After pausing on Alderney I continue my journey to significant places features in the Riduna series and Guernsey features in both Riduna and in Ancasta Guide me Swiftly Home.
In fact I knew of Guernsey long before Alderney and my first trip to Guernsey was at the age of seven.( I don’t count the visit when I was still just a twinkle in my mother’s eye, but I was there at minus two months so I’m told!) I have fond memories of this holiday, of walking along cliff top paths and down steep steps to secluded bays. I remember the boat trip from Fermaine to St Peter Port and getting about on busses, not to mention day trips to Herm and Sark.
Back in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries it was still more likely that travellers would visit Guernsey on their way through to Alderney and so that was my vision when I took a holiday over there to do some research back in 2002. I took the slow ferry from Portsmouth which took several hours, six I think, and then I spent many happy days researching in the museum and the Priaulx Library, fantastic places for anyone interested in the history of the islands.
I also borrowed many books about the island’s history from my local county archives at home and absorbed myself in the life and history of the times.
What interesting facts did I glean? It would be difficult to sum this up in one blog post but for Riduna it was the military presence with the Victorian fortification;the interesting rules of society, for example that an individual needed a formal invitiation to an island dance by a well respected local family; that the main trades at the time were importing tomatoes, stone and cattle, not to mention the tourist industry, which was vital for the island’s econony back then too. I was fascinated to read accounts of some of these visitors and one comment that struck a note was that the island’s poor seemed at least well fed, clothed and wore shoes. Whether this was true in the outlying villages I’m not so sure, but there seemed to be work during that period. All of these industries were labour intensive, even though the latter was, to a certain extent, seasonal.
What did I know from snippets passed down through my family? That they owned a small guest house; that my great grand mother could ‘dance on a sixpence’ and so she must have gained an invitation to the dances even though they were certainly not a well to do family; that my great grand mother from Alderney was literate but my great grandfather who was born on Guernsey was not; that my great grandfather was a skilled gold leaf painter and he travelled to France for the pigment. All of these gems helped to weave the story of Riduna as Harriet, the leading lady was exiled from Alderney at 15yrs to stay with an aunt.
The links with Guernsey did not stop at Riduna but continued to weave through the Ancasta too. It was on Guernsey (Sarnia) in my novel that Sarah, Harriet’s daughter was first made aware that her father had another life far away from Woolston, Southampton. Not only that but he also had a family of whom he rarely spoke. Here is a short extract from Ancasta:
“They strolled in companionable silence down the short cobbled slope of Well Road, between the rows of harbourmen’s cottages. The road narrowed and turned, the way ahead being covered with shadows, before suddenly emerging into the sunlight, with the harbour in front of them. Small boats mingled, chattering messages as they fidgeted against the glittering water. They dodged a Hansom Cab racing towards the jetty and joined the wave of people walking towards the waiting steamer to England. A few were carrying their own bags but most were following on the heels of one of the many barrow boys, who frequently turned their capped heads to smile or make some light-hearted and humorous comment to check that the owners of their burdens were not too far behind. Sarah heard glimpses of conversations: sad farewells, fond recollections of their stay on the island, exciting plans for future visits or the journey ahead as she tuned in and out between the channels of her own thoughts and the reality around her.
Rose led Sarah to an area above the waiting ship, where wooden slatted seats were occupied by folks enjoying a rest or admiring the view. They found a place to sit beside an elderly couple with lined, contented faces, walking sticks leaning at their sides and wrinkled hands clasped together in eternal love and friendship. The couple beamed as the ladies joined them and it struck Sarah just how similar their features had become as they had aged together.
‘It’s difficult to explain. Suddenly I feel that I hardly knew my father at all. Here is a world, a place I have barely heard him speak of, the beautiful home of his birth and where he grew up; family, friends and a life I have very little knowledge or understanding of. It’s disconcerting, to say the least.’
Rose thought for a few moments, wishing to give the right words of comfort to this confused young woman. The day had been a long one. That morning Joe Newton had been buried according to his wishes in a grave alongside his parents, far away from his home in England.
‘Your father was many people: father, husband, son, brother, cousin and friend. Each facet had its own character and its own life, just like a different scene in a play. In each scene he was a special man and lived to please the people around him whenever he could.’
‘I understand what you are saying. During the long journey here yesterday I had time to think. I was wracked with guilt that my father had come over here on a visit and died alone, so far away from his family. His heart attack had been so sudden. He was tired when he left but I never imagined he was ill. I had visions of him being so far away from my mother and his children, just when he needed us most – but it wasn’t like that at all, was it?’
‘My poor girl! You must rest assured that he had his sister and many members of his family nearby. Also the nuns up at Les Cotils are very loving, caring people. He could not have been in better hands.’
There was another silence as they watched basket after basket of tomatoes and luggage hauled effortlessly on to the waiting ship and stowed securely by the stevedores, the line of laden carts queuing at the dock edge gradually dwindling.’
It was on this trip that Sarah’s love of the islands was ignited. Guernsey is an island of contrasts from the busy streets of St Peter Port to protected coves of Petit Bot Bay; from stunning clifftop walks to long open sandy bays; from busy restaurents to quiet cafes; from stately homes to little intimate museums, places to visit and of course the quaint shell church. Whereas I visit Alderney for quiet, that ‘I want to get away from it all moment,’ I visit Guernsey for a more lively retreat where I know I can also find hidden places to escape to.