Coast: St Ouen's Bay - centre

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Coast:

St Ouen's Bay - centre


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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


Boundary

The parish boundary between St Ouen and St Peter was the old outlet stream from St Ouen's Pond. This now runs beneath the German anti-tank wall, which was built during the Occupation and had the effect of joining together the various lengths of seawall, which had been constructed during the 19th century, to stabilise the sand dunes and make access to the beach easier for horse-drawn carts.

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L’Ouzière Slipway (La Montée de l’Ouzière), and its associated walls, were built about 1870. During the Occupation, like many slipways, it was blocked by fortification building – in this case twin 4.7cm anti-tank gun emplacements. Following the Liberation, one of these was removed to open up the slipway again. The scars left by the German blocking can be still seen, because the original setts or cobblestones had been set at an angle to give the horses hauling carts grip. This was not needed by motor lorries and tractors fitted with rubber tyres, and the replacement setts were laid flush.

Another victim of the German army in this area was the Conway tower built just after the 1779 invasion attempt. Standing to the south of the slip, the tower known variously as St Ouen’s No 3, St Ouen’s D, or the High Tower, was demolished as it got in the way of their more modern weapons. The tower had been sold by the War Department in July 1922 for the princely sum of £50.

Today this part of the bay, between L’Ouzière and Le Braye, is better known for sunbathing and surfing, but in the past it was generally referred to as Le Port, which means the ‘haven’. This is because in the 17th century it was called Le Port de la Mare, and was described as a roadstead – somewhere vessels could lie safely at anchor.

Invasions

The Channel Islands Pilot, published in 1870, informed ships’ masters that the anchorage which afforded good shelter in easterly winds was ‘about half a mile square ... off La Rocco tower’. This would explain why this part of the bay was selected in October 1651 by the Parliamentary forces, headed by Admiral Blake, to invade the island.

Sir George de Carteret, the Royalist leader, and the Island Militia spent three days watching and tracking the Parliamentary fleet, moving between St Ouen’s Bay and St Brelade’s Bay and back again, but by the time the Parliamentarians landed, many of the militia had gone home exhausted. There was a short clash on the beach, but it was the beginning of the end for the Royalist cause in the island, and within three months the last Royalists, penned up in Elizabeth Castle, surrendered and the island was under Parliamentary control.

Although the States had voted to set up what was supposed to have been some sort of defensive work with a cannon here in 1602, to protect the anchorage, Admiral Blake makes no mention of it in his account of the landing.

Two centuries later, in May 1779, while Britain was fighting the rebel American colonists, a French force of 1,500 soldiers, accompanied by a fleet of five warships and over 50 small landing craft, under the Prince of Nassau, attempted a landing here. They were thwarted by the falling tide and Moyse Corbet, the Lieut-Governor, who had 40 mounted troopers, another 400 infantry drawn from the 78th Regiment and militia, supported by some of the militia cannon. Unable to land, the French ships returned to Brittany. The scare caused the British Government to more than double the size of the garrison on the island.

La Caumine a Marie Best

The only building still standing from the period of the 1779 invasion is the St Peter’s Guardhouse, also known as La Caumine à Marie Best, or, because it is whitewashed for sailors to use as a navigation mark, the White Cottage. The guardhouse and magazine, with its vaulted roof, replaced an earlier gun position, probably the one mentioned in Colonel Legge’s 1679 report, known as the Middle Boulevard, which was destroyed in an explosion in 1765.

The guns were placed about 15 metres in front of the building. Its association with Marie Best dates from just after the Napoleonic War, when Marie Anne Best (1790-1832), the daughter of an English soldier called Adam, and Marguerite Carrel, moved into the disused guardhouse with her children to avoid a smallpox outbreak. Over the years, deprived of its military use, it fell into disrepair and later inhabitants let more windows into the walls.

La Caumine a Marie best

Along with most of the coastal defensive structures, the War Department sold the building and land after the Great War. It was bought by William Gregory in November 1925. In May 1932 he sold the building to Captain J A, Hilton but kept the associated land. Captain Hilton’s widow donated the cottage to the National Trust for Jersey in 1975. Today it is the oldest surviving defensive building in the bay.

La Caumine à Marie Best’ caused a bit of a stir in 2011 when it was painted a pale green as part of the National Trust’s green awareness campaign, because some people thought it was an official navigation marker. The Jersey Coastguard issued a public notice to the effect that, according to the Admiralty Chart of the bay, the white building marked as the recognised navigation mark in the area is actually Big Vern’s Diner, just to the north. Normality returned in 2012 when the building was repainted white.

Just to the north of the Watersplash stood another of the Conway towers, St Ouen’s No 4. It was probably built after the 1779 invasion attempt and, like the others, it was armed with an 18-pounder carronade on a traversing platform mounted on the roof. At some stage in the middle of the 19th century it was undermined by the sea and collapsed.

The Watersplash was originally built before the Occupation, as a private home called Idaho, by Arthur Parker. In January 1948 it was bought by Harry Swanson, who renamed it and turned it into a nightclub. The Watersplash has become something of an island institution, for it was here that Jersey’s current surfing culture started.

Surfing centre

In 1923 Nigel Oxenden and a few friends started what was probably Europe’s first surf club, the Island Surf Club of Jersey. These first surfers were all body boarders - lying on their boards rather than standing up - but with the Occupation and the removal of the beach huts along the shore surfing faded away.

Surfers at St Ouen's Bay in 1923 - no standing up yet

Surfing restarted in 1958, when three young South Africans came to work at Parkin’s Holiday Camp at Plémont. They built their own hollow boards and took them to St Ouen’s Bay, where, recognising the potential, Harry Swanson hired them as “South African Hawaiian Board Riders” and lifeguards. Tourists and locals flocked to watch, and the following year a group of young islanders formed the Jersey Surfboard Club, which is now said to be the oldest club in Europe. In 1962 the first Surf-Riding Championship at was held at the ‘Splash and in 1966 the World Surfing Championship was held here.

Another beach café integral to the history of Island surfing is El Tico. Opened in 1948, in 1965 it became the site for the Jersey Life Guard Station and Centre.

It was not only water sports that St Ouen’s Bay was known for; it has also been the venue for sand racing since before the Occupation. Its heyday was probably in the late 1950s and '60s, when thousands of spectators watched the events.

Before the Watersplash and El Tico existed, in the 1920s and 1930s, the dunes between them were dotted with beach huts. All of these were cleared by the Germans to create a military no-go zone. Just beyond El Tico, and just over the parish boundary in St Brelade, stood another Conway tower, La Tour de la Pierre Buttée, or St Ouen No 5. Built after the 1779 invasion attempt, like its neighbour it collapsed around 1850 having been severely damaged by storms.

Le Braye Slipway (La Montée du Braye), which leads to the beach, along with its flanking walls, were built around 1869 to the designs produced by the architects Philip Le Sueur and Philip Bree, who are better known as the architects who worked on St Helier Town Hall in 1872 and the Royal Court Building in 1877.

Le Braye means 'passage between the rocks'. Old maps show that there was a rocky outcrop on the dunes at this point, so does the name refer to this and the track on to the beach which went through them, or does it refer to the narrow passage between the rocks to the south of Le Rocco Tower?

Further reading


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