Country Life did it again. They set me to work on the upcoming Guernsey property supplement (out on April 19) and I could not avoid harbouring an unhealthy but overwhelming to buy a new home I probably can’t afford.
Despite the panoramic stone houses, peaceful streets and placid cows, however, it was not Guernsey’s gentle living that stirred my interest. It was another island in the Bailiwick ?Sark?which made me long to move to the Channel Islands. And for none of the Gordon Brown-related reasons you are thinking of.
No, it’s the history that did it for me. After all, I am the woman who force-fed her family intricate medieval dinners for weeks on end (they still recoil in horror at the mere mention of salviate, a sugar-sprinkled sage omelette). So I could not fail but be captivated by the idea of living in the last corner of feudal Europe.
Queen Elizabeth I granted Sark in perpetuity to Helier de Carteret and his heirs in 1565, in return for an annual rent and some obligations, which included the defence of the island from pirates and invaders. This arrangement, and the constitutional framework that goes with it, haven’t changed significantly over time. And although Sark is now looking into making some constitutional changes to make its government more democratic, the Seigneur (currently Michael Beaumont OBE) still governs it together with the Chief Pleas (the local Parliament), which also includes the Seneschal (Sark’s chief magistrate), forty Tenants (the owners of each of the island’s 40 landholdings, or Tenements) and just twelve elected representatives, called Deputies of the People.
Obviously, having a feudal Seigneur means that homes are only available to purchase as leasehold?the Seigneur holds the land in perpetuity from the Crown, and, in turn, leases it in perpetuity to owners, who need his permission to sell their landholding. Leases are also fairly short by UK standards because Sark custom dictates that ‘no lease should exceed the expected life span of the lessor unless also agreed by the heir.’
But then, as Claire Hester of Sark Estate Agents points out, ‘the fact that property is usually only available as leasehold makes it cheaper.’ For example, La Petite Valette, a pretty four-bedroom home set in a woodland above Harbour Hill, which has a 70-year lease with an opportunity to extend, is on the market with Sark Estate Agents for £395,000, but would be ‘a lot more expensive if freehold,’ according to Mrs Hester.
La Petite Valette
And, really, I don’t see why I could not put up with leasehold in Sark just as I do in London?especially when Sark’s other laws are as charming as they are old-fashioned, such as the one which allows only the Seigneur to keep pigeons and unspayed bitches on the island. It also helps that there are no cars in Sark (I don’t drive, never have in the past, and probably never will in the future).
But what really tilts the balance for me is the Clameur de Haro, a highly civilised practice which allows anyone to obtain immediate cessation of any action he considers to be an infringement of his rights until the matter is heard by the local Court. All he has to do, according to the local government’s website, is “in front of witnesses, recite the Lord’s prayer in French and cry out “Haro, Haro, Haro! A mon aide mon Prince, on me fait tort!”
I wish it were so easy to defend my right to a peaceful night’s sleep from the noisy always-on air conditioning unit that inconsiderate commercial neighbours have installed just under the bedroom window of my London flat.
Come to think of it, I could afford to move to Sark. All it would take is to trade the flat?noisy aircon unit and all?for La Petite Valette. Hey, when’s the next available ferry?