The Channel Islands: How The United Kingdom Ought To Be

Have you ever considered what the United Kingdom might be like had it not, like all empires, lost its way?

What if I told you that slice of British paradise still exists? Its weather is not as enticing as Bermuda’s and its beaches are not as pristine. But that’s part of what gives it the British feel that sunny Bermuda is lacking. No, I’m not talking about Pitcairn. That ultra-remote slice of paradise was officially tarnished several years back when the special prosecutor arrived. 

While they are not technically part of the UK, the Channel Islands embody what Britain could be. They’re islands but not too remote, they’re tax havens, they never made the mistake of joining the EU and one of them until recently operated as a modern feudal state. Unfortunately, democracy has partially arrived on Sark, the most interesting Channel island of them all, and in that sense, the islands are a bit tarnished. But as you will see, Sark maintains its unparalleled rituals, including the tractor pull ride to the emergency room.

What are the Channel Islands?

The Channel Islands lie in the English Channel off the coast of the French region of Normandy. They are actually remnants of the Duchy of Normandy and lie much closer to France than to England, despite being comprised of a couple Crown dependencies. 

As part of the 1259 Treaty of Paris, King Henry III of England gave up his title to the Duchy of Normandy and the king of France gave up claim to the Channel Islands. Ever since, the Channel Islands have been English/British Crown possessions. As British Crown dependencies, the Channel Islands are not part of the UK, but they have an allegiance to the British Crown that dates back more than 800 years. Like Bermuda, a British Overseas Territory, the Chanel Islands are dependent upon the UK for defense and management of their foreign policy. The islands set their own fiscal policy and have their own judicial systems.

Coastal Jersey

The two largest islands in the archipelago are Jersey and Guernsey. Both the Bailiwick of Jersey and the Bailiwick of Guernsey are British Crown dependencies. Jersey is the largest of the islands, but Guernsey’s bailiwick also consists of Alderney, Sark and some smaller islands.

Guernsey, the second largest of the Channel Islands

As I’ve already mentioned, Sark is the most interesting of the Channel Islands, and thus, the one I was most looking forward to visiting. In all, the Channel Islands have a total population of about 165,000. Approximately 500 of those people live in Sark.

Liberty and legal customs in the Channel Islands

What on earth is a bailiwick, you might ask? A bailiwick is a territory administered by a bailiff — not to be confused with a bailiff (same spelling), as in the guy who provides security and other services in court. A bailiff in the Channel Islands sense is the head civil administrator and head of the judiciary.

Governance gets even more interesting in Sark, which is a self-governing part of the Bailiwick of Guernsey. Sark was the last independent feudal state in the West, being governed as a fief of the Seigneur. 

Okay, what is a Seigneur? A Seigneur is basically a feudal overlord. He inherits the fiefdom and serves as the head of its feudal government. The Seigneur is also the only person on the island allowed to keep pigeons and an unspayed dog.

Sark’s feudal government, until 2008, had a legislature known as the Chief Pleas that consisted of a single chamber with 54 members. The 54 members were the Seigneur, the Seneschal, the island’s 40 landowners and just 12 elected deputies. 

The Seneschal, appointed for life by the Seigneur is kind of like the bailiff of the island, being the main civic administrator and judge. 

A sneak peak at Sark

Disaster struck in 2008. After being egged on by the European Court of Human Rights following some island dispute, Sark transformed into a democracy, or at least somewhat of one. The Chief Pleas became a 30-member chamber with 28 members being elected in island-wide elections. The Seigneur and Seneschal are still part of Sark’s legislative body, though feudalism on the island has been significantly reduced. 

Legal systems in the Channel Islands are based largely on Norman customary law. This allows for some intriguing rituals, none more so than the Clameur de Haro, an ancient Norman rite that is still effect in both bailiwicks. 

What is the Clameur de Haro? It’s basically a legal defense that a person can use to immediately halt any actions considered to be an infringement of his rights. In 2018, a woman used the Clameur de Haro in Guernsey to stop a construction project she claimed would endanger pedestrians and drivers.

How do you assert your rights using the Clameur de Haro? Well, the Guernsey woman kneeled and screamed out in Norman French, “Haro! Haro! Haro! A l’aide, mon prince, on me fait tort.” That means, “Come to my aid, my prince, for someone does me wrong.”

A court then stopped the construction work.

As much as I would enjoy being the feudal overlord of my own private island or using the Clameur de Haro to achieve an immediate cessation of all activity of the European Union, what is pragmatic at the moment — and lucrative for me — is starving governments of tax revenue. 

The Channel Islands are very much part of the offshore world, which is another reason I was itching to pay them a visit. Jersey, which has no general corporate taxation, is a renowned tax haven.

Beginning the trip in a famed Normandy maze

Since Norman influence is so prevalent in the Channel Islands that people kneel on the ground and scream in French for the prince to come to their aid, it is only fitting that we begin this trip in Normandy. I was actually on a trip around France with my father, who joined me in the Channel Islands as well. But we don’t want to get too off track, so for the French part of the journey, I’ll simply recap our time spent in the jewel of Normandy — the isle commune of Mont Saint-Michel.

I wouldn’t mind being the Seigneur of this commune. 😉

Mont Saint-Michel is beautiful. The isle commune with a hilltop abbey is sometimes surrounded by water, sometimes not. It depends on the tide, which fluctuates drastically. The difference between low tide and high tide at Mont Saint-Michel can be up to 16 meters, which is one of the largest differentials in the world. If your out for an afternoon stroll on the sand surrounding the island and you take your jolly old time getting back to the commune, you could get swept up as the tide comes rushing in. 

Low tide… but not for long

I lost my father while at Mont Saint-Michel. Thankfully it had nothing to do with the tide. 

It was our checkout day. We were leaving the commune. I told my father to wait for me at the entrance to the abbey as I would take our luggage down to the storage area near the entrance to the commune. He didn’t exactly follow my instructions, which wasn’t so helpful given that he wasn’t using any sort of messaging app. When I made my way back up the hill, I couldn’t find him. After searching the entire isle commune for 3-4 hours, I finally found him when he came walking out of the main Mont Saint-Michel entrance. It was quite an ordeal. Mont Saint-Michel is a maze, one we both weaved our ways through without any synchronicity. We both walked through the whole abbey while searching or not searching for one another. It turned out, after we parted ways initially, he had gone straight to a bakery to devour some breads and coffee. That’s what set us off on different courses through the maze.

Another Mont Saint-Michel maze for you to get lost in

After Mont Saint-Michel, we made our way via Rouen to the walled French city of Saint-Malo on the coast of Brittany. We dined, went on a little walk through town and called it a night early in preparation for our early morning ferry to the Channel Islands. 

Saint-Malo

The ferry first stopped in Guernsey. We’d be visiting Guernsey later. For now, we are carrying on to Jersey. 

Another lovely tax haven

Upon arrival in Jersey, we rented a car. You’ll get a sense later on why this was a luxury. My father and I spent our first of two plus days in Jersey driving around the island. Actually we spent part of the day driving around the island. Tired from the boat journey, we checked into our hotel around 3 pm and passed out for a while. 

Maybe not paradise, but it’s a tax-free beach 😉

The next morning we saw a lot of Jersey. We drove to the airport and then to a beach and went for a walk. The Jersey coast is a bit rugged, but it’s also green and beautiful. It wasn’t beach weather, but that was okay. It made for a good time to see some World War II sights. 

Jersey’s rugged, green coastline

You may not know that the only British territory the Nazis every occupied was the Channel Islands. The occupation actually spanned nearly five years, lasting from 1940 until the very end of the war in 1945. Those years made for some difficult times in paradise, with some residents being deported as slave laborers, Jews being sent to concentration camps and other people fighting off starvation. While exploring Jersey, my father and I saw some WWII-era flags that are still standing, as well as old cannons and bunkers that we got to explore. 

In Saint Mary, a nice old town by the sea, we enjoyed lunch. The meal was followed by returning straight to our hotel for another afternoon/evening nap. This schedule caused some problems for us since restaurants close early in the Channel Islands. After getting up and getting out of the hotel, we stumbled upon a restaurant shortly before 10 pm that was serving dinner until exactly 10 pm. Luckily they served us.

The following day we had a ferry back to Guernsey, but not until the late afternoon. This left us plenty of time to see parts of Jersey we had missed. The highlight was of the day and probably of my time on the island was a castle. Mont Orgueil Castle, on the east coast of Jersey, is very beautiful from both the inside and the outside. My father didn’t join me, but I climbed all of the stairs to the top.

Great view

Atop the castle, there were excellent views of Jersey, the other Channel Islands and Normandy. I could even see a silhouette of Mont Saint-Michel off in the distance. Also clearly visible was the Channel Islands tide, which is similar to the tide at Mont Saint-Michel. Sometimes when the tide is very low you can walk out nearly 1 km. The tide goes that far out. 

Look at all those boats in the mud!

The view of the tide isn’t just spectacular from atop Mont Orgueil Castle. It was also nice to sit in the cafe at the harbor, eat lunch and gaze at all the boats lying on the sand. Then a few hours later, you would see them sailing again. 

It’s not exactly a Caribbean feel in the Channel Islands. There are a lot of steep cliffs and rocky, yet green terrain. Again, it’s very beautiful, even though it’s not what you would typically think of when imagining an island paradise. 

La Corbiere

Before departing Jersey, we drove some more around the island, visiting more bays and beaches. Some of the spots we hit included La Corbiere, a strip of coastal terrain at the extreme southwestern part of the island on which a lighthouse stands, and the Sand Wizzard sandcastle, which is an amazing sculptured sandcastle inside a huge green dome. The sandcastle was built by a local who goes by the name the Sand Wizzard.

The Sand Wizzard’s castle

Guernsey in brief

The ferry ride from Jersey to Guernsey took just one hour. Since we’d be taking another boat to Sark the next day, we did not rent a car in Guernsey. 

Back at the Guernsey harbor

Fatigued again, we repeated the sleep until 9 pm routine. And then we struggled again trying to find a place to eat dinner. But we managed and were very pleaded with the restaurant we found — Le Nautique, a nice seafood place in Saint Peter Port, the capital of Guernsey. You know I’m allergic to fish, so this is what I had instead: 😉

Yum

After dinner, we went for a walk around town. Saint Peter Port looks different than Saint Helier, the capital of Jersey. Saint Peter Port is much smaller — it has a population of 18,000 compared to Saint Helier’s approximately 33,500. But from a distance, Saint Peter Port looks very beautiful. 

Guernsey’s worth a look.

On this Channel Islands trip, Guernsey wasn’t a whole lot more than a mere stopover for us. We saw the capital and the airport and not a whole lot more.

Sampling Sark and liking what I see

Then came the special part of the journey. This was the biggest reason I wanted to visit the Channel Islands. 

Approaching Sark. Are you ready for the ascent?

Just arriving in Sark cues you in a lot as to what life is like on the island. Upon arrival, you are faced with a steep hill that you must ascend in order to get into town. The town sits on top of the hill surrounded by steep cliffs. How do you get up there? A tractor pulls you — and the trailer you are sitting in — up to the town. Why?

A typical road in Sark

In Sark there are no cars; only tractors, bicycles and horse-drawn carriages. Those are the means of transportation. Cars are banned on the island.

This is what town in Sark looks like.

So my father and I set out to explore Sark in a horse-drawn carriage. The ride, which we shared with a pair of elderly couples, was very nice at the beginning. Then it started to rain. We weren’t prepared. It was an open carriage. We got some towels to try to keep our pants dry, but we definitely got wet. It started to rain heavily. We ended up spending most of the horse-drawn carriage ride getting soaked. By the time the tour ended, we were very wet and very cold.

We ducked into the closest cafe we could find, grabbed a towel to dry off and hot drinks to warm us up. A couple hours passed. The water was improving, and we still had three hours left.

La Coupee

I ventured out on my own to La Coupee, a one-of-a-kind road that leads to Little Sark, the smaller southern section of the island of Sark. La Coupee is actually an isthmus, with a road leading across it, situated up on a thin ridge 80 meters above the sea. The views are breathtaking.

Beauty

As you walk across the ridge, there are bays and beaches on both sides of you. I found the scenery to be especially beautiful at low tide.

More beauty

I also walked to the Pilcher monument. This is another thing that’s unique to Sark. It looks like a major monument. Given the World War II history around here, you might think it is such. But it is basically an obelisk that a woman erected as a memorial for her husband who died in a ship wreck. The clifftop location makes the “monument” even more impressive.  

Having seen the touristic highlights of Sark, I headed back to town to rendezvous with my father. After all, I didn’t want another Mont Saint-Michel situation in a place where a tractor is the primary means of transportation.

Speaking of which, have you ever seen a tractor hauling an ambulance? That’s right. In a longtime feudal mini-state run by a Seigneur, there are few exceptions to rules — pigeons and unspayed dogs notwithstanding. Not even the ambulance is allowed to violate the no cars rule. So if you think you might have a medical emergency in Sark, be aware that to the back of the trailer you shall go.

Caption this photo 😂

My visit to Sark was brief. It included no long, drawn-out, drunken conversations with the Seigneur, as had been the case with Steve Christian. But it didn’t take long to get a feel for the quirky customs of this less remote, yet equally fascinating island.  

I returned with my father to Guernsey very satisfied with my time spent in Sark, as well as in the Channel Islands as a whole. From a touristic perspective, the Channel Islands are like a big retirement community. They draw lots of senior citizen tourists. There are plenty of young residents in the Channel Islands, but the tourists are mostly old people. And lots of them are German. 

Traveling with pops 

Back in Guernsey, we dined at Le Nautique again. The next morning my father and I parted ways as our French and Channel Islands vacation came to an end. For me, it was off to Liverpool as I geared up for a trip to another Crown dependency, the Isle of Man. For him, it’s time to recoup to get ready for Heureka III, which already is just around the corner. 

If you’ve read about Heureka I or Heureka II, you might not have garnered that, there among my friends clinking Viennese wein glasses, was none other than my father. He’s not quite fleet afoot as he once was, but he certainly still knows how to have a good time, and I am extremely grateful to be able to call him my travel partner with increasing frequency. 😊