Coast: Offshore

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Coast:

Offshore islets


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A cluster of granite cottages on Les_Ecréhous


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 2017


Offshore reefs

Ever since it was built in the early 13th century, the lookouts at Mont Orgueil would have been able to spot most seaborne attempts on Jersey, largely because the approaches to the island are restricted to the south and the north east by offshore reefs. Like Jersey, these reefs - Les Minquiers, Les Ecréhous and the Paternosters - were created by rising sea-levels about 7,000 years ago, but over the years, as sea-levels continued to rise, they have all but disappeared beneath the waves.

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Lying about 10 miles south of Jersey and just over 16 miles from the French mainland are the Minquiers [1]. As Victor Hugo wrote in his novel Quatre-vingt-treize, “The triangular shallow of the Minquiers . . . is larger than the entire island of Jersey”. Only about eight square miles dries out at low tide, revealing a landscape of rocks and sand banks, and at high tide only five rocky peaks remain dry; Maîtresse Île, the only one with buildings on, is really the only islet - despite one of the others rocks being called Les Maisons.

There is some confusion as to what the name Minquiers means. Some say that it is derived from the Breton word for a sanctuary – minihi, others that it comes from the Norman word for fish seller – minkier, while a third theory is that it means ‘a ground teeming with fish’. The one thing that they all agree on is that it was a fishing ground.

It would appear that from the earliest times human activity on the reef has been of a fleeting, transient nature: Bronze Age seal hunters, quarrymen and, of course, fishermen.

Although today the Minquiers are administered as part of the parish of Grouville, at one time they were part of St Brelade because when Henry V seized the land held by French monasteries in 1413, he gave the Minquiers, which had been held by the Abbot of Mont St Michel, to the Seigneur of Noirmont.

Shipwrecks

For the unwary mariner the Minquiers are a danger, sitting across the route to the French ports of St Malo and Granville from Jersey. Over the years they have seen their fair share of shipwrecks both real, such as the paddle steamers Polka and Superb in 1850, and imaginary, such as Hammond Innes’s Mary Deare. In late July 1936 the flying boat Cloud of Iona went missing between Guernsey and Jersey; 13 days later wreckage was found on the western side of the Minquiers. All ten passengers and crew were lost.

The Minquiers have been at the centre of a couple of international incidents. On both occassions prominent Frenchmen tried to build on Maîtresse Île, claiming the islet was French. The first, in July 1929, was a Parisian banker, Édouard Le Roux, and the second, in June 1939, was the marine artist and pioneering solo yachtsmen, Marin-Marie. In both cases the incidents were reported in the national newspapers and diplomatic pressure was brought to bear at the highest level.

Off the north-east coast of Jersey, covering about 21 square miles, are the Ecréhous and running away to the west the Dirouilles (sometimes simply referred to as Les Pierres). The name Ecréhous probably means ‘rocky islet’ and comes from two Norse words hou meaning a small island or islet and sker meaning rock, as in skerry.

Fishermen at Les Minquiers in 1931

Ecrehous

Although smaller than the Minquiers, the Ecréhous[2] have been inhabited on and off over the centuries. In 1203 Pierre de Préaux, the Warden of the Isles, granted the reef to the Cistercian Abbey of Val Richer. The monks set up a small priory and chapel on the islet we now call Maître Ile. The islet with all the buildings on is called Marmotier –‘the monastery by the sea’, moutier means monastery in Old French – which may suggest that the two islets were a single entity in the 13th century. Apart from saying masses for the soul of King John, the monks also kept a beacon burning at night to warn sailors of the danger posed by the reef. This valuable service ended in 1413 when the king took over the land owned by French religious orders.

In 1690 Nicholas Tocque was buried next to his house on the south side of Maitre Ile and from 1848 until his death in 1896 Philip Pinel lived here. He and his wife made a living from fishing and gathering vraic.

Like the Minquiers, the Ecréhous were also used as a source of valuable building stone – the earliest reference for this was 1623. The reef was also used for gathering vraic which, because of its bulky nature, was sometimes left to dry and then burned so that only the ash was carried back to Jersey to be used as fertiliser. In 1309 24 men were drowned returning to Jersey with vraic. At the inquest the boat they were travelling on was found guilty of murder and confiscated by the Crown.

In the 17th and 18th centuries the Ecréhous developed as a smuggling base. In the 1690s the most profitable commodities being traded were gunpowder and lead for musket balls. This was rather embarrassing because Britain and France were at war, and one of the men profiteering from the trade was the Lieut-Governor. The following century the trade shifted to tobacco and brandy.

In the days when party politics were at their most extreme, rumour has it that men were marooned here on election day to prevent them voting for the ‘wrong’ candidate.

The Ecréhous are now part of the parish of St Martin, but like the Minquiers, they have been claimed by the French, particularly since the French Revolution, because of the increased importance of the fishery. It was only in 1953 that the International Court of Justice in the Hague ruled that the two groups of islets were definitively part of Jersey.

Paternosters

The third of Jersey’s offshore reefs is situated three miles north of Grève de Lecq. These are the Paternosters or Les Pierres de Lecq - extending nearly two miles east-west, at high tide just four rocks remain uncovered. Unlike the Ecréhous and Minquiers, they have no buildings and, therefore, no rateable value, but they are part of the Parish of St Mary.

Supposedly they take their name Paternosters from a shipwreck in 1565, in which a number of children were drowned. Afterwards it became customary for fishermen to say a prayer for the drowned souls. This is unlikely because by 1565 Jersey was Calvinist, so prayers would not be said in Latin. Another story tells that when the local inhabitants saw a pirate ship approaching they began to recite the Pater Noster and Divine inspiration resulted in the pirate ship striking the rocks with the loss of all hands. A third story tells of a ship being driven onto the rocks in a gale and the prayers of the survivors could be heard in Grève de Lecq until one by one they succombed to the rising tide. Like most legends there is a kernel of truth or a folk-memory in there somewhere, but it is just as likely that the reef was named because it looked like a string of rosary beads.

One thing is certain, and that is the reef does present a danger to shipping. In 1907 it was reported that the French government was going to build a lighthouse on the Paternosters. By 1909 it was being actively discussed by the Chambers of Commerce in St Brieuc, Granville and St Malo, who believed that both the French and British governments supported the idea; but like many projects dependant upon co-operation, it failed to materialise.

Further reading

Notes and references

  1. Pronounced 'minkies' by many islanders
  2. The extension of the reef to the west of the Ecréhous is called Les Dirouilles
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