Old Government House was once the official residence for the Governor of Guernsey, and is now the island’s only five-star hotel. The fundraising team at Shift MS, the charity I was raising money for, had put out a plea for accommodation on Guernsey, and the manager of the hotel had responded. This was great news, but what really raised my spirits was the ‘Red Carnation Hotel Group’ logo displayed prominently on the wall behind the check-in desk.
Several years ago, I ran regular book publishing training events in London at weekends, and had stayed in a wonderful hotel in a side street near the British Museum. I received such attentive and careful service that I have been recommending this hotel ever since. It’s called The Montague on the Gardens and is also part of the Red Carnation group of hotels. So I was all the more pleased to find myself here now.
My plan was to make Guernsey my base for three nights, enabling me to use one of the days for a boat trip to Alderney to visit the beautiful lighthouse at Quénard Point. This morning, however, I planned a relatively flat ride around the east coast, taking in the range lights at St Sampson, and stopping to get as close as I could to the offshore light at Platte Fougère.
These days the harbour at St Sampson is better known as a yachting marina, but this was once a substantial dock, exporting granite from local quarries. The entrance into the harbour was marked by a pair of range lights, and the front light was easy to find on Crocq Pierhead. According to my guidebook it was built in around 1874, and comprises a red-painted, twenty-foot-tall cast-iron tower, with domed roof, mounted on a dressed stone base. It emits a fixed red light with a range of five miles. To me it seemed a little creepy, with more than a passing resemblance to a Dalek, albeit missing its sink plunger and associated weaponry.
The rear light at St Sampson takes some spotting, because its fixed green light is mounted on the clock tower of the former harbour master’s office building at the rear of the harbour. This light’s range is also five miles.
— Edward Peppitt (@thebeaconbike) May 15, 2015
St Sampson is a pleasant enough place, but I needed to press on, because I wanted to see the light at Platte Fougère before lunchtime and I wasn’t entirely confident of where might offer the best view or how close I’d be able to get to it. In fact, the road between St Sampson and the northernmost tip of Guernsey was pretty easy going, and by midday I had reached Fort Doyle, from where there was a great view of the Platte Fougère light.
Built at Fontenelle Bay on the northern shore of Guernsey in the first part of the nineteenth century, Fort Doyle was designed to protect the island against French invasion. But it was during the second world war that Fort Doyle saw enemy action when the occupying German forces fortified the area with three coastal defence guns, anti-aircraft guns and mortars.
These days the fort is renowned for its spectacular sea views, and so I made my way to a circular stone platform that once housed a cannon, rested up for a while with a mug of coffee and captured a decent long-lens photo of the lighthouse.
The light at Platte Fougère rock, about a mile off the north-east coast of Guernsey, marks a series of treacherous rocks and tides in the Russell Channel. The lighthouse is a black and white banded octagonal tower, eighty-two feet tall, and built in 1910. Its white flashing light is visible for sixteen miles.
After retracing my steps back to St Peter Port I met up with Rosie, a journalist from the Guernsey Press, who had heard about my lighthouse odyssey from the hotel. I dare say Rosie must meet and talk with a strange mix of people in her line of work, but if she found my lighthouse obsession odd she was far too polite to admit it.
My final target for the day was the tall, imposing lighthouse at Les Hanois, marking a dangerous reef just off the south-western corner of the island. I had hoped there might be a scheduled boat trip that would take in Les Hanois, but I was out of luck. The weather and tides in this stretch of water made tourist boat trips feasible only much later in the season. My only option was to cycle up to the headland at Pleinmont, involving the steepest climb since Fairlight, in Sussex. I was clearly getting a little fitter, because I made it two-thirds of the way up before dismounting and pushing.
The going got a lot easier once I reached Torteval, one of the most expensive parishes in the island for property. This is a green, lush part of Guernsey, with quiet lanes perfect for cycling. The easy-going flat cliff paths at Pleinmont headland gave me a spectacular view looking out to the lighthouse at Les Hanois. In fact, the views are spectacular in all directions and I read that on a clear day you can see Jersey, as well as the French coast. The headland is renowned as a vantage point, and it is home to a five-story naval observation tower built and used by German forces as part of their sea defence system during their occupation of Guernsey in the second world war.
However, it was now approaching dusk, so I felt privileged at least to have seen what I came for.
Designed by Nicholas Douglass, the lighthouse at Les Hanois was first lit in December 1862. It is built on the rock known as Le Biseau, in response to a series of shipwrecks in the first half of the nineteenth century on the treacherous rocks off the western coast of Guernsey.
The lighthouse is important in the development of lighthouse engineering, because all the stones in each course, as well as all the courses, were dovetailed together to form one solid mass. It resulted in an almost solid tower, and this method of construction became the pattern for all sea rock towers thereafter.
The lighthouse is an imposing, tapered granite tower, 117 feet tall. It once sported a weathervane on top of its lantern, but this was removed in 1979 when a helipad was installed. It was the first rock light to be converted to solar power, in 1996, and its light displays two white flashes every thirteen seconds, visible for twenty miles.
The cycle back to Old Government House was almost entirely downhill, and was a joy. I had covered barely twenty miles all day, but it had been challenging nonetheless, and I was glad to have seen so much of the rugged coastal scenery for which the island is known. After a rest and shower I felt underdressed in the hotel’s Crown Club bar, and even more so in the hotel’s splendid dining room. But I had built up a hearty appetite and ordered liberally from the extensive menu. Perhaps unwisely, I also selected a number of the wines that had been ‘paired’ with each course.
My evening’s entertainment was provided by a diner at a neighbouring table. A portly and clearly well-to-do gentleman, he was undoubtedly the noisiest and messiest eater I have ever encountered. He barked orders at waiters frequently, spitting out mouthfuls of food each time he did so. He demanded fresh napkins with each course, which he spread liberally around much of his upper body. At one point, a claw he was pulling from a crab flew out of his hand and landed on my plate. I’m always terribly British about these things, so naturally I apologised profusely and passed it back to him. I wondered if it was all part of some elaborate stunt for a television show, but I learned later that he was a Guernsey resident and regular diner here.
My day ended with a typical Red Carnation gesture. I had been awaiting the publication of a feature about my bike ride in the SundayTelegraph, but had been unable to track down a copy. Back in my bedroom, a pristine copy of the newspaper lay on my bed, along with a handwritten note saying, ‘See page 17 – Great article!’.
Fame at last!