Coast: North-west corner

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Coast:

Les Landes


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This article by Doug Ford, 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


Inhospitable coast

Beyond La Cotte à la Chèvre the north coast continues to present its inhospitable face to the wary mariner. The high cliffs are lacerated with inlets but offer no safe anchorage. Although the place-names may be picturesque, they have threatening undertones La Crete Loquet – The Latch, La Baie de la Vieille – the Old Woman’s Bay, La Prison.

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Just behind the cliff line towards the ruins of the castle is a low mound, largely covered by gorse. This is all that remains of La Hougue de Grosnez, a Neolithic burial site. Originally about a metre high and 15 metres in diameter, excavations in 1923 uncovered Neolithic round-bottomed pots, vase supports, and a polished stone axe and flint implements.

Although the area is more correctly known as ‘Les Landes de Grosnes’ this is often shortened to Grosnez. Technically speaking this is the name of the headland that makes the northwest corner of the island. Often mistranslated as ‘big nose’ it actually comes from two Norse words grar - grey, and ness - headland, so the meaning of Grosnez is ‘the grey headland’, which If one approaches the island from the sea is how it looks.

The castle was probably built on the site of an earlier Iron Age promontory fort around 1328-1330, on the orders of John Des Roches. It was a place of refuge where the local population could take shelter during French raids, rather than a defensive fortification designed to withstand long periods of siege. With steep cliffs on three sides, massive walls two metres thick, fronted by a dry ditch protected the landward side. While most of the castle is in ruins, the rear of the gatehouse with its pointed archway is still intact, virtually to roof level. The corbel stones decorated with carved faces and magical symbols from the top of the gatehouse are now on display at La Hougue Bie museum.

Grosnez has no keep, only six small buildings and no water supply within its walls. It does not dominate or protect a port or village, and there are no sally-ports to allow counter-attack. All these points suggest that Grosnez was built almost as a bluff - raiders when confronted with seemingly massive walls and a heavily defended castle would not be tempted to hang around. But its many weaknesses were apparent to any competent enemy and it was captured by the French in 1373, 1381 and again in 1462.

On the western side of the headland is La Creux au Francais – Frenchman’s Hollow. It has been suggested that Robert de Flocques landed some of his men here in a surprise attack in early 1462, during what was to be a seven-year French occupation of the island. It was probably around this time that the castle was pulled down and the stones used in 1483, when the Seigneur, Philippe de Carteret, was permitted to fortify St Ouen’s manor.

While the castle makes a picturesque ruin, from a maritime perspective, the naval signal station built in 1806 on the other side of the modern racecourse is much more important. Manned by naval personnel, it was one of a chain around the island that enabled messages to be passed from Mont Orgueil castle to Royal Navy ships stationed in St Peter Port in a matter of minutes.

Les Landes

Although the name Les Landes in French means ‘moorland’ in Jersey, it is better translated as uncultivated land or rough grazing. In the 19th century there was a militia rifle range here and, until 1906, a race-course. The current course, which was built in 1961, is north-east of the old one.

During the Occupation this part of the coastline fell into Defence Sector West, defended by the 16th Machine Gun Battalion. The Strongpoint Butts took its name from the old rifle range, and was centred around the observation/fire control tower known as MP3. (MP was an abbreviation for Naval direction finding and signalling position.) Because of the huge ‘Freya’ radar aerial mounted on top of the tower, this emplacement became known as Fu MO West - Radar Set West. While it was being constructed, a temporary signalling station was constructed just to the south above Beau Vallet, overlooking Le Pinacle.

Le Pinacle

The tower is on a small headland called Rouge Nez, named from the Norse words hruga nes - stony heap point. In 1896 a small but workable seam of blue granite was found here, which it was claimed was superior to that from Aberdeen. As there was demand for this type of stone in Scotland, it was proposed that if the seam widened it could be exported. It was even suggested a loading facility could be built at the foot of the cliff. As it was, the plans came to nothing, and the only thing to go over the cliffs were about 150 pieces of artillery and anti-tank guns that were dumped here after the Liberation.

An area of marshy heathland crossed by a small bridge just to the south is the remains of an ancient stream that was in existence around 7,500-10,000 years ago. Known as Le Canal du Squez, since its discovery in the 1990s this area has produced the largest number of Mesolithic artefacts in the Channel Islands. The name Le Sques comes from the Jerriais word s’tichi,which means to dry, and describes a stream that dries up in the summer, leaving a marshy area. Because the sea level was lower then, the Mesolithic hunter gatherers would have been able to spot animals moving along the broad coastal plain and the seashore in the distance.

Armed with the latest 1840 tourist guide to Jersey, any early Victorian visitor to this part of Les Landes would have been intrigued for it warned:

“Advancing southwards a most singular colossal rock will be seen rising suddenly from the sea. It is an irregular pillar, more than a hundred feet (30m) in height, and tapering but little from its broad craggy basis. This natural tower is very appositely named Le Pinacle.”

The rock is actually twice that height, at about 60 metres.

Regarded as a natural menhir, the Pinacle has been the focus of veneration for several thousand years. In 1979 archaeologists uncovered several hearths and large quantities of unfinished and broken stone tools and arrowheads, dating to about 3000BC, suggesting that it had also been a site for producing stone axes, using dolorite from the nearby cliff. Although no habitation site has been found, the sea level was slightly lower 5,000 years ago, so any settlement could have been on the seaward side of the rock.

About 4,250 years ago an earth bank was built across the landward approach. During the late Iron Age and the Roman period, a small fanum or shrine - a square, stone one-room building, with a single entrance surrounded by a veranda, supported by a low stone wall - was set up here. Pottery and a coin bearing the head of the Emperor Commodus (180-191AD), found here, suggest that it was still in use during the 3rd century.

Just to the south of the Pinacle lies La Falaise à Brebis - the cliff of the ewes. This is a reminder of the importance of sheep and wool to the Island in the 16th to 18th centuries. The island breed was multi-horned and thrived on the rough pastures on the cliff tops. The English map-maker John Speed, writing some time between 1607 and 1612, described them as:

"Of reasonable bignes, the most of them bearing four hornes a peece. Their wooll very fine and white . . .”

They became extinct in the early part of the 19th century, remembered now only in placenames.

Today Manx Loaghtan sheep, believed to be the closest living relative of the extinct Jersey breed, graze the cliff tops.

Further reading


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