The small island of Guernsey has inspired more than its fair share of creative types. Philippa Jacks explores the island’s literary links – and finds cycling an uphill struggle
Of all the ways you can cook a potato, a pie made of discarded, soggy peelings would not be my first choice. The particular pie in Mary Ann Shaffer’s The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society may be fictional, but in occupied Guernsey, this is exactly the kind of dish that was on the menu. There’s often talk of what would have happened “if Hitler had invaded England”, but it’s easy to forget that in Jersey and Guernsey, it actually happened.
The Germans bombed Guernsey’s capital St Peter Port in June 1940 and stayed there until Churchill announced the end of the Second World War in May 1945. Radios were banned, a curfew was enforced and 15,000 slave-workers were brought from eastern Europe to build bunkers and towers to defend the island. The occupying forces also commandeered food supplies, and at times, the islanders nearly starved to death.
When American bookshop-owner Mary Ann Shaffer visited Guernsey in the 1970s, she was so fascinated by stories of the German occupation that she wrote a novel set on the island. It tells a love story through letters exchanged by members of a book club – a club set up as cover for a hog-roast the locals have to conceal from the German army. The book has sold more then 1.3 million copies worldwide and film rights have been bought by Hollywood, which will bring an invasion of a very different kind to the island if it goes ahead.
My tour guide Gill Girard gets lots of re- quests for GLPPPS-themed tours, particularly from Americans. Our route took us down winding lanes and past postcard-perfect cot- tages and village greens: American tourists must think they’ve died and gone to quaint heaven when they came here. We spent a fascinating morning in German trenches and on windswept cliffs, visiting places that inspired the book and others of a wider historical significance. Gill’s own grandmother was evacuated during the war and real letters that she sent back to her family helped to bring the history alive for me.
Guernsey has other literary claims to fame: the island’s most famous inhabitant — apart from Formula 1 champion Jenson Button, who has just bought a house on Guernsey – was French author Victor Hugo, who wrote Notre Dame de Parisand Les Miserables. He came to the Channel Islands in exile in the 1850s but fell in love with Guernsey and stayed far longer than he had to. Hugo found the “coastline of mirages” a great inspiration, and he finished Les Miser- ableshere, as well as setting Toilers of the Sea on the island. His intriguingly-decorated Hauteville House is a popular tourist attraction and his poetic descriptions of the landscape are a wonderful legacy. Gill stopped to show me rock formations in which Hugo was the first to see a baboon and a camel. I agreed on the baboon but was less convinced by the camel. We also passed Moulin Huet, which inspired another Frenchman: impressionist Pierre-Auguste Renoir did a series of paint- ings of the bay while visiting in the 1880s.
Having got our bearings on the tour with Gill, we felt ready to set off on a bicycle the following day. The Ruettes Tranquilles is a network of leafy lanes with a speed limit of 15mph where cyclists, horse-riders and walk- ers have the right of way. We kept to these where we could, but even Guernsey’s “main” roads are normally quiet.
Visit Guernsey did some research earlier this year which highlighted the importance that visitors place on “pottering”, and it is as rewarding to do this by bike as on foot. Getting anywhere took twice as long as expected because we came across jewellery workshops, art galleries and unmissable photo opportunities along the way. We had lunch at a kiosk on the beach and also picked up fruit from “hedge veg” stalls. Hedge veg is a local tradition whereby people leave fresh produce they can’t use in a box in the hedge, with an honesty-box for passers by to leave a payment in. A lovely idea, but I couldn’t see the honesty box last- ing long where I live in north London.
We came unstuck on our cycle journey home when, despite advice from Gill to avoid the centre of the island, we tried to cycle from the south-west coast to St Peter Port in the east. Guernsey may be small, but it is far from flat, we learned to our cost. In the end, we gave up pedalling and pushed the bikes for best part of two hours to get back to the hotel, hoping a passing car might take pity and give us a lift.
Where’s Jenson Button when you need him?