Heritage, history and a stunning landscape - take a cultural tour of Jersey

By Richard Moss | 28 August 2003
a photo of a coastline seen from cliffs

Just one of the many stunning views you can take in whilst exploring the heritage sites of Jersey.

When you think of Jersey, what comes to mind? Money? Bergerac? Or maybe it's cows, potatoes or even fishermen's sweaters?

If so you had better think again, because despite covering a modest 45 square miles Jersey is bustling with a heritage, history and culture that takes in everything from ancient archaeology, castles and tombs to Napoleonic fortifications, WWII bunkers and tunnel complexes.

It's not surprising to find the latter. After choosing to side with the Crown in 1204 Jersey became an important military post - a buffer between France and England as the island was fought over, invaded and reoccupied by the rival nations. It makes for a singular history and a rich legacy of Martello towers, castles and other fortifications.

a photo of a wooded lane

This way for some megalithic mystery - one of many hidden 'dolmens' that can be found on the island.

Jersey has the uncanny ability to hang on to its history - and despite being one of the most fortified islands in the world it manages to quietly assimilate this evidence of a long and turbulent history.

But there is more to Jersey than its strategic position and its defences. As you explore the island either by car, on foot, bicycle or by bus you will find an intriguing location, a cottage or mill, or an atmospheric ruin and a heritage site at virtually every turn.

Add some stunning scenery, deserted beaches and an array of award winning museums and even the most casual culture vulture will find something to fascinate and fire the imagination on this most beautiful Isle.

a photo of a ruined gothic archway

If you're lucky, atmospheric ruins will be accompanied by clear blue skies.

If you're lucky enough to be heading to Jersey, a good place to learn about its long and dramatic history is at Jersey Museum.

Housed in a purpose built three-storey building adjoining an 18th century merchant's house in the heart of the capital, St Helier, the museum is an award winning state of the art institution that tells the 'Story of Jersey'.

The upper floor is given over to the contemporary and spacious Barreau Le Maistre Art Gallery. The works exhibited encompass the traditional maritime and landscape paintings of artists like Philip John Ouless and John Le Capelain, through to the surrealist work of photographer (and resistance heroine) Claude Cahun.

The gallery also offers the chance to have a look at the famous John Everett Millais portrait of local gal made-good, Lillie Langtry.

a photo of a gallery with a cow in it

All aspects of Jersey's history is covered at the Jersey Museum - including potatoes and cows!

The lower floors deal with the social history and archaeology of the island. Interactive computers in the central hub of the galleries introduce themes and timelines - visitors are then encouraged to explore the different galleries that radiate from it.

The range of artefacts on display covers a time period of almost 4,000 years and features a wealth of material that thoroughly explains the archaeological, military and social elements of the island's history.

Next door, the 'Merchant's House' of a wealthy shipbuilding family of the 18th and 19th centuries has been painstakingly restored with period decorated rooms and an occasional costumed interpreter.

a photo of a gallery with display cases

Jersey Museum: a modern approach to display and interactive learning.

Jersey Museum succeeds in what it sets out to do - succinctly telling the history of Jersey whilst managing to strike a healthy balance between the fascinating artefacts and the interactives.

Once you've got a handle on Jersey's long and varied history you can then begin to explore the rich heritage in the rest of the Island.

For a taste of Jersey's rural heritage the traditional farm at Hamptonne House makes for a fascinating encounter with the past. Various preserved houses furnished with period furniture, artefacts and exhibits show the development of the farm over several centuries whilst outbuildings have been restored to mimic life in the 16th, 17th and 18th centuries.

a photo of a farm cottage made of sandstone

Hamptonne: the goodwyf is waiting to tell you all about it. Picture © Natural Trust, Jersey.

The museum is also the province of the 'costumed interpreter' and several characters are on hand to engage visitors with talk of their lives, whilst demonstrating bygone skills. A particular favourite is the 'goodwyf', a lady who seems to have been literally transported from the 1640s. She can talk the hind leg off a donkey - and all in the perfect parlance of the 17th century.

Away from the exhibits and the interpretation there is an environmental trail and a sensory garden that let you take in the rural beauty of the surrounding countryside.

Another ancient building illuminating a bygone way of life is Moulin de Quetivel at Mont Fallu in St Peter. Dating back to the 13th century this is the only working mill on the island.

a photo of a large stone mill with tiled roof

Moulin de Quetivel: the last working mill in Jersey. Picture © National Trust, Jersey.

Restored to its present condition in the 1970's by the Jersey Heritage Trust, the mill was initially restored during WWII when mills and waterways became an increasingly important source of clean water.

Today visitors will find a display about milling and the importance of mills in the history of Jersey, you can even treat yourself to some of the organically milled flour from the National Trust shop.

Another important aspect of Jersey Heritage is its maritime tradition and back down in St Helier there is another award winning museum, the Maritime Museum, that tackles this story superbly.

a photo of a large building on a quayside

Jersey Maritime Museum sits appropriately on St Helier's beautiful harbour-side.

Appropriately situated on the Harbour at St Helier the museum explores Jersey's rich tradition of fishing and maritime trade through an intelligent blend of hands on interactives and traditional exhibits.

The museum is split into three areas - the elements, the boats and the people and visitors are encouraged to wind handles, peer into viewers and press buttons.

Local legends (such as the blow hole known locally as the Bull of St Clement) are explained and explored along with other mysteries such as wave action and coastal erosion (the latter with the aid of a state of the art wave machine).

a photo of a gallery with boats and fishing gear in it

If you're a salty old sea dog at heart you'll find plenty to entertain and inform at the Martime Museum.

Great care has been taken over the interpretation of the exhibits; you can experience what it's like to be below decks, or check out the impressive collection of maritime art with the help of spotlights that rest upon each picture with an accompanying audio guide.

There is also a restoration workshop area, where work is carried out on an historic boat, a temporary gallery for visiting exhibitions and a film area and developing maritime archaeology section.

It all makes for a fascinating tour of what is a naturally important and enduring aspect of Jersey's heritage.

a photo of tow ladies looking at a tapestry

Jersey's answer to the Bayeux Tapestry provides an effective folk version of the German Occupation.

Adjoining the Maritime Museum, the Occupation Tapestry tells the story of life in Jersey during the German Occupation through the eyes of the islanders.

There are 12 panels - each one designed and created by a different parish, exploring a different elements of the occupation. A film presentation accompanies the exhibits and together it makes for an evocative take on the occupation experience.

Moving back out of St Helier you may wish to stop off at one the Island's fine churches such as the 'Glass Church' at Millbrook, St. Lawrence. The stunning glasswork in this church (including the font, altar rail, cross and pillars) was created by Rene Lalique, a key player in both the art deco and art nouveau movements of the 1920's.

A little further west, on the road to St Ouen's Bay you may also come across the delightful church of St Brelade's. In the churchyard you will find a 12th century Fisherman's Chapel with some remarkably preserved medieval wall paintings.

Arriving at the southern tip of St Ouen's Bay you'll find another popular destination in the form Le Corbierre Lighthouse. This was the first concrete lighthouse to be built in the British Isles and it still stands on a rocky islet just off the coast which can be reached at low tide (but beware, it's very easy to become marooned as the tide comes in)

a photo of a lighthouse on a promontory

Le Corbierre Lighthouse - just one of many beauty spots and a favourite place to catch the sunset.

Like most of the island's peninsula's the area is also home to a network of German bunkers and gun emplacements, one of which houses a small museum that opens at selected times during the summer months. It's just one of the German fortifications restored by the Jersey branch of the Channel Islands Occupation Society - for more details and opening times, you can contact them on 01534 482089.

If you want to find out more about the history of the German Occupation in Jersey, the impressive Jersey War Tunnels in the Parish of St Lawrence is a must.

Known during the war as HO8, the ambitious tunnel complex was literally hewn out of the rock by forced labour units under the command of the German Organization Todt.

a photo of a tunnel entrance

Jersey War Tunnels has recently transformed iteself into one of the most powerfully evocative museums in the UK.

The Museum presents the story of the occupation in an excellently thought out exhibition called 'Captive Island'. The kilometre of tunnels provide a chillingly authentic and atmospheric setting to get to grips with the true story of what happened in Jersey between 1940 and 1945.

Having undergone something of a transformation in the last year, the museum now boasts state of the art interactives as well as film reels from the Imperial War Museum that tell the story of that experience from a variety of angles.

Here you will find filmed reminiscence from islanders, mingling with an excellent and evocative range of artefacts both civilian and military. Tricky questions are dealt with - including fraternisation and collaboration and the nature of the occupation is brought alive by the clever design and of course - the incredible setting.

a photo of an interior of a bunker

Many of the rooms have been restored using original artefacts to give visitors a taste of a wartime German tunnel complex.

Many of the rooms, including the operating theatre and the quartermaster's stores, have been preserved or recreated to give visitors a glimpse of what life was like inside HO8 during the war. Here and there intriguing and impossibly steep escape tunnels disappear into the ceiling.

Unfinished sections of the tunnel have also been preserved as a stark reminder of the brutality of the German occupiers and the fate of the slave workers who toiled and sometimes perished to build the massive underground complex.

Recent additions for this year also include a visitor research centre and a garden of reflection to commemorate the lives lost during the occupation. The Museum also has a dedicated space for temporary exhbitions - currently home to a moving display commemorating the life and tragic death of Violette Szabo.

a photo of a museums mannequin but with a tv monitor instead of a head

Would you take an ice cream from him? 'Captive Island' manages to pose some difficult questions.

Jersey War Tunnels is a special museum and, unlike similar projects that attempt to deal with the horror of war whilst offering an educational and interactive experience, it manages to be sensitive without negating the power of object, time or place.

Going much further back into the military and strategic history of the island, Jersey is a real treasure trove for the castle enthusiast.

In fact anyone with even the merest interest in keeps, battlements and portcullises will be captivated by at least one of Jersey's three remarkable castles.

a photo of a castle by a bay

The perfect setting for the perfect castle, Mont Orgueil towers protectively over the harbour at Gorey. Picture © Jersey Heritage Trust.

As anyone with a scant knowledge of castles in the British Isles knows, rocky peninsula's and imposing castles seem to go hand in hand and Mont Orgueil Castle fits the bill perfectly.

Built in the thirteenth century to protect the island against the French, the castle towers protectively over the harbour at Gorey on the east of the Island.

Steep slopes and high cliffs on three sides give it an almost impregnable position whilst offering spectacular views over the island and across the sea to France.

a photo of a castle

If you're a fan of the English castle it doesen't get much better than Mont Orgueil.

If you're interested in the development of the medieval concentric castle, Mont Orgueil is the place; it's got the walls within walls, murder holes and everything from high positioned battlements reached via portcullises to an inner keep replete with spiralling staircases and preserved rooms.

Visitors can see how, over the centuries, the defensive structures have been improved as the outer complex of gates and walls gives way to splendid Elizabethan gardens. Here you can explore the ancient outer walls before climbing the steep stairs that lead to the inner sanctum of the castle keep.

Inside the keep are remnants of the great halls and crypts whilst spiral staircases give way to wooden floored rooms and intriguing stone flagged cells, covered in moss.

a photo of stone steps leading through an archway

Be warned, these stars lead to high battlements and one of the best castle keeps in Europe.

By the 16th century, Mont Orgueil had become outmoded as a defensive structure, new cannons had developed meaning that it was now susceptible to attack from the sea. It even took a decree by then Governor of the Isle, Sir Walter Raleigh to prevent its destruction.

A new castle was required that was out of the range of the new ship borne cannons and immune to the advances in gunpowder technology.

Work began on Elizabeth Castle during the 1550's, when a gun platform was built on the highest part of an islet just off the Eastern edge of St Aubin's Bay, near St Helier. By the 1590's Queen Elizabeth sent her best military engineer over to construct a new castle to protect the Island's capital and provide a buffer to her enemies across the channel.

a photo of a castle seen acoss a bay

Defending the approach to St Helier, at high tide you have to reach Elizabeth Castle by amphibious truck.

Throughout the 17th and 18th centuries the castle developed and grew in size to become the main military complex on the island. Give yourself plenty of time to explore this site, as you will find several exhibitions and military collections as well as the rocky home of the sixth century hermit, St Helier.

The first governor to live here was Sir Walter Raleigh (1600-1603) who named the castle after his queen. Forty-odd years later Charles II visited the castle twice as a respite from the English Civil War, and on his second visit in 1649 he was proclaimed King.

Today, you can visit the castle via a 1,000 metre long causeway, but at high tide it is completely submerged and can only be reached by an amphibious DUKW - an experience in itself.

a photo of re-enactors dressed in red tunics and tricorn hats

Watch out when you get to the castle - you may be dragooned into an 18th century army. Picture © Jersey Heritage Trust.

At noon a gun is still fired from the ramparts by 'gardiens' wearing uniforms of the Royal Jersey Artillery. Visitors may even find themselves corralled into a troop by Gunner Graves, an effusive character who also seeks out any intruders come closing time at 5.00pm.

With such a hands on approach to interpreting the past and a history that spans the centuries, the castle is a must for all visitors to Jersey.

No exploration of castles would be complete without a mosey round an old ruined fortification; and at Grosnez Point, visitors can find the prerequisite atmospheric ruins.

a photo of ruined catsle on a hilltop

Grosnez Castle, a smashed ruin atop a dramatic cliff face, still retains its power to fire the imagination.

Dating back to the early 1300's Grosnez Castle was built at a time of intermittent conflict with the French. Little remains intact today other than the gatehouse and ditchby the castle's entrance, yet somehow this merely adds to the sense of mystery at the site, which can still be discerned from its broken walls and remains of turrets smashed down to their ragged arrow slits.

On a clear day as you stand amidst these shattered, wind-blown battlements you can see all the other Channel Islands and imagine a once imposing structure.

The dramatic cliff face below the walls forms a natural line of defence from the seaward side, however it was not enough to ensure the castle's survival and it was more or less dismantled by the 15th Century.

a photo of battlements looking out to sea

You can still scan the horizon from the broken remains of a turret and arrow slit.

Just along the cliff top to the south of the ruin is an observation tower and gun emplacement, built during the German occupation, along with bunkers and other fortifications - just one of many that litter the coastlines and peninsulas of the island.

Grozny point is also the site of Le Pinacle - a rock formation used as a site of ritual worship during Neolithic times. It's just one of many sites across the island that can be traced back to this period.

There is much evidence of Jersey's Neolithic past and there are many dolmens or burial chambers that survive from this period.

a photo of the interior of a tomb

Take a step back into time by walking inside a Neolithic burial mound.

However, the real jewel in the Neolithic crown is to be found at Le Hougue Bie on the Western side of the island - one of the most spectacular burial mounds in Europe.

La Hougue Bie is believed to have begun as the site of a Neolithic burial mound dating to around 3500 BC. The mound is still intact today and the passage grave consists of a narrow passage leading to a large oval chamber, two small side chambers project from the north and south walls.

This ancient monument has been excavated and visitors can explore its cool and claustrophobic interior.

a photo of an exterior of a tomb with bricked wall and stone arched doorway

The entrance to the burial chamber, at only five feet in height its not good for your back, but worth the pain.

Sitting atop the mound is a chapel dating to the sixteenth century. Again, this can be visited and traces of Catholic wall paintings can be discerned beneath their Reformation-era whitewash.

With a visitor centre that looks at aspects of the site's archaeological significance and the remains of a German command bunker open for inspection, La Hougue Bie makes for a fascinating tour.

If you haven't satiated your appetite for all things ancient, just a short drive on the road from La Hougue Bie to Gorey Harbour you may wish to stop and take in La Pouquelay De Faldonet. This is another Neolithic passage grave or 'dolmen' dating to 3,300 BC.

a photo of small chapel on a hill

Climb to the top of the burial mound to explore the simple charm of the two Christian chapels.

Hardy Neolithic adventurers will find this ancient treasure by walking a short distance from the road through a typically picturesque bower into a small enclosed field.

Most passage graves have a roof of large rocks but in this unusual example the main chamber appears to have been open. At least five cists, or mounds, surround the chamber and the most western of these still has a massive capstone. Archaeological excavation of the site revealed three skeletons, jewellery, axes and pottery.

That this ancient monument remains largely intact is typical of the enduring appeal of Jersey and its long history and heritage - and the best bit is, it's remarkably accessible.

If you're thinking about visiting Jersey, information on all the museums and sites listed above can be found at the Tourist Information office on Liberation Square, in the heart of St Helier. Here you will be furnished with walking guides, cycling guides and all the information you will need to explore the island's heritage.

A blurb for the local tourist board actually has it that you're 'never far away from history' on Jersey and for once this is no idle boast - with such a vast range of heritage options and some of the best museums in the UK - it's hyperbole that is perfectly justified.

a photo of a series of stones with a stone slab balancing on the top

Just one of the many 'dolmens', or ancient burial chambers waiting to be discovred on Jersey.

If you want to find out more about the heritage and history of Jersey there are three excellent websites to help you.

Jersey Heritage Trust - full of information about some of the sites described above as well as up to date news on events and exhibitions. See www.jerseyheritage.org

Jersey War Tunnels - an excellent overview of life during on Jersey during WWII. See www.jerseywartunnels.com.

National Trust, Jersey - a site that allows you to get up close to some of Jersey's heritage and history. See www.nationaltrustjersey.org.je.

All images: Richard Moss, © 24 Hour Museum. Unless otherwise stated.

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