoming tide. With Derek’s tuition, we were able to see the outer reaches of the reef by forcing our way across much faster-running streams of rushing, incoming water. Then, as we circumnavigated the smaller outcrops that poked above the tide, several large seals magically played cat-and-mouse with us as we paddled.
All too soon it was time leave this magical place. As we loaded the kayaks onto Captain Dean’s sturdy ‘mothership’ the sea was already engulfing the islands as quickly as it had deserted them. Les Ecrehous really do stir the imagination. And sitting just a few inches above the water on a kayak is surely the best way to experience this amazing archipelago.
In truth, there’s a huge range of outdoor pursuits available on Jersey that will fire your adrenaline and get the blood pumping. On the vast expanse of white sand at St Ouen’s Bay we sat down for a while – a little jaded by this point, I confess – and watched scores of wet-suited surfers as they soaked up the sun and the swell. It was a cool, energetic 21st-century Jersey twist on buckets, spades and knotted handkerchiefs.
We did summon enough energy to squeeze in a quick and pleasant nine holes of golf at Wheatlands Golf Course, a venue opened by former Ryder Cup captain Ian Woosnam. (We’re already formulating plans to come back and play the island’s other six courses.)
Then, there was just enough time for a last exhilarating blast of salty sea air on board yachtmaster Peter Carnegie’s stunning 42ft ocean-going craft, Caprice. Our skipper for a four-hour trip off the southern coast of Jersey was the amiable Mark Turner and his crew James. Although I was a little nervous about taking the helm – Caprice is, after all, a splendid and rather expensive vessel – Mark patiently showed me the ropes and I found myself at the wheel as the yacht reached out and tilted into a robust wind. What a thrilling feeling it was, our mainsail gripped and taut, as we surged through the waves at a healthy eight knots.
Talk about a dynamic weekend! The Other Half and I are already carbo-loading in preparation for a return visit…