Guernsey’s Potato Peel Magic
Phil Hopkins, Arts & Travel Editor
As the door opened we were greeted by a smiling face. My German guide, speaking in her native tongue, exchanged words with the grey-haired lady who turned to me and said: “And zey sink the Germans have left!”
The two then burst out laughing.
Welcome to Guernsey in the Channel Islands, occupied by the Nazis for the duration of the Second World War between 1940 and 1945.
But these days, as the island experiences a Renaissance thanks to the film,
The Guernsey Literary Potato Peel Pie Society, based on Mary Ann Shaffer’s best-selling fictional novel of the same name, a healthy truce now exists between the 62,000 islanders and those many Germans who have integrated into local life since General Major Siegfried Heine’s unconditional surrender to Allied Forces on 9th May 1945.
Watch the amazing video of Petit Port Bay!
It is a beautiful, fascinating place that, somehow, totally escapes you until you have actually visited the island, and it is hard to imagine that locals – as well as occupying Nazi troops – were at near starvation point as the War drew to its close and Liberation Day approached.
Churchill had demilitarised Guernsey, thousands of Nazis occupied the place but, other than occasional commando-style raids, there was little in the way of fighting although there was the continuing pain of subjugation for islanders.
Ironically relationships were forged, love affairs between Germans and Guernsey women happened, and there are many stories of how both invaders and their prisoners came closer together.
These days this beautiful island is awash with German tourists as many return, no doubt, seeking to close painful chapters from their various pasts. It is almost impossible to be a ‘tourist’ without witnessing some aspect of the Third Reich; the Occupation Museum, German Naval Signals HQ, concrete bunkers and the German Military Underground Hospital.
And yet, despite this turbulent time in the island’s past, there is a beauty to Guernsey that, ironically, has been preserved because of that very lack of physical conflict that claimed cities like Dresden and Coventry in England.
Beginning my sojourn in the beautiful Ziggurat Hotel, a 14-bedroom hideaway at the top of Constitution Steps in the heart of St Peter Port, I settled into my new Moroccan themed surroundings before descending the 200+ steps to Market Square. For a moment I might have been making my way to the Bay Hotel in the belly of Robin Hood’s Bay!
Observing the nearby Albion House Tavern, I quickly began to wonder if Guernsey and its surrounding islands were about to challenge Abu Dhabi in the boasting stakes.
The Albion overlooks the harbour and is the closest pub to a church in the British Isles, bringing an entire new meaning to the words ‘Holy Water’! Then there is the Little Chapel near the airport, the smallest church in the world
The nearby island of Sark boasts the smallest functioning prison in the world, while its neighbouring island, Herm, HAS the smallest prison in the world and, between 2004 and 2014, the man with the slowest heartbeat on the planet lived in Guernsey; this is indeed a chilled island despite its turbulent past!
Joining me for the day, my guide Gaby Betley, a German lady who has lived on Guernsey for 30 years, was keen to tell me about her adopted home, and was quick to point out how former enemies now live in harmony, not unlike the many residents of Ho Chi Minh City who welcome thousands of American tourists to Vietnam without so much as a grimace.
“Have you ever felt any prejudice?” I ask innocently.
“Never,” she said, “never,” repeating the word emphatically.
Touring the island, it was not hard to see why so many people return to the Bailiwick of Guernsey, a Crown Dependency which includes the islands of Alderney, Sark, Herm, Jethou and Brecqhou, after working or studying abroad. It is rich in contrast; sun, sea, and spectacular views, particularly on the Guernsey coast and in the north of the island around Forts Doyle and Le Marchant, where local man Andy Walker, regularly leads historic walking tours.
Inland Sausmarez Manor is a haven of tranquillity with its sculptures, wildflower garden and quiet café, where a queue of three people could constitute a breach of the peace! It is run by Peter de Sausmarez, cousin to former Hollywood movie star, Olivia de Havilland, once Errol Flynn’s leading lady but now living a quiet life in Paris at the grand old age of 101.
Victor Hugo is said to have taken his inspiration for Les Misérables from Guernsey, the place where he alaso penned his famous novel, and there is a huge statue of him in the Guernsey Museum at Candi Gardens.
Paul Young, who told the world, ‘wherever I lay my hat, that’s my home’ left it in Guernsey for a while, and even that man of F1 speed, Jenson Button, decided that the calm of the Channel Islands was the perfect place to unwind, even if Hell raiser movie star Oliver Reed may have been just around the corner to threaten his peace!
However, it is to be hoped that the latter did not find his way to the gorgeous Bella Luce restaurant, for no other reason than it has its own gin distillery and Mr Reed – the infamous Bill Sykes in the Oscar winning film, Oliver! and inclined to the odd tipple – may well have spent his final days there! Nevertheless, the perfect excuse for a class night out.
Doug and Dame Mary Perkins, the couple behind Specsavers – and the island’s largest employers - still live on the island, where they are said to be great local benefactors, and one thing is for sure, you would want to invest in a pair of their specs before you visit Castle Cornet just across from the town harbour in St Peter Port.
Still very much a ‘working’ facility, the noon day gun is sounded daily some 200 years on from when the touch paper was first lit, and it has a series of small but fascinating military museums. Well worth a morning of your time.
Not far away there is the ferry to any of Guernsey’s small neighbouring islands, but failing to at least visit Sark would be like stopping off in Ecuador without wading ashore at the Galapagos Islands, for it is a place of beauty and one of the few spots in the world where cars are banned and time has stood still.
The world’s first official Dark Sky Island, only bikes, horses and tractors are considered legitimate forms of transport, although the arrival of a disability scooter did raise the odd eyebrow!
Nevertheless, a good set of walking legs or pumping thighs to get your hire bike up the most stubborn of inclines, will assure you of spectacular views including the likes of the Mantlet Half Tower and its nearby Buddhism Carving, or the amazing Window in the Rock and, if the tide is in your favour, you can cycle to Little Sark and clamber round the coastal rocks to take a quick dip in the Venus Pool.
Returning to the ‘mainland’ after my wonderful stay in an overnight BnB, I once again joined my guide, Gaby Betley, to visit the Military Cemetery at Fort George which is populated with lines of gravestones, only this peaceful backdrop is different to most resting places, for it watches over both British and German soldiers, 111 Nazi graves to be precise.
One headstone carries the name Fritz Imke and the story goes that on 28th December 1942 trainee Army officer, Imke, was supposed to be on duty in a Guernsey guard room whilst the rest of his unit were enjoying post-Christmas celebrations in the schoolroom opposite. However, fellow soldiers later found him slumped over his bunk lying in a pool of blood. His right finger was resting on the trigger of his pistol and an illustrated German magazine depicting a person committing suicide lay nearby.
Later a Military Court delivered a verdict of suicide and refusing to be transferred to the Russian Eastern Front. The implication was cowardice and 23 years old Imke was buried without military honours. His true crime?
He knew that once commissioned he would have to order men to their certain death and that thought led him into spiralling depression.
Some would say that Fritz Imke was killed by his own humanity.
Meanwhile, in Leeds my grandmother, Nellie Hopkins, long since dead, gave Paul Schunk a sandwich as a thank you for looking after her garden.
He was a German Prisoner of War in Horsforth and my grandmother was his custodian that day. I like to think that he survived WWII thanks to the humanity of people like my grandma. Nearly a century on the Hopkins and Schunk families remain friends.
It is hard to forget past atrocities, whatever they are, but forgiveness remains in our gift.
Guernsey taught me that there were no winners, everyone was a victim, the islanders who nearly starved, the lady who was sent to prison for six months for refusing to give the Heil Hitler salute, even Fritz Imke.
I said a little prayer for him and the many others whose memories had touched me and left the cemetery in silence. Later, as we parted, I gave my German guide a big hug and thanked her for an amazing day.
Our respective grandparents had probably been enemies but it was good to have made a new friend. Like those thousands of Germans who now visit Guernsey every year, I’ll be back and no, ‘they’ haven’t left, the smiling German lady was right!
Make time in your diary for a visit!
www.sark.co.uk (Tel: 01481 723008)
www.hotelziggurat.com (Tel: 01481 723008)
Gaby Betley - Guernsey Guide. Brilliant!
Tel: 07839 720341
Andy Walker - Historical island walks. Very knowledgeable.
Tel: 07911 729731
Tel: 01481 700500
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Guernsey’s Potato Peel Magic, 8th June 2018, 20:23 PM