Coast: Corbiere

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Bivouac Tearoom was a popular establishment at Corbiere

This article by Doug Ford, retired education officer for Jersey Heritage and a respected authority on Jersey's maritime history, was part of his Coast series for the Jersey Evening Post, and was first published in 2016

Petit Port

The small bay of Petit Port is the last landing bay on the west coast and the rocky shoreline around Petit Port and Le Grouet were popular for vraicing - Le Grouet actually means ‘dirty water’ and took its name because the tidal flow meant debris was washed up here. Access to the beach was by slipways or cart tracks cut through the rocks. The old slipway by the stream was blocked and dismantled around 1871-72 when the head of the bay was stabilised by the building of a seawall, and a new curved slipway was constructed on the north side of the bay.


Another new slipway was built further around the coast at Le Grouet in 1873. This one was built to an L-shape around the rocky outcrop known as La Tête du Grouet, and probably overlaid an old cart track as it was referred to as La Charrière de la Corbière, the cart-track, rather than the more usual word for a slip, montée. Both slipways have their granite setts laid at an angle to allow ease of access for the horse-drawn vraicing carts.

Although Petit Port does not feature in the 1872 Fisheries Survey, this was possibly because of the building work being carried out there, because the high ground to the south of the bay was known as La Lande des Congres, where the catch was dried. Small boats were certainly using Petit Port during the Great War, because in April 1916 three fishermen from there drowned.

The place name Corbière [1] came from the Old French meaning the place of the ravens, crows or cormorants. It first appeared in the Assize Roll of 1309 when a tub was recorded washed ashore here.


1862 Guide to the Channel Islands: "The dreaded Corbiere, the extreme southern limit of the Bay of St Ouen’s. No wonder this terrible group of rocks should be dreaded by the mariner, storm caught perhaps as he may be within sight of home and rest."

The stories of shipwrecks around Corbière, especially in the days of sail, have gripped the imagination. According to the historian George Balleine, a Spanish ship carrying a cargo of wine was wrecked here in 1414. On 25 November 1495 five Spanish ships were supposedly lured on to the rocks here by wreckers. In his 1847 guidebook, the Rev Edouard Durell wrote:

"Steamers now approach it much nearer than any sailing vessel would have formerly ventured to do ...’

However, shipmasters still managed to get their calculations wrong and hit the rocks. The most recent being the St Malo, which struck La Frouquie – ‘the forked rock’ – on Easter Monday 1995. The captain had taken his vessel through the calmer waters of the Jailer’s Passage to give his passengers a good view. Over 300 passengers and crew had to abandon ship, 53 of whom were injured.


The German observation tower with Corbiere lighthouse behind

From the late 1850s onwards a number of petitions were presented to the Admiralty, the Crown and the States advocating the building of a lighthouse at Corbière. Eventually the scheme got the go-ahead and a design by Sir John Coode was selected. The world’s first concrete lighthouse was completed in November 1873 and in use from April 1874.

It was the natural grandeur of the rocks at Corbière that draw the visitor to this south west corner of the island. The early guidebook authors went on at length about Nature’s majesty, the projection of the rocks and the power of the sea. Numerous painters have captured the view – in 1846 Queen Victoria had the Royal Yacht, the Victoria and Albert, stopped so that Prince Albert could sketch the scene. Over the years Corbière has become one of the most photographed and painted parts of the island.

The lighthouse simply added a touch of romance to the view. The four keepers, who lived in the nearby cottages, kept watch until 1976 when the light was automated. As well as maintaining the light and fog signal, they passed details of approaching ships to Fort Regent Signal Station and St Helier Harbour Office.

In the 1890s a camera obscura was built at the top of the roadway from Le Grouet. It looked out over the lighthouse and was used by the tourists who flocked to this south western corner of the island in their thousands. During the 1870 season excursion cars visited La Moye, the Granite Quarries and Corbière rocks on Fridays. The cost, including a guide, was 2s (10p). In August 1884 the railway was extended from St Aubin to La Moye, and a number of tearooms and hotels began to spring up on the headland. The Bivouac Tearoom, with its thatched roof, the Chalet Hotel and the Seagrove Hotel, famed for its Tartan Bar, are now gone but the Corbière Pavilion (now the Phare) and Highlands Hotel still remain.


In 1897 the railway line was extended from La Moye to Corbière and a new station was built in the grounds of the Pavilion Hotel. By 1920 the 45-minute trip from St Helier cost 2s (10p) in 2nd class, or 2s 6d (12½p) in 1st - the price of travel had changed little over 50 years.

The area around Corbière is certainly the place for unusual wildlife to pop up. In 1960 a long-finned pilot whale was washed ashore at Le Grouet, causing quite a stir as well as a nuisance when the carcass began to rot. This was not the first unusual member of the animal kingdom to make its appearance in these parts, for in October 1929 a few of the mainland papers carried a story of Frank and Percy Pinel’s small boat being attacked off Corbière by a 4½ metre long shark, while they were hauling their lobster pots.

Seven years earlier, in August 1922, a number of English newspapers, including the Sunday Post and the Sunderland Daily Echo, carried the story of how another fishing boat had been attacked in the same area by a giant octopus. Seemingly one giant tentacle wrapped itself around the mast and attempted to capsize the boat, while another grabbed the leg of a man named as Frank Duhamel and tried to haul him overboard. The crew only saved themselves by slashing at the tentacles with their knives and beating them with the oars.

Crossing the causeway from the lighthouse as the tide came in during 1939

In November 1927 the Western Daily Mail reported that a penguin had been captured while sitting on a rock near the headland.

Beyond the causeway, to the south, is La Baie à Sablons or Hospital Bay. This is where the paddle steamer Express grounded on 20 September 1859. Of the 110 passengers and crew, only two failed to get ashore safely. The following day thousands of onlookers came to watch as three racehorses were taken from the stranded vessel. Among the onlookers was the celebrated local artist Philip Ouless, who recorded the scene for posterity.

During the Occupation this area was known as Strongpoint Corbiere. There are a variety of fortifications all over the headland – a 105mm casemate overlooks Le Grouet, machine gun positions lie hidden in the rocks and various bunkers are connected by underground passages. These are admirably maintained and opened to the public by the Channel Islands Occupation Society.

The German Observation Tower (MP 2) overlooking Corbière, now one of the Jersey Heritage self-catering holiday lets, housed naval direction finding and signalling equipment. Built on the site of a militia lookout position, when it was finished the concrete was painted to resemble the granite of the Conway Towers. After the Liberation the tower remained unused until 1976 when, following the automation of the lighthouse, it became home to ‘Jersey Radio’, the Coast Radio Station which, until it moved to St Helier in 2004, monitored the radio traffic of all shipping passing though the entrance to the English Channel, hence its more commonly used name - the ‘Radio Tower’.

Further reading

Notes and references

  1. Purists suggest that the correct name is La Corbière, but, perhaps since English overtook Jerriais as the island's most spoken language, it has been known to locals for generations simply as Corbiere - Editor

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