Coast: Portelet

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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

Continuing along the coast from Le Fret and passing the small cove known as Rosel, the sailor comes to a headland known as Le Poitron. It has been said that its name may mean breast, from its shape, although it is uncertain - Popinjay’s 1563 map shows it as Poytroune or Poytraine.

Small harbour

Beyond lies Portelet Bay which means ‘small harbour’. The 1865 Gossiping Guide to Jersey described Portelet as ‘a sweet and most secluded spot’ and it was not only tourists who enjoyed the seclusion, for in May 1860 the Revenue men arrested the crew of the 12-ton cutter Fly, who were trying to smuggle 15 bales of tobacco into the island. In July John Floyd, Philip Baudains, John Finney and Nicholas Du Val were found guilty and each fined £100.


It was not only smugglers who came to grief here, for on Tuesday 1 November 1881 the 59-ton ketch, Praire Flower, of Gorey, carrying a cargo of Welsh steam coal, struck rocks just off the bay. Captain Adderson set off distress flares, but by the time the St Helier pulling lifeboat reached them, the five man crew had made it to shore. The vessel broke up a few days later.

On Good Friday 1897 something of a slightly larger nature hit the beach here in the shape of the Great Western Railway Company mailboat ss Ibex. She had been racing the L&SWR mailboat ss Frederica when she struck the Noirmontaise Rock off Corbière and began taking in water. Her captain ran her ashore in Portelet Bay and the 230 passengers were able safely to get ashore in the Ibex’s six lifeboats. Once ashore the passengers had to walk to St Aubin, where a special train was laid on for them to complete their journey to St Helier.

In the 18th century it was landings of a different sort that concerned the island authorities. Although the cliffs backing the beach were seen as a major obstacle to any landing - the 1865 Gossiping Guide to Jersey described the way down to the shoreline as ‘a pretty, but very steep, mountain path and embosomed in trees’ - in 1782 the States ordered two 6-pounders to be mounted on platforms overlooking the bay. It is unlikely the battery was ever completed, as a report in 1797 showed that only one of the guns was in position and its gunpowder and shot were stored in a portable magazine.

Janvrin's Tomb

Today the central feature of the bay is undoubtedly the small squat round tower built on the tidal islet. Popularly known as Janvrin’s Tomb, its actual name is L’Île au Guerdain after the Le Goupil dit Guerdain family who owned land here in the late 1500s/early 1600s.

The single-storey tower was built in 1808 and was one of the first true Martello towers to be built in the island. Like the Conway towers it had a 24-pounder roof-mounted cannon and was manned by a sergeant and 12 men. A small gun battery for a 12-pounder was built outside the tower in 1811. The whole defensive building was rather grandiosely described as ‘a low circular fort’ in the 1845 visitor guides.

Its popular name ‘Janvrin's Tomb’ refers to the story of 44-year old Philippe Janvrin, captain of the Esther', having to be buried here because he fell victim to the plague which his ship had brought back from Nantes. Records show that his burial took place on 21 September 1721 and, according to Jean Dauvergne, only three of his crew were allowed to take the corpse to the islet and everyone else stood on the headland from where the Rector performed the service. As the islet is made of solid rock, the burial was presumably only a temporary measure. [1]

Holiday Camp

The early days of Portelet holiday Camp

The island’s first holiday camp was built on the slopes overlooking the bay in 1925 by Major Nigel Oxenden. 250 holiday makers could be accomodated in a number of wooden chalets and tents (these were fitted with wooden floors, beds and a chest of drawers). There was a communal dining hall and a 70ft ballroom as well as two tennis courts for the more sporting visitors. A week’s fully inclusive stay cost two and a half guineas (£2.621/2p) for adults and one and half guineas (£1.571/2p) for children under 10. If campers brought their own tents and sleeping equipment then the cost of the stay was five shillings (25p) per day.

As holidays were still a novelty for many, the camp brochure advised “shorts, bathing costumes or beach pyjamas are the popular wear’. The site was bought by Billy Butlin in the 1950s and then it was acquired by the Pontins group in 1994. The holiday camp finally closed in 2000.

Beyond La Touraille on the eastern side of the bay is a small bay known as La Port de l’ile Percé. The l’ile Percé in question is the larger islet which protects its southern flank, and is a continuation of the Noirmont headland, as opposed to its more famous namesake in the Gaspé.

An aerial view of Noirmont before the Germans changed the scenery

Noirmont, also called La Tête de Noir Mont – the black mount - takes its name from its appearance when rain approaches from the south west. Because of its prominence and visibility, Noirmont has been used in the past to send out messages. In 1550 Barnabe Le Quesne was hanged here for piracy and his body hung in chains as a warning to passing sailors against taking up his profession.

In 1649 the diarist Jean Chevalier referred to La Becq de Noir Mont, which suggests that the headland had a beacon to warn of an approaching enemy - the enemy in question would have been Cromwell’s Parliamentarian fleet. During the French Revolution the headland had one of the ten signal stations set up around the island built on it. It was manned by the Royal Navy, because sailors were more used to signalling using code using flags than soldiers. At night cannon and fire beacons were used.

When the French Wars ended La Moye and Noirmont were kept on for commercial use but were finally closed down in 1888 with the introduction of the electrical telegraph from Corbière lighthouse to Fort Regent.

Lying below Noirmont is La Tour de Vinde: Vinde means “tacking point”, for once ships were level with Noirmont they were able to tack into the shelter of the bay. [2]

Like its neighbour in Portelet, this is one of the early Martello Towers. Work began in 1808 and was finally completed in 1814 at a cost of £3,445. With a 12-pounder gun on its roof and another on the battery around its base, La Tour de Vinde commanded the approaches along the south-west coast. By 1835 these guns had been upgraded to two 18-pounders. By the end of the century it was redundant and in November 1911 the States of Jersey bought it from the War Department for use as a navigation mark. It was painted with black and white bands in 1912 and in 1915 had a light fitted.

Further reading

Notes and references

  1. Janvrin's tombstone stood on the rock for some time, but is thought to have disappeared when the tower was built. Although guidebooks say that he was reinterred in St Brelade's Church cemetery, there is no record of this burial – Editor
  2. Not all ships which tacked here made it safely into the bay. On 26 March 1803 HMS Determinée was carrying a detachment of the 81st Regiment with their families to Jersey when she struck a rock off Noirmont and began taking in water. Her captain ordered the sails to be taken in and anchors to be dropped to keep the vessel steady, but when the cutter was put over the side to ferry the pasengers ashore, the soldiers panicked and tried to rush on board. The cutter sank and the midshipman and seaman who were manning it were drowned, along with three women, four children and ten soldiers. At his courtmartial, Captain Beecher and his crew were acquitted and commended for their conduct, which enabled the rest of the passengers and crew to be safely taken ashore.

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