“It hath thirteen parishes, little waste ground aboundance of Villages, and but one little Towne called St Helier, plenty of Cider.”
So wrote Peter Mundy in his 1625 piece Voyages. Imagine, that was nearly 400 years ago. Today there are twelve parishes, an abundance of villages, a not-too-little town called Saint-Helier, and still plenty of cider. In fact, Saint-Helier is the largest town in all of the Channel Islands. Could Mr. Mundy have predicted this would be the case centuries on? Who knows? In one way, little has changed over these many years. In others, it has. You’ll discover the truth when wandering about this historic port town.
The Channel Island Story
It might not be what you think. The Channel Islands are, in truth, an archipelago just 12 nautical miles off the French coastline where Normandy flanks the English Channel. The closest land is France’s Cotentin Peninsula. Great Britain is approximately 100 miles away. It gets a bit complicated but these islands, in fact, do not belong to the UK or even the EU. No, they are identified as British Crown possessions enjoying an independent administration. There are actually two of these British Crown Dependencies. One is the Bailiwick of Guernsey, the other the Bailiwick of Jersey. “Bailiwick”, for those of us who were confused, is defined as a sphere of operations. Further, it is the “law of the district or jurisdiction of a bailie or bailiff.” Anyway, these islands once belonged to the Duchy of Normandy before William the Conqueror became King of England and the islands were turned over to the Crown in 1066.
Jersey is the largest of all the Channel Islands, measuring nearly 45 square miles. And, though it’s not technically considered part of the UK, the UK is mandated to come to its defense if needed.
Jersey issues its very own currency, which is the Jersey Pound and bank notes make great souvenirs for friends back home. Small bills will do, no need to break the bank here. Jersey even mints its own coins. That makes the nearly 100,000 island residents happy especially those living in Jersey’s only sizeable township, the one you’re visiting today. These folks represent about one-third of the island’s total population.
Jersey Boys and Jersey Girls
Well, they prefer to be called Jerseymen and Jerseywomen, even though the other “Jersey Boys” are a big splash everywhere today. Approximately 50% of these Jerseymen and Jerseywomen were born on the island. Of those who immigrated here, the largest group came from other parts of the British Isles. Stands to reason. And then there’s the influx of tourists in summertime who bump the numbers up substantially. Why do they come, you ask? For many reasons, really. Well, for one… the cider. Locals have perfected the recipe over the centuries and, as Mr. Mundy observed, it’s evidently here to stay. In fact, there’s even a cidermaking festival in addition to the island’s Music Festival, Film Festival, and something called the Battle of Flowers. This last one occurs because temperate conditions allow for the most stunning gardens filled with rainbows of flowers. So, let the floral firefight begin.
Locals not only celebrate their festivals, they truly enjoy the bounty their glorious island serves up. Appreciative inhabitants savor some of the freshest seafood Mother Nature provides including spider crabs, succulent oysters, fresh-from-the-sea lobster, and mussels (or moules as they’re called here).
Apples appear in many dishes. Some specialties on offer include a delightful dumpling known as a bourdélot. There’s also a novelty you won’t find elsewhere. It’s a black butter that’s a mouthwatering concoction of cider, fresh apples, and a liberal sprinkling of secret spices. If you’re nice, perhaps some friendly lass will whisper into your ear which spices are used. And a typical apple brandy provides the finishing flourish. But if you just want a simple take-away snack, do try the “Jersey Wonders”. No, they’re not the next chart-topping boy band, they’re fried dough twists that aren’t on any diet but, when in Jersey, who cares? You must give this culinary delight a go. You simply must.
Fortified To Do The Sights
Time is precious so plan wisely. If you want a nice stroll about town, be sure to include a visit to Liberation Square, the former Royal Square. The original significance was to commemorate the 1781 Battle of Jersey and the final attempt by French forces to capture Jersey. Today’s significance is the commemoration of the liberation from German occupational forces who surrendered their hold on the Channel Islands only one day after Germany officially acknowledged its defeat. If military history interests you, you mustn’t miss the Jersey War Tunnels, a labyrinth of tunnels more than 1000 yards long that served as a 500-bed hospital for the occupational forces when the Allies invaded the European continent. For the record, this was the lone piece of British soil ever occupied by German forces during the entire Second World War.
You can mull this all over as you gaze upon Mont Orgueil Castle, on the island’s southern tip. Constructed in the beginning of the 13th century, it saw combat more than a dozen times between the early 13th and 17th centuries as French forces attempted to take control of the island.
History, history, history. It might just be time to enjoy a local cider and a bowl of steamy mussels, freshly harvested by local fishermen who’ll happily share an island story or two. You’ll be the luckier for it.