Peter Morrell and his wife find that although this Channel Island is small it offers a huge welcome to visitors and has got lots of culture, wildlife and excellent food.
Our Alderney adventure actually started in Southampton. We were flying from there on the direct Aurigny Air service to the island rather than via Guernsey. After a video safety briefing in the terminal it was time to board “Joey”, a Brittain Norman Trislander. Our names were called and we individually got in through individual side doors on this nine seater plane. The 40 minute flight was a great thrill, we took off over my home town, passed the Needles on the Isle of Wight and soon spotted our vibrant green destination floating in a turquoise blue sea.
The accommodation was minutes from the airport and were soon being greeted by Richard Procter, General Manager of the Braye Beach Hotel. With his trademark red braces the genial and generous Richard must rate as one of the world’s greatest hosts, he had a remarkable rapport with both new, and the many returning, guests.
The first day on the island would be spent becoming familiar with it, which for a piece of land measuring three miles long and a mile and a half wide sounds like a long time. In fact there is so much to see and do that it could easily take double that time to fully appreciate this little gem. For our fascinating and informative tour we were in the knowledgeable hands of Martin Batt. He heads up a project called Living Islands, which is promoting Alderney to a wider audience with help from the local community.
This must be the most fortified place on earth, not surprising as it is the most northerly of the Channels Islands and is strategically placed to guard the English Channel. A short drive from Braye Beach is the massive Fort Tourgis, built by the Victorians in 1855 it was extended during Word War II to include gun emplacements. Volunteers from Living Islands have cleared and restored the German additions and we clambered over the wild flower covered ramparts to explore the now accessible bunkers.
A mile along the coast is Fort Clonque, it is built on a rocky outcrop and cut off at high tide. The Fort was rescued by the Landmark Trust in 1966. This unique property can now be rented on a self-catering basis and will accommodate up to 13 people.
We edged our way around the island with it’s sweeping sandy beaches, spying white capped rocks that we will see much closer later, and spotted a number of ‘Alderney Stones’. These are the work of artist Andy Goldsworthy who has placed a series of large clay spheres around the island. He has concealed items like mooring rope within them which are gradually revealed as the Stones weather.
Our next stop was overlooking Longis Bay, the only natural harbour on Alderney. It is guarded by one of the best preserved Roman forts in the world. Perched on a hill above the harbour is Essex Castle, originally built during the reign of Henry VIII, it has been re-vamped and extended over the years. The castle’s role was to keep a watchful eye on ‘The Race’, the treacherous 8 mile wide channel that separates the island from France.
It was time to go to sea, so we joined one of Alderney Wildlife Trust’s regular trips on their boat for a Seabird Safari. Sailing from Braye we first needed to clear the massive 900 metre breakwater before entering the open sea. The coast is dotted with submerged rocks, so we were grateful for the skills of experienced skipper Bugsy McAllister. We headed first for the small island of Burhou, landing is banned during the summer as it supports a large colony of Atlantic Puffins. These unique looking birds collect several fish in their bright orange bills before going back to land to feed their young.
Turning back towards the coast the mystery of the white capped rocks we had seen earlier was revealed. Called Les Etacs it’s the home to thousands of Gannets and the colour on the rocks is their guano. The smell of their droppings on the breeze was intense but the consolation was looking up to see these majestic white birds with a two metre wingspan circling overhead framed against an azure blue sky, a memorable sight.
Back at the Braye Beach Hotel there was time to take stock of our home The property has been brought back to life by Channel Islands’ businessman Derek Coates. As a youngster he helped his father build the island’s airport. Forty three years later the chance emerged to buy the Braye Beach and turn it into a luxury hotel. Originally a line of warehouses it sits slap bang on a beautiful sandy, crescent shaped beach. The building has been sympathetically renovated, the lower floor has rooms to relax in and even a cinema with big leather chairs. The ground floor features a restaurant and a large elevated balcony with views over the beach and to the silhouette of imposing Fort Albert across the bay. The bedrooms are large, comfortable and well appointed.
Dining at the hotel that evening really was a showcase of the culinary quality the island has to offer. We sampled local crab, lobster, oysters and halibut with sides of salad and potatoes. The fresh, natural flavours shone out like a beacon
Woken by the gentle sound of waves breaking on the shore we had a hearty ‘Full Alderney’ breakfast on the balcony, under the watchful eye of well-behaved Trevor the Seagull. This set us up for the ten minutes stroll into the town of St Anne. The term ‘stepping back in time’ is a cliché but Victoria Street, the main thoroughfare, with its quaint shops and decorative bunting had that warm, cosy feel of my childhood. We bumped into Bugsy the boat skipper, who was tending his fishmonger’s shop and Martin from Living Islands, in 24 hours we were almost locals.
The Visit Alderney office is the best place to discover more, they have a St Anne Town Walk leaflet that will guide you round the main sites. You will pass or can visit the museum, the celebrated Alderney Bayeux Tapestry Finale in the library and walk through Marais Square with it’s cattle trough and overlooked by one of the town’s oldest pubs. The Prince Albert Memorial gate in Victoria Street leads to the parish church of St Anne’s designed by the renowned Victorian architect Sir Gilbert Scott. During the tour there are many references to the Le Mesurier family, they held the hereditary Governorship of the island until 1825, they are the antecedents of John Le Mesurier, aka Sergeant Wilson in Dad’s Army
Although it was lunchtime the Braye Beach breakfast was keeping us energised but there are plenty of places to eat in St Anne, Gloria’s and Jack’s Brasserie had both been recommended to us.
Our second afternoon was spent finding that most elusive of pastimes, peace and tranquility. The long, golden curve of Braye Beach was just asking to be walked. Paddling in the water and breathing in the fresh air, we shared it with no more than a dozen other people. Given its small size the island never felt claustrophobic, there was always an expansive view to enjoy.
Our final night saw us back in St Anne for dinner at The Georgian House Hotel in the main street. There was a lively bar on the ground floor for a pre-dinner drink before going upstairs to the very bright and airy dining rooms. Again the menu offered local fish, meat and vegetables and all the courses had an uplifting freshness.
Our evening finished with a nightcap in the historic Divers Inn, founded in 1847, the pub is owned by the Braye Beach Hotel and conveniently located next door.
Driving back to the airport the next day I felt genuinely sad to leave Alderney. Although only about 60 miles from the south coast of England it is totally different to the mainland. Car doors are left unlocked, the people are friendly and it is very peaceful. There was a lot to see and do, it’s a short break destination which will appeal to photographers, walkers, wildlife enthusiasts, culture vultures and foodies who want to relax while at the same time persue their favourite interests.
Flying From Southampton – Offer Code: 3SO
Three nights bed and breakfast, 3-course dinner on one evening and return flights from Southampton with free taxi transfers to/from airport included. For current prices go to www.brayebeach.com/offers/three-night-break/
Aurigny Air Services offer daily flights direct from Southampton or via Guernsey – www.aurigny.com
For more information on Alderney go to www.visitalderney.com