France's secret channel islands, by Tristan Rutherford
The Times, 27 April 2019
There’s an archipelago ten miles from the UK that you won’t have heard of. This island chain is cossetted by a microclimate that supports palms and figs. Their tidal range is the greatest in Europe. Which means that twice a day, the 52 islands become 365, as football fields of icing sugar sand open between them. Welcome to les Iles Chausey – the Channel Islands the French have kept to themselves.
The passengers on the daily Channel ferry from mainland France are as Gallic as a wheel of Camembert. Yummy mummies nibble dark chocolate and feed their stick thin children sugar with abandon. By historical quirk the Chausey Islands remained French while Jersey – visible on the horizon 20 miles north – plays cricket and drives on the left. Not that cars are allowed on Chausey’s main island of Grande-Ile. My two-year-old twins, wife, newborn baby and I disembark into the 18th century. Here mariners still live in fishermen’s cottages and row to work.
Our twins are like dogs that need to be repeatedly unleashed. We heave our food-laden pushchair along a sandy path to La Petite Cale beach. At high tide it’s a mere banana of powder sand. Right now, at low tide, the beach has bloated to 100 times its size, à la Deauville or Sennan Cove. It’s a sun-drenched moonscape where the kids weave through granite boulders the size of lunar landers. Frenchies forage for clams half a mile from shore. The violent currents here nourish crabs, snails, eels and lobster for which the island is famed.
Mile-long Grande-Ile boasts five other sandy stretches, all bigger than La Petite Cale. Even better, after the passenger ferry returns at 4pm, they become the preserve of the lucky few who bagged the strictly limited island accommodation.
Until 1990 a herd of cows munched seaweed on La Petite Cale. Their farm opposite was converted into simple lodgings where we bed down for the next four nights. I’m initially disappointed with La Ferme. Our two-floored accommodation is like a francophone Butlins, ancient but serviceable, with the same Duroroc drinking glasses I had at school. But the attraction grows. To solve the issue of the kids sleeping in a new space we all bed down at the same time. Then wake up 10 hours later to an ozone crisp morning that pairs the tang of Cornwall with Corsica’s perfumed maquis.
We unlock our kitchen door allowing the twins to bound out. La Ferme’s 12 apartments open onto a vast walled garden divided by mature trees. There’s a picnic table under each one. Our entirely French neighbours are jocularly anti-British. Over black coffee and fags one tells us how a French writer ‘invaded’ the Minquiers – the UK’s most southerly Channel Island specks just across the water – and planted an Argentine flag in retaliation for the Falklands. Each mini maison has a bucket of scavenged clams out front. (In Britain we’d probably have a packet of Lidl crisps instead.) For £100 a night a five-person family like ours could beachcomb through August while staying at La Ferme. For £50 a smaller party could snuggle in winter, when the boat schedule slips to two passages per week, whacking up the apartment heating after bracing beach walks.
Today we hit Plage de la Grand-Grève. The half-mile path there is a Devon-that-time-forgot. Egrets and herons idle around tidally marooned fishing boats, while wild cherry blossom infuses the sea breeze. An ebbing tide turns the beach into a parade ground of entirely vacant sand. Here our naked children command rows of castles. Although a century ago the beach was a regular Paris-sur-Mer with a real castle on top. Motoring magnate Louis Renault restored the fort beyond the sand that was nicknamed Château Renault. (Which according to island literature “was destroyed several times by English invaders”. Sorry about that.) Then the Nazis occupied all of the Channel Islands and crushed any fleeting sense of celebrity that Chausey enjoyed.
On our third morning Grande-Ile is timeless once again. Thick mizzle shrouds visibility as far as the first high tide rocks. Not for nothing is the island known as an Ile Jardin where juniper and blackthorn colour the hedgerow bocage. We’re unperturbed by the weather because the island’s meteorology is as fickle as a Paris fashion season. By mid-morning the clouds have dispersed, the seas receded, drawing the veil from virgin Seychelles sands lapped by Bahama-blue seas. Such unique scenes send Jersey nabobs scuttling across the Channel in yachts in summer. A fortnightly public speedboat service from Jersey Sea Safaris (£70 return, passport required) connects the two islands in 45 minutes flat.
Visiting yachties dine at the archipelago’s only luxury lodging, the Hotel du Fort et des Iles. If this maritime chic hotel were in a novel it would be Maigret not Poirot. It’s the sort of establishment my children should be banned from entering, but this being France they are welcomed with open arms to eat velvet crab and bulot snails. I knot my jumper around my shoulders to blend in, then order all three £25 set lunch menus.
The gravadlax is inhaled by my toddler twins. We market the bulots to them as ‘snailfish’, which they also devour. The oysters, collected that morning on the foreshore, are a tougher sell. A shame, as their silk sacs explode when tongued against the palate with an unctuously sweet pop. In total we destroy an herbed bass, a dozen prawns, skate wings, half a lobster and two white wines for £90.
For our pain perdu dessert with cognac, we’re joined by third-generation hotel manager Laurence Megale. “The black and white portrait shows my grandfather Lucien Ernouf, a friend of Louis Renault, operating the hotel in 1928,” she explains. I dream of writing my magnum opus in one of Megale’s eight Breton guestrooms while enjoying the obligatory £34 demi-pension, which includes a nightly three course blowout. Instead I fire up Thomas the Tank Engine on my wife’s iPhone and gaze sleepily out to see. For dinner we assault the tiny island shop, which sells – vive la difference – homemade terrine, potted fish and foraged oysters for £4 a half-dozen.
On day four, island historian Olivier Ribeyrolles joins our morning stroll. Like Britain’s Channel Islands, the Chausey archipelago enjoyed a globalised past. We stroll past the island chapel, replete with lovely boat carvings, built to beseech the island’s 500 imported soda workers. They gathered silica from the beaches to make glass, some of which ended up the windows of Rouen Cathedral. The labourers’ homes are now holiday rental apartments.
Along the coast above Plage de Port-Marie (where lucky lifeguards scan a blissfully empty beach all summer), granite was quarried. The rocks were shoved onto boats rising with the tide, negating the need for a crane. Some granite was used to build St Helier in Jersey. Other blocks make up the pavements of Haussmann’s Paris. The twins’ favourite part of the tour is the pentagonal fort built to annoy the British. “You and me have history,” attests Ribeyrolles. Alas the French took so long to build it that by the time of completion in 1866 we were all big pals. Pfutt!
Ribeyrolles claims the best way to witness ageless Chausey is on a night walk. Thus I start my final day at 4am. A spring tide has dragged in a salty peasouper reducing visibility to boat length. I stagger through the inky ether as yacht anchors clang-clang like manacled ghosts. Swaying oak arms tap me on the shoulder. Terns tease from above. The sole glow comes from Grande-Ile’s lighthouse, which spins a luminous propeller through the dusk, while bleating a foghorn every few minutes. With frightened steps I stumble onto the emerging beach. A receding tide has washed away all trace of yesterday, meaning the only footprints come from a large – and very startled – brown crab. That’s Chausey. Every step is Robinson Crusoe, with added fruits de mer.
Click here to read more French travel stories from Tristan and Kathryn