Penny Byrne explores the Channel Island’s history through some of its most fascinating monuments.
Famous for its Jersey Royals, honey-coloured cows and international finance industry, Jersey is perhaps less well known for its rich history and distinct culture. Evidence of human activity dates back 250,000 years (the caves at La Cotte de St Brelade are associated with mammoth hunting) and its more recent Norman links give it a very French feel. Electric bikes, available to rent, are an ideal way to explore the landscape, as you look out for a glimpse of a bottle-nosed dolphin, red squirrel or puffin, or you could simply take to your feet to stroll around the island and drink in the magnificent views.
Off La Grande Route des Sablons, Grouville
Completely surrounded by the sea twice a day, this granite tower stands on a rocky outcrop a little more than a mile off the south-eastern corner of the island. Visiting it involves a walk across an almost lunar landscape, although tide times must be consulted — many have been caught out, as the tide rushes in along gullies ‘at the speed of galloping horses’, as the saying goes.
The tower was built in 1782 after the Battle of Jersey (when French forces tried to gain control of the island) and is the only square fortification out of the 23 built, five of which are lined up along the coast facing Seymour itself. For the adventurous, it sleeps seven people (plus a guide), who can view the low-water flora and fauna or simply enjoy the solitude before the receding tide once more reconnects civilisation.
La Hougue Bie
La Route de la Hougue Bie, Grouville
One of the 10 oldest buildings in the world, this Neolithic burial site dates to about 4,000BC (making it more than 1,000 years older than the Egyptian pyramids) and is one of the largest and best-preserved passage graves in Western Europe, aligned to allow sunlight to reach the back wall at the spring and autumn equinoxes.
Visitors can walk (bent over) along the 30ft entrance tunnel to the similarly sized burial chamber. Jersey is littered with dolmens, but this impressive tomb is covered by a 40ft-high earth mound, itself crowned with a 12th-century medieval chapel (and a 16th-century addition).
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The site also hosts a Second World War German command bunker, built during the Occupation and now housing a memorial to the 6,000 slave labourers who were brought to Jersey by the Nazis. Next to the grave are a reconstructed Neolithic longhouse and a geology and archaeology museum, with a recently discovered Celtic coin hoard, axes, spears, swords and even a woolly rhinoceros skull among its exhibits, ensuring La Hougue Bie is a must-visit for anyone with even a passing interest in history.
Mont Orgueil Castle
Castle Green, Gorey, St Martin
This majestic medieval castle tempts visitors up 198 steps through twisting turrets and towers to a breathtaking view of Gorey harbour and the wide sandy bay of Grouville beyond.
Initially constructed to protect the island from the French, following the division of the Duchy of Normandy in 1204, the castle remained the first line of defence for nearly 400 years, until Sir Walter Raleigh built Elizabeth Castle on a rocky islet in St Aubin’s Bay and Mont Orgueil became known as the Old Castle.
Now, Mont Orgueil is a treasure trove for enthusiastic visitors, with marvels to discover at the top of every staircase and behind every door: look out for the ‘wheel of urine’ (an essential weapon in the medieval physician’s arsenal), the screaming witches and the ominous ‘dance of death’ statue. Children have a chance to dress up and (a popular idea) place their parents in the stocks.
La Corbière Lighthouse
Off Rue de la Corbière, St Brelade
With its panoramic backdrop, La Corbière is one of Jersey’s most famous structures. The first concrete lighthouse to be built in the British Isles, it stands on the extreme south-western corner of the island and has dominated its rocky surroundings in sunshine and storm since it was first lit in 1874. At low tide, it is reached by a causeway, peppered along its verges with glorious rock-pools; if you are lucky, you might even spot a rare brittlestar starfish.
The Saint Malo thanksgiving sculpture at the start of the track is a good place to throw down a rug and savour a glass of wine, as you watch the summer sun sink slowly into the western sea.
Portelet Bay, St Brelade
Standing on a little island in the charmingly secluded Portelet Bay, a granite tower marks the spot where a local sea captain, Philippe Janvrin, had previously been buried.
His ship was quarantined in 1721 after returning from plague-stricken France, so, when he died, his body could not be brought onto the Jersey mainland for his funeral. The beach, which is sheltered on three sides by high granite cliffs that overlook the little island with its unassuming fort, provides a prospect to make Enid Blyton proud. The winding descent down 125 stone steps is well worth the trek.
Les Augrès Manor, La Profonde Rue, Trinity
Set in a striking 32-acre site of lush valleys and woodland, this conservation trust was created by Gerald Durrell in 1959 and combines breeding programmes for endangered species with release projects and an international education centre. It offers unforgettable experiences and the chance to glimpse some of the most striking animals on the planet, such as Chilean flamingos.
Anyone would be hard pushed to watch the baby gorilla, Amari (born at the end of 2019), with her mother and not feel a humbling connection to the animal kingdom. You don’t need to be in the least bit intrepid to enjoy the luxury glamping, although being woken by howler monkeys can feel genuinely otherworldly.
Jersey War Tunnels
Les Charrières Malorey, St Lawrence
Visitors are often struck by the myriad concrete bunkers, pillboxes and sea fortifications still present across Jersey, but of all the structures built by the Nazis during the Second World War, the War Tunnels are the most extensive.
Almost a mile in length, these tunnels were dug deep into the hillside of St Peter’s Valley, with slave labourers and civilian prisoners excavating thousands of tons of granite. Originally designed to help the Nazi troops withstand Allied air raids, the extensive passages were later used to house an emergency hospital.
Now, they function as an extraordinary exhibition space, providing an authentic opportunity to experience the difficulties and dangers the isolated island faced as it struggled to survive when the world was at war.
As well as the history of the site, visitors can enjoy a peaceful moment in the Garden of Reflection, stroll along a woodland walk, try their hand at pottery painting or even enter the escape rooms that challenge players to break into or out of the tunnels themselves.
Hamptonne Country Life Museum
La Rue de la Patente, St Lawrence
Dating from the 15th century, this traditional Jersey farmstead, with its outbuildings, cider orchard and woodland walk, provides a rare insight into rural life across the centuries, often explored through the stories of some of the characters from the island’s past.
Among other things, it sheds light on ancient Jersey traditions, such as cider and black-butter making. Cider production was a major farming activity in Jersey and those apples that did not make it to the Cider House or pressoir, with its massive granite apple crusher, were peeled and cooked with spices, often over several days, to make Jersey’s famous nièr beurre or black-butter preserve.