A Hole in Time – Sark, Channel Islands

A Hole in Time
Sark, Channel Islands

Getting to Sark from the sea was a little like finding the entry to a secret cove. We had approached the island in the last hours of dusk, navigating tentatively past rocky outcrops which rose some distance from shore. Shortly before reaching the bay, we had passed the barren island of Brecqhou, separated from Sark by a narrow channel, on which a neo-gothic castle of the Barclay brothers loomed in the fading light like an outpost of Mordor. Now we were anchored in a small bay scattered with jagged rocks against which the waves hissed and sizzled. There was no other sound and no light save for our boat and the cold, unblinking stars in an ink-black sky that may have looked down on another age. Ahead of us, black cliffs rose perpendicularly hundreds of feet into the sky.

This was a few summers ago. A mate of ours had decided to celebrate his graduation by arranging a week-long sailing trip. Knowing John’s passion for sailing, he invited us to chip in, found a yacht with an experienced skipper and we set off for Southampton.

Our plan was to sail down the coast of France. We got about as far as Poole. No sooner was the skipper satisfied with our crewing ability that we were marooned by force seven gales howling across the Channel. We limped back to Lymington to save on harbour fees and reconsidered our travel plans over a couple of drinks. It wasn’t so bad: the evening turned into a party. The skipper and I swapped increasingly unlikely tales long after the others had gone to bed. It was not until the small hours that I crept into my bunk only to be woken up minutes later by a shout: “All hands on deck! We’re casting off � now!”

My heart skipped a beat. Had the skipper gone mad? It was the middle of the night. Sheltered by the Beaulieu River we did not notice the gales blowing across the channel. Had he decided to go for broke? Would we have to cross one of the world’s busiest shipping routes with a drunken sailor and a seasick crew in total darkness?

I hastily pulled on my waterproofs and lifejacket and joined the others on deck, glancing nervously at the skipper. I needn’t have worried as he thrust a cup of coffee into my hands, he was a good deal more sober than I was. He had been listening to the shipping forecast and the wind had calmed down. But we had to hurry if we wanted to make it across.

By the end of my watch, the wind had died down almost completely and we had to ‘sail’ under engine. I emerged the next morning to find a mirror-calm sea under a grey, featureless sky hanging low like a ceiling. The drone of the engine and the lapping of the waves were the only sounds around. It was peaceful-reminiscent of a cool morning in the desert-until, suddenly, an almighty double thunderclap made us jump out of our skin. Eyes wide with terror we stared at the skipper-had London just been bombed? He laughed:”Concorde coming in!”

We spent a gloriously few days cruising the Channel Islands. I remember sailing past Alderney with the yacht leaning into the breeze, cutting through the deep-blue water and Groove Armada’s ‘On the River’ blaring from the radio: If you’re fond of sand dunes and salty air…

It wasn’t happy days all around, though. Two of our little crew were chronically seasick. One of them, the skipper’s girlfriend, spent most of her time on deck staring fixedly at the horizon, destined to spend most of the summer at sea. The other, not likely to return to the sea in a hurry, lay on his bunk moaning softly as the boat rolled and swayed in a force five. In the galley across from him I was preparing a spread of sandwiches, trying to hold on to the sink, the plates and the food all at the same time. One of the plates, carelessly placed, shot aross the room and hit the poor guy square in the temple. Thankfully it was made of plastic. Sheepishly mumbling my apologies, I hastily carried the luncheon onto the deck where we bit into doorstep sandwiches while the wind whipped spray into our faces. This was the life.

On our last day before we had to return to England we decided to visit the island of Sark.

The navigation was a nightmare. My eyes rolled in their sockets as I tried to get the bearings from the map in the dancing boat; concentrating on fierce tidal currents and dangerous outcrops. Of course it had been my turn to navigate and the skipper told me to get on with it, hearing none of my excuses. He knew the waters well, but indulged me by keeping quiet, just nodding and smiling every now and then. So we proceeded at a snail’s pace and reached our secret little cove in the last glimmer of light. What would await us up there?

The sun rose in a flawlessly blue sky and our feeling of foreboding lifted when we spotted other boats moored in the bay, although there was nobody else around. There was a jetty at the foot of the cliffs with steps hewn into the steep rockface above. As we ascended, patches of grass appeared and flowers nodded their heads in the seabreeze. The lichen-encrusted rocks eventually gave way to a plateau with a flower-sprinkled meadow.

The flowers looked vaguely familiar. The scent brought back memories from my childhood. I listened but could hear nothing in the still air apart from the droning of bees and the buzzing of flies. No car noise, no engines, no music. A narrow road wound among old-style farm buildings reminisent of a village from times past. Here there were other sounds. Birds twittered in the bushes by the roadside, a dog barked in the distance, an old man wearing a flatcap and scruffy jacket rattled past on a rusty bicycle. We had stepped back in time.

We walked down the single narrow road through what appeared to be a piece of Fifties British countryside that had been torn out and perched on a rocky platform in the Channel. We stopped for tea in a small hotel. It was like Sunday afternoon tea as I imagined it in the summers of old and left us feeling even more like time-travellers stranded in a parallel universe.

Sark is a magical place for a retreat, although I cannot imagine that it is cheap either to get here or to stay. The locals do not really have to work for a living-every native Sarkie is sought after as a company director. This is because the island’s status is unique, even among the Channel Islands: Sark is the last remaining feudal state in the Western world. In 1565, Queen Elizabeth I granted Sark to Helier de Carteret as a ‘fief haubert’ and its status has remained such ever since. The Island is governed by the Seigneur, answerable only to the Queen.

While Sark is feudal, it is not undemocratic. In the small community of just over 500 people, everybody can be heard through the ‘Chief Pleas’, the island’s parliament. There is no income tax and no company tax, nor are companies required to register. There are therefore considerable advantages to maintaining business ‘headquarters’ on Sark. To achieve this, the locals are invited to serve as nominee directors – for a fee. They need only to sign their names. Some enterprising individuals have set up business services which provide local addresses and communication facilities for overseas companies but, at least until recently, not much work had to be done other than to farm and maintain the island’s beautiful homes and gardens.

Teabreak over, we resumed our gentle stroll. The road wound its way past immaculately manicured flowerbeds towards the village. We easily overtook a small tractor puttering ahead. While Sark has embraced innovations such as modern appliances and communication devices, it has eschewed many others, including cars. Farm tractors are the only form of motorised transport allowed on the island.

We rounded a final corner adorned with a sign: ‘DANGEROUS BEND!‘. I suppose the bend might have been dangerous because of the distant possibility of colliding head-on with a horse-drawn cart when cycling home in the dark after a night at the village pub. Here, a single row of shops comprised the hundred-odd yards of the local ‘high street’.

Alcohol and tobacco taxes fuel the part of the island’s economy that is not propped up by offshore finance rackets, but you couldn’t tell from the prices we were charged. There is no duty as such and no VAT, leaving plenty in our budget to buy some of the island’s delightful fresh produce to take back to the boat.

We were sad to leave, but I guess if we had stayed any longer boredom might have set in. We did not see many people younger than late middle age and I doubt there is much nightlife on Sark. But for those who really want to get away from it all, Sark is perfect for a short break. You can get there by more conventional means than sailing across the channel: daily flights leave from the neighbouring island of Guernsey. Details about how to get there, where to stay and what to do can be found on the island’s official website.

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