1847 guide - Hermitage

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Durell's 1847 guidebook

Hermitage


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This is the ffourth chapter of the St Helier guide section of The Picturesque and Historical Guide to the Island of Jersey, by the Rev Edward Durell, with lithographs by Philip Ouless, who also published the book in 1847.


  • Description of the Hermitage
  • Martyrdom of St Helier
  • Primitive saints
  • Antiquity of the ruined Hermitage
  • Town Hill, now Fort Regent
  • Historical sketch of Town Hill
  • South Hill
  • Building of Fort Regent
  • Magnificent view from the ramparts
  • Cause of the want of public walks
  • Druidical remains discovered in levelling the hill in 1785

The next object, which meets the attention of the traveller is the Hermitage of St Helier.

Lithograph of the Hermitage by Ouless

Legendary tale

The legendary tale of that holy man is extremely interesting, but the details of it are scanty and want precision. It is a high and solitary rock, at a small distance to the east of the castle, from which it is separated at high water, and forms the western entrance into the small road. Half way up the rock, and closely built into it, stands a small hermitage, which bears every internal mark of the most remote antiquity. It is entirely built of small stones, in the coarsest kind of masonry, something like that of the remnants of Grosnez Castle, which we shall have occasion to mention in its proper place.

This rocky habitation has for ages been left desolate; the doors and the window of the little room are gone, but a cavity in the rock, scooped to the size of a human body, plainly indicates the hermits' bed of stone. The top of the rock contains a little garden, whose bleak exposure commands an extensive prospect of the distant horizon. There is a constant and uninterrupted tradition that about a thousand years ago, a holy and contemplative individual had chosen this spot for his seclusion from the world, where, by his mortifications and prayers, he might render himself worthy to inherit the joys of heaven.

It is not known whether Helier was the first hermit who had retired to that solitude, or whether he was one out of a long succession of hermits. The island had already been long converted to Christianity by the Armorican Saints and other missionaries, but its population was rude, imperfectly civilized, and incapable of much defence. It was afterwards exposed to the depredations of the Norman pirates. Those marauders were not only pagans, but particularly hostile to the Christian name.

It was during one of those predatory expeditions that Helier fell into their hands and was massacred. But the spirit of the times excited the sympathy of his countrymen, and the blood which he had resolutely poured to assert his religious faith was considered as the test of martyrdom. His anniversary was recorded in the register of the Cathedral of Coutances as having happened on 17 July. A perpetual veneration has attached to the memory of that holy and celebrated man. His hermitage still nearly remains, after the lapse of so many ages, in the same state that it was during the time of his seclusion. He gave his name to the adjoining islet, and what was probably then but a fishing village has since grown into the large and thriving town of St Helier.

Saints

Many of our readers are not aware that several of the secondary order of saints were not regularly canonised by the Pope; but that they are indebted for their title to the gratitude of posterity. Anyone who in modern times would be esteemed among his neighbours as having been disinterested, pious, and humane, was immediately acknowledged among his own immediate circle as a public benefactor, who had had something more than human in his nature.

Religion did its part by enrolling him for a saint, and superstition either believed, or fondly imagined, fictitious miracles in support of its pleasing delusion. Still, if we admit this to have been the origin of most of the local saints, a great deal that is praiseworthy will still remain, and it will appear that for the most part those venerated personages were neither over-heated zealots, nor ignorant barbarians, but men laborious and unremitting in their calling, and who went about doing good in their generation. These were indeed the Saints Vincent de Paul, the Man of Ross, and the Howards of their times. The claims of such individuals rest, indeed, on higher grounds than those of heroes and statesmen, whose track has been but too often marked by the sorrows and the desolation of their fellow creatures.

After having trodden with reverential awe on the stone floor of the Hermitage, the next question that suggests itself is whether or not it continued to be tenanted by a succession of Hermits after the death of St Helier. The night of ages has, however, left the answer involved in inextricable obscurity. It is not, however, to be supposed that such a hallowed cell, and within a few hundred yards of a religious house, should be suffered to continue untenanted and to fall into decay. The Canons of the Priory would, therefore, take care that the hermit's place should be supplied, as often as a vacancy might happen, and minister to his little wants.

If we assume, therefore, that this cell was occupied from the Martyrdom of St Helier in the 9th Century, to the suppression of monasteries at the Reformation, it leaves a period of about 600 years, during which time it attracted the devotions and the pilgrimages of the faithful who resided either in the island, or in any of the neighbouring parts of the continent. Since that suppression it has now survived a dilapidation of 300 years; and rude, lowly, and simple as it is, it is now acknowledged to be the most ancient, the most interesting, and the most valued monument within this beautiful island.

Mont de la Ville Pouquelaye

Town Hill

After leaving the Hermitage, Fort Regent, or as it was anciently called, the Town Hill, presents itself. That elevated land forms the eastern boundary of St Aubin's Bay, and under its shelter, as we have seen before, the artificial harbour of St Helier, has been gradually constructed.

That ridge projects out to a small distance into the bay, and consists of two hills, the north, and the south hills, which are connected at their northern extremity by a tract of comparatively low land to another ridge of hills that run up into the country. Those two hills formerly belonged to the Lord of the Manor, and to a part of the Commonalty of St Helier, and were sold to Government about the year 1800. The town of St Helier has since been improved with the interest arising from the purchase money, which trustees were empowered to invest in the British funds.

It had long been in contemplation to fortify those hills, as appears from the Rev Mr Falle's History of Jersey. After it had been ascertained that Mount Orgueil Castle was become untenable since the invention of artillery, it became indispensable to construct some other place of defence. The Duke of Somerset, the Regent of Edward VI, and who was at the same time Governor of Jersey, projected to build a citadel on the Town Hill. The project was, however, laid aside, as the hill had no spring water, and it was doubtful whether it would be possible to sink wells into it, through its immense mass of granite, of a sufficient depth to obtain an adequate supply.

Perhaps many causes concurred to render the scheme abortive. The resources of the island were inadequate for such an undertaking, and it is equally probable that the English exchequer could not have then furnished the means which would be required. An Order in Council was indeed issued in 1551 to fortify the Town Hill, and to effect several other objects, all which, for the time remained without effect.

Philip Ouless painting of South Hill

South Hill

Some 30 years afterwards it was decided to fortify the islet of St Helier, and notwithstanding that, it was afterwards practically proved, during the siege of 1651, that Elizabeth Castle was commanded by the Town Hill. Nothing was done to remedy that evil till 1787, when a citadel was ordered to be built on the South Hill. The work went on for some time, when it was suspended, and afterwards finally discontinued. That citadel, if it had ever been finished, would have been of a very limited extent, and would have commanded the castle and the harbour, but could have done very little to protect the town in case of its being occupied by an enemy.

The imperfect works are now but a mass of ruins, and can only be curious to ascertain the extent of the projected citadel. Some of the masonry, indeed, still remains, but the best part of the materials were subsequently removed, and used in the construction of Fort Regent.

The two hills are separated from each other by an opening between them of comparavitely lower ground. Two roads branch off through that opening, one that winds round the Fort into the town, and the other which leads to the village of Havre des Pas.

This southern hill is much smaller than the North Hill. Professional men have differed in opinion as to the expediency of this attempt to fortify it, which took place soon after a visit of the Duke of Richmond in 1786. The doubts expressed seem to have been answered in the negative, and it is now generally understood that if that citadel had been finished, it would have interfered with the defences of Fort Regent. Its very existence there would have obstructed the command which the batteries of the Fort would have had over the water.

It is supposed that Government has decided upon its removal, and on the final levelling of the ground. In the meantime it has granted permission to carry off from it all the rubbish which might be wanted for filling up, and completing the various works wanted for the improvement of the Harbour of St Helier. Large quarries are working round the hill, which have the effect of gradually diminishing its extent, and of raising and rendering inaccessible what remains.

New fortress

We confine ourselves to facts without pretending to know, or even to conjecture, what influenced the decision of Government. It was finally resolved to confine the fortifications to the north hill, and to erect a regular fortress on its summit. The works were begun in 1802, and were continued during the whole of the late war, and were not thoroughly completed till some years after the peace. They were carried on a large scale, almost gigantic efforts were made, a large well was excavated through the solid rock to considerably below the level of the sea, and a copious and perennial supply of good water was secured to the garrison.

A view of Fort Regent from Elizabeth Castle by Ouless

According to Mr Plees, a contemporary historian of Jersey, the well is 233 feet deep. It has a diameter of 14 feet at the surface, and is walled round; but after a short descent the width is reduced to 9 feet, and the walling is discontinued, the rest of the well having been cut all the way through the live rock, which is in its whole depth, of the same quality. The well has generally from 80 to 100 feet of very fine water, the daily produce of which is from 6-8,000 gallons. The excavation was a most laborious undertaking, and necessarily attended with considerable expense; but the advantage of so large and constant a supply, must to a garrison be incalculable.

The interior of the citadel was also abundantly furnished with all the conveniences which might be necessary for its defence in case of a siege, as well as with all the resources which might facilitate the efforts of art, courage, and experience to thwart the views of the enemy, and to protect effectually Elizabeth Castle, the harbour, and the town. It is said that those works did not cost much less than a million sterling. That sum could never have been supplied by the island, and therefore, could not have been raised, but from the united funds of a large empire. Nor would it, on the other hand, have been expended, if Government had not been decidedly convinced, of the loyalty of the inhabitants of the Channel Islands, and of their great naval and commercial importance.

Those various fortifications have had the further effect of rendering their union with Britain almost indissoluble, as in case of an attack, they would hold out much longer than would be necessary to bring over a sufficient force from the protecting state to their relief. As long, therefore, as Britain shall maintain its naval superiority, the Channel Islands shall be safe, and their connection with the British Empire as long as itself exists. For if ever England should lose the command of the seas, the Channel Islands would not only be severed from it; but the whole of its gigantic power, would fall to pieces, and be utterly annihilated.

It has been said that Fort Regent is nearly impregnable, and it is evident that without either cowardice, or surprise, it could not be taken but after a regular and protracted siege. No near approaches can be made to it, as the town lies between two hills, which are the nearest to it. Those again are at a considerable distance, nor do they seem to be of a sufficient height to command Fort Regent.

Like Elizabeth, and Mount Orgueil Castles, it is open at all times to ordinary visitors; but if any persons were to be desirous of a more particular inspection of it, they would no doubt easily obtain a permission on application to the proper authorities. The view from the ramparts is magnificient in the extreme, a large and well built town lying as it were under one's feet, the Castle, the sands, St Aubin's Bay, and the encircling amphitheatre of land; while the eastern side of the Fort presents St Clement's Bay with an extensive tract of low land, which is among the best cultivated, and the most fertile in Jersey.

It is from that spot that on a clear day is seen rising above the distant horizon, the towers of the Cathedral of Coutances, and a wide extent of the coast of France, while in another direction, and almost level with the horizon, the dangerous rocks of the Minquiers stretch themselves for some leagues over the sea, and lie about halfway between Jersey and St Malo.

Town common

The Town Hill, previous to the erection of Fort Regent, had from time immemorial been used as a common by the inhabitants, and the plateau at top, which had been levelled some years before for a parade, was very spacious. Though bleak and much exposed in rough weather, it was much resorted to for recreation at other times. On Sundays and on holidays it was the best frequented walk of any in the neighbourhood of the town. The sale of the hill was, therefore, attended with a privation to the inhabitants, to whom no compensation of the kind has yet been made by the trustees of that purchase money. This was lost sight of, and the money was appropriated to what were then thought to be more pressing objects, the right of the common was alienated, and a pleasant and salubrious walk was lost, a deficiency, which, after 40 years has not yet been made up out of the ample fund to which the town had just claims that a part of it should be expended for that purpose.

If, in the meantime, it excites the astonishment of strangers that such a thriving town as St Helier should be without a good public walk, or airy piece of land belonging to the community, and set apart for its recreation, it cannot be foreign to our purpose to indicate the true cause of it to our readers.

Park Place, Conway's home where the Town Hill pouquelaye was taken

History

We have now seen how the small isle of St Helier has been desecrated from the purposes of religion, to which it had been so long devoted, and how the holy repose of a monastery has been exchanged for the vigilance and the incessant discipline required for a military station. It remains now to trace, nearly the cause and effect, to the hill of St Helier and to Fort Regent. The following is a summary of the circumstances.

The summit of the hill was very uneven, though generally speaking it was a kind of table land, with a slope to the southward, at the point where the two hills meet. After the invasion of 1781 large intrenchments had been thrown round this table land, which of course have all entirely disappeared after the construction of Fort Regent, On the highest point a beacon had been erected, to spread the warning of an invading enemy round the island. In other respects the hill was bleak, barren, and rocky, and covered with stunted furze.

This was the neglected state in which it lay when it was resolved, in 1785, to level the uneven surface of the summit for a parade. There was in this place a mound of earth, which, though apparently artificial, does not seem to have attracted any particular notice before. On removing the soil and the rubbish, which was necessary to level it, the labourers discovered a pouquelaye, or druidical temple, composed of unhewn stones, and of a different construction from any that had hitherto been found in the island.

Many of those monuments have, inded, been discovered at different times, and more are supposed to be concealed under similar eminences. The nature of those pouquelayes is intelligible, from their very derivation in Celtic: poque, a heap, and loge, a stone. It is said that within the last 150 years rather more than about 50 collections of those stones have been found in Jersey, some of which are still visible. But the number is considerably diminished owing to the depredations of sacrilegious hands, who have carried away the stone to be used for common purposes. This great number of druidical remains seems to prove that the Druids gave the preference to insular situations, such as Mona, or Anglesey, for the erection of their temples, and that Jersey, at that remote period, which must have been prior to the conversion of the natives, in the fifth and sixth centuries, must have already possessed a very considerable population.

It is well known that the Romans persecuted the Druids, whose religion they held in the utmost abhorrence, on account of its supposed horrid and sanguinary rites. Those proud conquerors were also jealous of the influence which that unhallowed priesthood retained over the minds of the vanquished people. The Druids, therefore, naturally endeavoured to avert the destruction which was threatened to them and to their temples. On the approach of any imminent danger they had, therefore, recourse to the expedient of withdrawing the latter from their reach and observation by covering them with earth. The concealment continued so long that the very knowledge of their existence was gradually lost; and, as the country became afterwards Christian, the people were more desirous to forget than to retrace those seats of the Pagan superstitions of their ancestors.

This monument is supposed to be one of the most perfect remains of Druidism found in any part of Europe, but, at the same time, it is much to be regretted that it has long ceased to be in the possession of the island. It is known, however, to everyone acquainted with its local history, that the island had been indebted to Marshal Conway for very important services, and that the public gratitude could not do too much for such a personage. This may account for the enthusiasm with which the States presented him with this valuable piece of antiquity; but it cannot entirely exculpate them in having voted away what might have been considered as inalienable, and as being the heirloom of their country.

The conduct also of General Conway was injudicious, and such as he would have never adopted on mature reflection; for there was a sort of vandalism in thus availing himself of the lavish liberality of an improvident people. A parallel to this is found in modern times in the curiosities which Lord Elgin brought from Athens, and which now adorn the British Museum. It has been said, nevertheless, of late years that this temple might still be restored to the island. It were to be wished that such a suggestion might be correct, and that it might ultimately be reconstructed in some appropriate situation, where it might permanently remain to be an honor to the country, and a gratification to the feelings of the habitants.

1847 Guide
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