‘well what can you do? I’ve given up caring!’
– John’s life-philosophy, in St. Aubin, Jersey.
We awake at Pebble Bank caravan park in Wyke Regis, on the edge of Weymouth, overlooking the small island of Portland and the impressive formation of Chesil Beach in the distance. The caravan park is itself filled with silent, empty static caravans and motor homes, and the occasional grown-up biker with lambretta tattooed on a leg or a Harley tattoo on an arm pops in and utters a gruff hullo as I dress and brush my teeth in the loos. We head out early, hoping to catch the morning’s ferry to Jersey, and we’re joined along the interminable walk through amnesiac suburbia by the occasional schoolkid walking by. Most are being ferried to wherever in huge range rovers that’ve never seen a peaty bog or flooded ford. It’s dullness about us, of a safe and suburban kind that seems homely if a little dispiriting.
Further down the hill we pass Weymouth’s harbour, and cut along St Mary Street and down Custom Quay road towards the ferry port. Walking takes around two and a half times as long as cycling, but we reach the place on time. The cost of the ferries is very high, around £100 each for in effect a return journey and a one-hour crossing between Jersey and Guernsey. Pricey, eh! Given that these are tax haven states, and whose ferry company presumably also benefits from such low taxation,it’s a little frustrating, but not unexpected. This is a part of the world where they will refuse you tap water, remember, citing its cost. People are rich here without having ever sweated in their lives, unless you count that time they struggled to digest a third helping from the local chain pub’s Sunday carvery.
We board the ferry, a modern looking thing whose interior is more like an airplane, each person attached to a specific private seat unlike the free come-and-go of the CalMac ferries in Scotland. We manage to find the one place on the boat with a plug to charge our phones, otherwise the company have thoughtfully put up a vending machine that charges around £3 to charge a phone for an hour. The food and drinks are highly overpriced, and the tannoy regularly announces duty free booze offers to largely retired passengers. Some beside us get up to take a look, having no interest before until the suggestion of slightly cheaper scotch whisky was made. ‘Let’s have a look’, shopping still the country’s most apparent leisure pursuit. It’s hard not to be bitter, but I feel I’m breathing a different atmosphere since I left Devon. Confined, claustrophobic, airless, dulling.
The ferry reaches Guernsey first, then after a rest carries on to St. Helier, Jersey, where we disembark. It’s unlike any other port I’ve landed in. Immediately one encounters not a large harbour or marina, nor some evidence of industry or docking, nor even a small pastel-paint toy town and tourist amenities. Instead there’s a small stack of ‘luxury’ apartment high-rises in the distance, each of a slightly different colour or style, all communicating a kind of mindless property portfolio feeling about them, places to collect, undecorated interiors, an exercise bike in the spare bedroom, a plasma TV with Tarantino DVDs, a cooker that’s never been used. It looks built-up without being a sprawl, the architecture communicating a kind of affluence without any kind of aesthetic adornment, civic ambition or general taste whatsoever. We walk further in, and pass a small cinema-shopping multiplex with chain fast food brands before locating the tourist office, where we ask about bike hire places and campsites. There’s little of either, two campsites, one of which is already booked up, and a bikehire place nearby opposite Liberation bus station.
Why liberation? Jersey was occupied by the German army during the entirety of the Second World War, and was abandoned by the British without a fight. The German forces turned Jersey, Guernsey and Alderney into well-armed fortresses, deporting local Jewish people to the death camps whilst bringing over 16,000 slave workers, most Soviet soldiers, others Spanish refugees from the Civil War, some French Jews, others paid and willing to work, like the neutral Irish. They built railways, hospitals and concrete fortifications across the islands, many of which survive. There was a subtle resistance here, and many islanders tried to help slave workers to escape from their concentration camps.
Jersey is actually surprisingly small, no more than 9 miles wide and 5 miles across – about the same size as the average outer London borough. St. Helier is on the southern coast in the centre of the island, roughly, and is surrounded by twelve parishes and a number of smaller villages, most named after a saint, like St. Aubin, St. Peter and St. Ouen to the west, and St. John, Trinity and Grouville to the east. For some time now, its main income has been in banking and financial services. The island is a tax haven, and has been for some time, though few islanders will admit it. They talk of ‘financial services’, of ‘tax planning schemes’, and other euphemisms. Whistleblowers have been harassed, hounded out and even imprisoned for revealing details of the economy’s shadow-workings to the public, like former senator and health minister Stuart Syvret. ‘This is a society with no checks and balances, run by an oligarchy’ he said in one interview. ‘It is a one-party state, and it has been for centuries.’
The island benefits from its quasi-independent status: the Bailiwick of Jersey has its own legal system and is not part of the UK, but is a possession of the British Crown and the UK is constitutionally responsible for its defence. It has its own parliament, and though it uses the British pound, it has its own form of money tender, like the Isle of Man. Though it makes noises about independence, it is heavily linked to the UK, which raises a whole number of problems.
The UK has a major stake in global tax evasion. Thirty-one of the world’s sixty-two tax havens are either British crown dependencies, overseas territories or members of the Commonwealth. Though these are not directly under the control of the UK government, it could certainly do much more to pressure these dependencies, sever diplomatic links, close loopholes, or expose shadow banking systems where they exist. But the City of London has thrived by being an ideal hub for international banks to pass money through, freed from public scrutiny or taxation. This makes London feel so different to the rest of the British islands, and reinforces its own belief in being ‘independent’: its apparent wealth is in the flows and investments of international capital, which leaves the city with ugly investment properties, high housing prices and a luxury service sector catering for all this, and, in truth, a remaining large part of outer (and to a declining extent inner) London which is in significant decline socially and economically, a situation like most other British towns. The contrasts have always been ugliest in the capital.
Somewhere like Jersey, many work in a finance sector that assists investors in either not paying tax or not paying much, thus depriving local and national governments across the UK, and Western Europe, of moneys they would be entitled to, and which could be used, were it desired, to fund new education or training places for young people or invest in public healthcare. Some might call this a swashbuckling capitalism. Between breeding cats, running a dirty Thameside brick factory, fighting in Monmouth’s army and smuggling tin, Daniel Defoe travelled across these islands and wrote about them over 1724-6. He was one of the first English traders to extol the political virtues of trade: the ‘rising greatness of the British nation’, was for him not ‘owing to war and conquests, to enlarging its dominion by the sword, or subjecting the people of other countries to our power; but it is all owing to trade, to the increase of our commerce at home, and the extending of it abroad.’ Sometimes subjecting the people of other countries to our power is good for business, from India to Iraq. Less swashbuckling, more piracy I think on Jersey, like the great pirate treasures stored and protected on places like Lundy Island. So is St. Helier awash with pirates, and would its residents agree to describe it as parasitical? Let’s see.
I talk to Ann at Zebra Bikes as my sister tries the different sizes of hire bicycle. She’s Scottish, her accent suggests Stirling or Falkirk, and has lived here for thirty years. ‘You’ve got to be used to it, and not have much business elsewhere, as you won’t be leaving much.’ The island feels itself remote in distance and culture, but I don’t get the impression from her that there’s so much here to do or see. The pace is quieter whilst still being bustling. I’m also surprised that so few people speak French, at least openly, for a bilingual country. Jersey even has its own dialect, or did, Jerriais, now a preserve mainly of the elderly and taught occasionally in the local schools. We’re pointed to the local market to hear it, ‘you’ll just recognise it’, but it seems less common. ‘English, Scottish, lots of people have moved over here for work [in finance], it’s changed the island’.
With a suitable bike found, we head out towards the beach. Jersey has an unusually high number of bicycle lanes that circle the 40-mile circumference of the island as well as passing hither and thither inland. There are also special green lanes where the speed limit is 15 mph, and priority is given to walkers, equestrians and cyclists. It’s progressive and excellent stuff! Perhaps some touch of the French still remains, alongside all the French street names and areas. We follow a path that takes us along the coast and to St. Aubin, a small town with a harbour and a few benches. The roads are choked in traffic, something so unbelievable on a small island. Why such a need for cars? The cycle trail follows an old railway route that could be revived, or at least more people commute by bike. But like many small towns, the car’s the thing. There’s a number of posh looking bars and boutiques, but the area’s surprisingly deserted and without much draw. A local spots us gazing at a sign and asks us if we’re lost, something that’s hard to be on such a small island. No no, but it’s an opportunity to find out more.
John sounds like he may have originally hailed from Lancashire, but he’s from the island he says, and worked as a bar manager in a hotel for a good number of years. He mourns the decline and disappearance of Jersey’s tourism. ‘The hotels, where are they? They’ve all closed down. It used to be big here. Now it’s finance, that’s the thing.’ But confusingly, he also tells us that finance has been the thing for decades. I ask him if the decline of tourism here is like that of many other British seaside resorts. He gives a different answer: ‘people don’t know what they want. They want money, so they go into those jobs, get big cars, buy places, send their kids to posh schools. Then they want something else. Tourism, visitors.’ He points to a huge queue of traffic, and I share my observation about the excessive car-drivers. He complains about a recent redirection of traffic, and then consoles himself, ‘well what can you do? I’ve given up caring’, and he laughs. We head on.
The cycle trail cuts through a forest, and my sister does well to keep up as we pass the unusual trees that flank the route, grey, tall and spindly, their branches growing out of the old bark in myriad directions. We reach the south-western edge of journey at Corbiere, where there’s a lighthouse in the distance and some spectacularly rocky cliffs. As we gaze along the western edge of the island along five mile road, we see the remains of old forts, castles, and countless concrete German war batteries. We follow a coastal path further along, and venture inside one old battery. Its interior and exterior are daubed with weird graffiti: ‘the mind of a child is where the revolution begins’, besides ‘REDRUM’, ‘sort your lives out pigs’, and the disembodied outline of a bearded man’s head with a pipe. The discarded chairs, bizarre drawings on the walls, and very dark antechambers that lead off the corridor all communicate a very creepy and chilling effect. There could well be someone hiding here, in this battery that one must climb down to reach. It’s a shame that Jersey has not done something with this, preserved it in some way, but it’s a thrilling adventure poking round.
Further along is a coastline of golden beaches. On certain weekend evenings there’s live music played along here, we’re told, but it’s very deserted now. There’s the occasional beach bar among the sand dunes, which we’re hinted is a superb place to wild-camp, something my sister’s still averse to trying. The traffic is light, and around us is a kind of rocky, shrubby island, a little bare but not as much as say Dartmoor or the Highlands, but lacking the vegetation, greenery and brightness of the Isles of Scilly. It feels a little bare, like one might conceivably build a large prison or military camp here. We chance upon wild rabbits and pheasants, and later I spy frogs about, but there’s nothing too naturally distinct about the island except this ambient ruggedness.
The road becomes hilly towards the end, and twists inland after passing what appears to be a derelict military museum. It’s too much for my sister, and so we carry on by foot, venturing up inland towards the north-western edge of Jersey where one of the island’s two campsites will be found. Darkness is setting in and the little map from the tourist office proves to be inaccurate. In the twilight we eventually find the place after shouting at a passing cyclist, and quickly set up camp. My sister’s knackered from the ride, and has enough energy to speak to my Dad before taking a rest in the tent. Still restless, I venture out in search of a local pub.
I cycle down through a small hamlet, a burst of open country, then the village of St. Ouen. It’s very dark, something which at least brings out the stars, but riding around pitchblack Jersey does suggest boyish images of being a local spy or resistance fighter during the war. I pop into the Farmers Arms, the only place open in the village. It’s an old-fashioned boozer which looks and feels like it’s refused to deal with the changes of custom and palate that have transformed most mainland boozers in the last twenty years. I sit at the bar and drink a pint of Liberation Ale and feel out conversation, but nothing’s coming. It’s too local to get a foot in, so I listen awhile to the banter, ‘women are a funny lot’, the men agree, picking over a domestic argument about the husband’s laziness with domestic chores. A girl pops in later and talks about holding her 21st birthday there. The theme, they joke, ‘pipe in one hand, shotgun in the other’. I’m enjoying myself and starting to settle in when I get a number of phone-calls which I need to deal with. In the background I hear the Police, ‘Message in a bottle’, adding to the slightly pleasurable feeling of being cast adrift that I’m getting here. Jersey certainly doesn’t feel like it is English, or ‘British’, whatever the latter is; if anything, it feels like an English colony somewhere in France.
It’s around ten at night, and the streets are totally pitch-black, except for the field of stars twinkling above. My little front-light casts only enough glow to illuminate a metre ahead. On the road back one driver completely dazzles me, refusing to dip his lights, as if often the case when riding at night. On familiar roads this is a dangerous nuisance, but usually OK. Here it’s more difficult to navigate, and I fly off the bike after colliding with a kerb which I’d failed to recognise (ach, I thought there was no kerb, but…). The chippy asphalt tears my knee right open, and the driver apologises. These kinds of accidents are becoming familiar, and I am not angry or upset, though the wound is pretty bad, and I have nothing to clean or bandage it with.
I make it back to the campsite and wash out the wound. The showers are covered in daddy longlegs and passive aggressive warnings about what can and can’t be flushed away. The site is £20 a night, an exorbitant rate for a dirty shower and toilet and a stretch of field. Why pay such a rate when one can camp in a beauty spot by the beach, or wherever one chooses? Most travelogues, even cyclists will pay daily for B and Bs or campsites. I guess they can afford to do so. But if this journey inspires one effect from readers beyond simply taking for granted the received ignorance about the British islands, then it’s to travel and enjoy wild camping. Because the alternative is overpriced, rude and disappointing. But then, perhaps as island-people we’re good at putting up with disappointment, perhaps even more comfortable with it?
It’s strange travelling with someone you know well. Not simply for having to change the nature of how I travel, of cycling less, of eating different things and what have you. That’s to be expected. It’s the mindset of being a lone traveller that I’m finding harder to let go of. I start to understand what Samantha meant about being free of attachments, indicating not just objects, but people too. Freedom is in being free to move wherever one wishes, according to one’s own interests and pleasures alone. That’s how Thomas Hobbes defined freedom, relating it to motion, and it works for me. And when you’re travelling, everything feels that bit more possible or probable, no longer fettered by a fixed personal history, or personality traits, except those which you draw on as you face the new. But we can face the new together. Jersey’s curious enough, but what awaits on Guernsey and Sark is even more delightful and strange.