Food, culture and literature are all a focus for festivals on Guernsey this year. Sarah Marshall gets a taste of what’s on offer
Wearing only a plastic cap and bathing suit for protection against the wind, two swimmers scurry along the cobbled streets of St Peter Port on a bracing spring morning. They’re heading to one of the town’s three natural bathing pools, flooded with seawater since Victorian times and used 365 days of the year.
Even Guernsey’s most famous resident, exiled French writer Victor Hugo, was fond of taking a dip in the ocean, and like the majority of Guerns, shared a special relationship with the water, highlighted in his novel Toilers Of The Sea, which celebrates its 150th anniversary this year.
Local resident and guide Elizabeth Gardener-Wheeler helps me retrace one of Hugo’s favourite walks along the seafront of St Peter Port. The Les Miserables author enjoyed his 15 years spent living here, she tells me, because “it felt French” and, on a clear day, he could even make out the faint coastline of his beloved homeland.
Stormy skies obscure my views when, later that day, I climb to the top of Fort Grey, where rooftop access has been granted to the public for the first time as part of the Heritage Festival. Now housing The Shipwreck Museum, the Martello tower was built in 1804 to defend Guernsey’s west coast.
I gaze down at the sandy Rocquaine Bay, streaked with sticky fronds of bladderwrack washed up by the tide. Hugo would often scour the island’s beaches for sea kale, which he also cultivated in his garden.
Due to a quirky, arcane law passed in the 1800s, it’s not possible to collect seaweed on a Sunday, but I am able to gather other edible items from this coastal larder, on a foraging adventure with Wild Guernsey.
Couple D’Arcy and Tara run trips for small groups by appointment (£20 per person for two hours), and will also be hosting a family foraging event as part of this year’s 10-day Guernsey International Food Festival (running from September 23 to October 2).
Along with plants, herbs and sea greens, Guernsey boasts numerous home-grown foodstuffs, many of which will be on sale at the Big Guernsey Market at St Peter Port on Saturday 24 and Sunday 25 September.
Rock samphire forms one of the key ingredients in a gin produced by the team at boutique hotel Bella Luce. Former chef-turned-hotelier Luke Wheadon, set up his own distillery last year and will be co-hosting a Shake Your Own cocktail station with UK-based Blackdown Artisan Spirits at the market. (Stay at Bella Luce, and you can even have a bespoke gin made as part of package.)
Back in the 16th century, cider – not gin – was the preferred tipple for most residents. Hoping to revive the tradition, James Meller’s family has been producing cider on his family farm in the Fauxquets Valley for 15 years.
After offering me a glass of the dry Rocquette XC Exceptional Cider, he regales the challenges of finding “non-tree-bark-stripping sheep” to “mow” his orchard.
Peter and Mandy Girard have greater fondness for their grazers, a small herd of rare breed golden Guernsey goats producing five different soft and hard cheeses made from the decadently creamy unpasteurised goats milk. It’s not available in the UK, but does keep for six weeks, so I purchase a packet to take home, keeping it fresh in the minibar fridge in my room at new boutique hotel Ziggurat.
But the cheese doesn’t even make it to the airport. I gobble the lot, convinced it tastes better when accompanied by my balcony view of the historic harbour. Or perhaps it’s simply the sea air.