Friday, 23 August 2013


Shortly after my first visit to this tiny Channel Island in 1990 I read an article in The Economist titled ‘A failed coup in Sark’. A Frenchman had arrived by ferry with an assault rifle and 260 rounds of ammunition. Clad in combat fatigues he pinned his demands to the island notice-board setting a deadline after which, as rightful Seigneur of Sark (his words), he would be taking over the island, its airspace and territorial waters. The notice, in French, warned that resistance would be met with force and that the island would be returned to France. He was arrested by the constables and sentenced to seven days imprisonment which had to be served in Guernsey as the Sark gaol, possibly the smallest in the world, is too cramped for more than an overnight lock up.

La Seigneurie Gardens
By 1066 Sark was part of Normandy and to this day islanders owe allegiance to HM the Queen as ‘Duke of Normandy’.  After a violent period, in which control ping-ponged between pirates, the English, the French and then again the English, the island was granted to Helier de Carteret as a feudal land holding in 1565 and that’s how it remained until the 21st century. Helier was the first ‘Seigneur’ with responsibility for defending the island and to achieve this he divided the land, three miles long by one and a half miles wide, into forty tenements and leased all but one as feudal holdings. The incoming families were obliged to provide a man and a musket to defend the island and, apart from a brief spell of Nazi occupation, the island has been successfully defended against all comers, including that Frenchman.
Sark taxi

This summer we spent an idyllic week of cloudless blue skies on the car-free island where transport is by foot, by bike, by pony and cart or one of the 90+ tractors. The nearest thing to a car is a mobility scooter and to get one of those you need the doctor to sign off genuine need.

We revisited favourite spots including La Seigneurie and its gardens which were blooming better than I remember. Since 2009 it’s been managed by a trust and the Seigneur has moved out to a smaller residence whilst a wealthy couple has taken on the extensive restoration of the house in return for a ten-year lease. I think we met the temporary ‘dame in residence’ throwing corn to the elderly male dove; the sole survivor in the dovecote to have escaped attacks from a growing population of peregrine falcons. Being old he flies below the tree line, fairly safe from falcons, albeit very lonely. There are of course no neighbouring doves to socialise with as the Seigneur is the only one allowed to have a dovecote. Another ‘droit de Seigneur’ is to be the only person allowed an unspayed bitch on the island.

Until recently his most lucrative feudal right was ‘la Treizième’, a payment of one thirteenth of the purchase price of any of the 39 tenements. But I believe this has been swapped for a £25,000 a year pension and these days taxes on property transactions go to the island’s coffers as opposed to the Seigneur’s.

Being an island there is only a subset of the mainland wildlife with foxes and badgers absent. So too were hedgehogs until the 1980s when the Dame, the wife of the Seigneur, introduced them to control slugs and other garden pests. Unfortunately they didn’t stop in the gardens and several ground nesting birds are now absent from Sark. 

Land slip beneath La Coupée
We enjoyed a cruise hugging the coastline around the island seeing puffins, guillemots, cormorants and lots of gulls. The high cliffs were impressive, lots of patterns and colours including a splash of green malachite; yet fragile in places. The underlying rock on big Sark is two billion year old gneiss whereas on little Sark it is granite. Between them is La Coupée, a narrow causeway a hundred metres high, at both ends of which are faults where the rocks have moved creating a crush zone of loose rocks in between. In time the sea will erode away this causeway making an island of little Sark. In recent years volunteers have had to re-route the steep cliff path down from the causeway to the beach at least three times as landslides took away the steps. It’s worth the walk to the beach, a great place to watch the sunset. 

George our skipper and guide took us onwards to the island of Brecqhou, one of the Sark tenements, which was purchased by the Barclay twins in 1993. Their presence is quite pervasive with a gothic looking castle for home which reputedly cost £80m to build. They also own several properties on Sark including four of the six hotels which have been lavishly developed and are good but expensive. Despite it being mid July in perfect weather they all seemed fairly empty.

The modest residence of the Barclays
Vineyards are another big change with something like 15% of the island now planted out. Locals are sceptical as to whether the venture will work, questioning the wisdom of planting in this unpredictable climate ... ‘why don’t the French grow grapes in Normandy?’ and ‘where are the sheep expected to graze?’ - I’m sure the added value of wine will exceed the added value of sheep.  I met a local man employed to insert stakes, for supporting the vines, into the tough rocks ..... ‘Some people say it’s a monoculture but all sorts of wild flowers are sprouting up between the vines and the hedgerows are being left to grow’. From my own experience I have never known such an abundance of bees, beetles, butterflies and other insect life.

Marine life seemed to be thriving, as far as I could see from above the water, and I enjoyed a chat with a local fisherman as he unpicked his tangle net clearing out mainly seaweed and spider crab.  That morning he’d landed eleven Dover Sole, two Plaice and three Seabass. Typically he sets his tangle net at 8pm and collects at 5am but the majority of his fishing is by line from a small boat, mainly for Seabass. ‘Some days I can catch and sell as much as £600 but then there are days when I can’t get out of harbour. I’m not getting rich but to be out on the sea watching the sunrise while I do something I love, that’s priceless’.

Reasons to be cheerful
While my wife and son tried their luck with rod and ragworm I enjoyed watching a colony of gulls as the parents urged their young to take their maiden flights. Some wouldn’t budge and those that did seemed to spend hours in the sea working out how to get back onto the cliffs. An occasional bird of prey would  cause uproar in the colony, a few flying high as if they were reconnaissance planes feeding back intelligence to ground control, others swooping low over the water to protect the stranded young.

So what’s all this got to do with Natur Cymru? One of the early settlers on the island was Saint Magloire who arrived in 565 AD with 62 monks from Mt Saint Michel – he was from Wales! Another connection I was pleased to make, when looking through a book of paintings titled ‘Art for the Love of Sark’, was a series of paintings from Sark by Kim Atkinson; the Artists for Nature Foundation had run a project in Sark a couple of years ago. Kim of course has contributed several front covers for Natur Cymru.  

I think anyone who likes Natur Cymru and wildlife would enjoy a visit to this otherworldly island.  There is lots of information on the Sark website if you would like to plan a visit.   

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