Reflections On Alderney
The marketing slogan Alderney uses is ‘So Close So Different‘. With regard to the first part I’d add the rider that it depends how you get there, we could have flown to Australia in the time it took to sail here, but as for the second part there can be no dispute. Alderney undoubtedly has a very different feel from anywhere else I’ve been.
Braye Harbour at dawn, tall ships ‘Lord Nelson (right) and Stavros S Niarchos (left)
As a member of the Channel Islands Alderney is not part of the UK and neither is it part of the EU, they seemingly pick and choose their laws as they see fit. You don’t have to wear a crash helmet on a motorcycle, there are no MOT tests, road tax is payed with a surcharge on fuel, there’s no public health service, you can’t buy alcohol in shops and supermarkets. And yet English is the language, they drive on the left and they have real ale at the pub, and in jugs with a handle! I for one like the difference.
The island has been populated for thousands of years and there are iron and bronze age sites dotted around the island. On the North East side of the island adjacent to Longis Bay is the best preserved small Roman fort in Britain but even this treasure has been marked by the German occupation during the Second World War. Our anchorage here in Braye Harbour is overlooked by the massive fortifications of Fort Albert and the remains of the arsenal and harbour blocking gun batteries left behind by the Germans. Longis Bay mentioned above features a huge dark concrete anti-tank wall that curves around behind the golden sand of the beach like a giant parenthesis,
Not far from us the still imposing tower of the German fire direction post stands sentinel, like an alien spaceship that’s landed on the highest part of the island. Everywhere you turn you see concrete emplacements for guns and searchlights, many of them can be explored and as you descend into the dark tunnels and alcoves it’s not hard to imagine you can hear the echoes of those young German soldiers sent to occupy and defend the island.
It’s not only the Germans that have impacted the landscape though. The fort that overlooks the harbour wasn’t actually built by the Germans, it’s just one of 18 forts and batteries built on the island by the Victorians in the 1840s and 50s when for fear of war with the French they turned Alderney into a fortress island and Naval base.
By the time the work was finished the world had moved on and iron built battleships made it all redundant. Some of these forts are now derelict, some seem almost intact, some have been converted into little castles for millionaires to hide away in. On an island that measures only 2.5 miles by 1.5 miles there’s no escaping these huge stone buildings constructed from blocks of the very granite the island is made from, something to which the many disused quarries lay testament. The other day we explored the second largest fort on the island, Fort Tourgis, it was incredible to walk through the main gate into a vast overgrown courtyard surrounded on all sides by the hollow windows and doors of countless rooms.
All the floors have collapsed, as have the lath and plaster ceilings but there are still signs of the old occupants including this remnant of wallpaper Gail spotted.
There’s one Victorian construction here that’s far from redundant though and it’s the half mile long breakwater that allows Braye Harbour to exist. Even with it’s gift of welcome shelter from the prevailing winds of the West and North West anything further North or East can open the moorings and anchorage to some uncomfortable conditions, apparently the Germans wanted to extend it to give full shelter but never did. I think that’s a good thing, if they’d done it there’d probably be a marina here now and the ‘so different’ tagline wouldn’t be as true. Without Braye Harbour Alderney would probably be unpopulated, the small airport can bring people and light cargo but anything of any substance has to come by sea from mainland UK via the ‘Valiant’ and be offloaded in Braye. She came past our mooring the other day on her once a week stop.
On the mainland we take it all for granted but you don’t order from Amazon and get it next day here, some online stores won’t deliver here at all. Cars. food, gas, fuel, building materials you name it, everything comes aboard the ‘Valient’ and, as a local said to me yesterday, “if that big green crane on the docks breaks down we’re buggered”.
There’s a glaring pardox on this island though, this little piece of land so abused by man over the centuries also contains countless natural wonders. Blonde Hedgehogs, almost 2% of the worlds population of Gannets, there are Puffins, rare butterflies and wild plants not to mention a host of land and seabirds. The beautiful and unusual birdsong was one of the first things we noticed as we walked around the island. The senses are gently assaulted in other ways as well, the scent of wild garlic and perfumed dog roses was a constant as we walked.
Nature shows it’s wonder in other ways around the island as well and in this case it’s a demonstration guaranteed to raise the heartrate of any sailor. The tides off these shores are some of the strongest in the world and all around the islands rocky shore there are overfalls, eddies and tidal races. The most famous is of course the Alderney Race.which runs SW/NE between the island and France. Huge amounts of water sluice though at up to 11 knots and in poor conditions the breaking seas and overfalls make it a very dangerous place to be. On the opposite side of the island The Swinge plays like a younger brother to The Race, not quite as scary but still able to pack a punch on a bad day.
There are something like 1400 residents on the island today and this year marks the 70th anniversary of their return to the island after being evacuated to Weymouth in 1940. During the occupation thousands of workers were imported from all over Europe to work on the defences, they were housed in 4 concentration camps and there’s a memorial on a hill just up from the harbour. The plaques are in French, Polish, Russian, Hebrew and Spanish amongst others and it’s sobering to think of the hardships they endured. In the photo below you can see the German Fire Direction Post on the hill in the far distance.
The lives of todays residents are far far removed from those lived in those dark days, it strikes me that the way of life here is still as it was decades ago, I’ve yet to see anyone use a key for front doors or cars and I suspect that two policeman on the island (driving a car with the registration AY 999) aren’t kept particularly busy. Unsurprisingly everyone seems to know everyone else but unlike other small communities I’ve visited they are friendly and very hospitable to strangers. This openness seems to reach even the governing Committee of the islands as unlike the other Channel Islands there are no over zealous restrictions on buying property and residency.
It’s now a week since we arrived here and it’s been no hardship staying. The weather has been reasonably kind and the other day we had a mini Wharram Meetup when Jake bought his Tiki 26 ‘A Roamer’ alongside ‘Gleda’ and we chilled out all afternoon with him and his mates. If you haven’t already then go check out www.barefootboatbums.com It’s run by Jake and his mate and will leave you in no doubt that life for them here on Alderney is pretty damn cool.
The weather has gone downhill a little as I write this and it looks like we might be here another week before we get favourable winds for the next leg South. We’ve got some challenging sailing ahead before we cross Biscay as we need to get round that big chunk of Brittany that sticks out into the Atlantic towards Ushant.
I’ll be working on the passage plan over the coming days and I’ll post an update once I know what’s what.