Travel review: Exploring the Channel Islands of Herm and Sark
Considering how much clobber you need to take on a camping holiday and the restrictions on carrying it imposed by most airlines, the concept of camping by air would appear to be a non-starter. But you can easily do it on the Channel Islands of Herm and Sark using the new Aurigny service from Leeds-Bradford Airport as I discovered with my son. What’s more the flights are at convenient times and inexpensive and you can be pitching on Herm within a couple of hours of landing at Guernsey.
You don’t even need to take a tent since the sites where we stayed offered pre-erected, equipped tents and log cabins. We thought that would be cheating a little bit too much, though, so took our own pop-up tent for a boys’ adventure.
Herm isn’t the sort of place that Bear Grylls would pitch up but its family friendliness, the endless, sandy beaches and choice of eateries (one serves breakfast too so we didn’t need to bother with cooking at all) suited us perfectly. Who really wants to catch and skin rabbits for supper anyway?
Early morning campers at the Seagull site wandered around in onesies rather than state-of-the-art waterproofs and the conversation concerned the location of charging points rather than heroic escapades from the previous day. This is firmly a place for children, parents and grandparents. I watched as one tot chased a pheasant across the vast camping field. Most of the island felt like Menorca while the White House Hotel – run, like everything on the island, by a company that leases the island from the States of Guernsey – gives Herm a contrasting, exclusive Necker Island vibe. Holiday cottages are available to rent too and the island can accommodate up to 600 people (10 times its resident population) in total.
Herm is just one and a half miles long by a mile wide but packs a lot into a small space. Unusual features include a tiny, beehive-shaped prison built to detain miscreants working at the island’s granite quarry in the 19th century. We came across it on a gentle half-day stroll around the coastal path. One glorious beach came after another. Our pick was the cove of Belvoir Bay while the vast expanse of white sand that is Shell Bay is a firm favourite with the many other holidaymakers. Herm in mid-August was inevitably busy but we soon found quiet corners away from the harbour and we didn’t pass a soul on the long Mouisonniere Beach at the far side of the common on the west coast. That night, on the stroll down from the campsite to the Mermaid Tavern, we passed a couple seated at a viewpoint over Guernsey, one of them painting the scene and the other reading a bird book which summed up Herm’s quaintly old-fashioned, relaxed air.
Sark, our other destination reached via ferry from Guernsey, seemed a bit more real life – or, at least, as real life as a quirky island without cars can be. The last feudal state in Europe, which switched to full democracy only in 2008, the island has a much larger and more diverse community than Herm. We stayed at the La Valette farm campsite which overlooked the sea like the Seagull site but was more back to basics with far fewer people. Cafes in the nearby village opened for breakfast so we were more than happy.
The Avenue, Sark’s high street, is a dirt track, lined with one-storey, prefabricated buildings, most of them shops. Other than the occasional tractor and horse-drawn carriage, bikes are the only traffic, which makes the road look like a scene from an Edwardian postcard. Rush hour is an alien concept. Hire bikes are essential for exploring the island, particularly as there is no coastal footpath. We spent our full day on the island pedalling towards different points on the coast until the track petered out, then walking and usually descending down steep steps (not so suitable for young families) to various bathing spots. Our favourite was the Venus Pool, a rock pool you can swim in but that’s only accessible at low tide and to those in the know (ask at the tourist office). To reach the pool we crossed La Coupée, a hair-raisingly narrow road across the isthmus between Sark and Little Sark island.
Later we swam at Dixcart Bay and then through the natural arch at Port du Moulin. At the top of the cliff overlooking the beach is the window in the rock which was blasted out in the 1850s to frame the view by a dotty seigneur of Sark. The seigneur is a rough equivalent to the lord of the manor. We visited the gardens at the seigneur’s house at the end of an unforgettable day. The highlight for us was the hedge maze. We reached the centre to find a tiny castle, entered and climbed a ladder to the ramparts and then hoisted a flag (for Sark, of course) up the pole. How sweet, novel, understated and satisfying, much like the two smallest Channel Islands that we’d quickly grown to love.
Flights are available from Leeds/Bradford to Guernsey from about £150 return. aurigny.com
For general travel information go to visitguernsey.com, herm.com and sark.co.uk
For details of the campsite vsit sercq.com/la_Valette_Campsite.html