Early 19th century tour of Jersey's coast

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This article covers the section from St Helier to Gorey of a tour of the island published in what was descibed when it was submitted to us as a Victorian guidebook. However, various references in the text, notably those to work on Fort Regent being under way and plans having been drawn up for a quay at St Helier Harbour which is now known as Commercial Buildings, date the material somewhat earlier than that, to between 1806 and 1814. Unfortunately we have so far been unable to identify the source or to discover the remainder of the tour.

Start of tour

We propose to commence our tour from the town of St Helier, on leaving which, we shall coast along a part of the southern shore, and from thence, turning northwards, skirt the eastern side of the island. After having migrated thus far, our next attempt will be that of winding among the sinuosities of the high northern boundary: then stretching along the western extremity, we shall turn again to the southern barrier. Having pursued this outline, our last business will be to notice such of the inland places as may appear to merit attention.

On leaving St Helier the first striking object is Elizabeth Castle, erected on a craggy eminence, about three-quarters of a mile from the town. A line of high rocks, all insulated at half flood, of which that which supports the castle is by far the largest, and in one part the most elevated, extends from NE to SW. This chain is encompassed with the rugged surfaces of lower masses, rendering the approach of an enemy both difficult and hazardous.

At about half ebb the sea leaves them: there is then, from the town to the castle, a free passage, called the bridge, where the confluence of the water, from both sides of the bay, has raised a rough stony path. The sands on each side of this causeway, though passable at low water, are generally too moist to be conveniently traversed on foot.

The assemblage of rocks before mentioned divides St Aubin's Bay into two parts, one of which is called the great road and the other the "small road.

Hermitage

It is ascertained that, about AD 565, and probably for several subsequent ages, the range of rocks just noticed constituted part of the mainland of Jersey: on the summit of one of them is a small but substantial stone building, called the Hermitage. In days of legendary fame the secluded cell of a martyred ascetic, from whose canonized name the town of St Helicr assumes its own.

In this solitary and bleak habitation, the supposed stone couch and pillow of the eremite remain, still exhibiting fancied stains of blood. According to traditionary evidence, that pious recluse was murdered, in one of their descents on the island, by a set of piratical Normans; and to expiate the bloody deed of his forefather, a descendant of one of those lawless marauders founded an abbey on the site of the present castle. This was a mode of atonement, too frequently resorted to in that barbarous and unenlightened age, even for the most atrocious personal crimes.

Mortifications were considered as another sure method of compounding with Heaven; and as a necessary, or at least as a laudable, means of procuring salvation. From this mistaken principle of the Christian religion sprung all the monkish austerities, and all the solitary wanderings of enthusiastic penitents. Of the anchoret just mentioned tradition has preserved only the name, and the foregoing brief account of his death.

The situation of St Helier's retreat must, even in his time, have been extremely exposed: the hoarse roaring of the broken surge, which could not be very distant, must have rendered it unfit for contemplative retirement. From the encroachment of the sea it is now very frequently covered with spray, dashed up from the irregular surface at its base.

Fort Regent and new wharf plan

From the town a broad level road, cut out of the solid sienitic rock, leads to the harbour. The elevation of that causeway, or terrace, is about half that of the hill itself, and its extent above a quarter of a mile. It was formerly a mere passage for carriages, scarcely admitting a few straggling houses and huts to occupy a small portion of its breadth: overhung on one side by the superior part of the hill, and descending precipitously on the other to the harbour.

"When the hill was purchased by government from the proprietors of the Vingtaine in which it stands, a part next the harbour was reserved; and so considerable a portion of it has since been quarried, in order to render the fortress now erecting on it inaccessible, that the former narrow avenue is become a very spacious level. This part has recently been obtained by a body of inhabitants, for the sum of 40,000 livres; and a plan is now executing, to contruct wharfs, and build warehouses, along the side next the harbour, which is to be materially contracted, for the purpose of adding still more to the enlarged space.

Formerly the tide flowed over a long range of rugged rocks, on the land side of this haven: those rocks are now covering with rubbish from the hill above, while a solid stone wall will restrain the sea, and prevent it from sweeping away the embankment.

Should the proposed spirited undertaking be effected, vessels will be enabled to load and unload close to a broad and extensive quay. At present, carts are employed to drag the various kinds of merchandise over a deep sand, ascending all the way to the town; and even this chargeable and painfully toilsome mode, can be pursued only when the tide has so far receded as to leave the harbour. Whether the foreign commerce of Jersey will support an enterprise of such magnitude, time alone can determine: at present, many of the inhabitants indulge very sanguine hopes respecting it,

Harbour plans

As the rocks on which Elizabeth Castle stands once joined the mainland, it has been imagined by some that a considerable portion of St Aubin’s Bay might be regained from the sea. How far this may be possible is difficult to say: if attempted at all, it could be so only on the St Helier side. At any rate, it is reasonable to believe that, if ever accomplished, the ground thus acquired would not repay the consequent expense ; and it must necessarily destroy the present harbour.

A plan of apparently far greater utility would be that of constructing a secure haven, in which vessels might always float; thus averting the many disadvantages and dangers of a mere tide harbour. To effect this would be a national benefit; for at present there is not a single land-locked bay on any part of the coast round the island: every one is exposed to some wind or other; and ships of war on this station are obliged occasionally to remove from one inlet to another. Several have, at different times, been driven from their anchors, and wrecked.

Vessels of light burden remain indeed always afloat, in a part of the small road named the caldron, in which there is a depth of five or six feet at the lowest tides.

Though the desirable plan just mentioned could not perhaps be accomplished, yet the position of many rocky projections, between Havre des Pas and the hermitage, appears to countenance the possibility of a bold encroachment on the ocean, so as at least to form an extensive and highly serviceable mole.

A scheme has even been suggested of embanking a considerable tract between Havre des Pas and St Clement, and also at St Ouen’s Bay; but this design does not seem to have acquired any great degree of support or confidence. The currents between the rocks are so rapid, and the agitation of the water in stormy weather so violent, that a project which, in other places, might be practicable, would meet with numberless obstacles in this island.

Havre des Pas

From the harbour the road is continued round a part of the hill, until it descends to a small rocky inlet called Havre des Pas. On the high southern point of this bay stands a range of neat barracks, for the corps of engineers; and on the left of the road are the remains of an ancient edifice, called La Chapelle de Notre Dame des Pas. This building, notwithstanding its consecrating stamp had been, for many years, converted into a small dwelling house; but it is now demolishing, being within the precincts of the new fortress.

Poquelayes

At a short distance from Havre des Pas, we pass through a small village, called Le Die. Mr Falle says that here, on an artificial rising ground, there are no less than three "of those ancient altars, called in Jersey Poquelayes, contiguous to each other. The upper stone of the first and principal, measure in length 15 feet, in breadth six and a half, in thickness four, and has three supporters. That of the second, to the east of the first, is 12 feet long, two and a half broad, and between two and three thick. The third, to the west, lies flat on the ground, seven feet long, and two broad. On the north are four other great stones, lying along the side of the hillock. I should guess this to have been one of the Druidish temples, which were only orbicular rows of stones, inclosing within the area one or more altars."

Perhaps there were formerly Poquelayes on one of the eminences at Le Die, though none of these heights have any considerable elevation; and in Mr Falle's time the fact might be distinctly ascertained; but at present it would require the persevering acuteness of a Grose, and the enthusiastic credulity of a Stukeley, to discover whether, any such monuments ever existed there. Blocks of stone, projecting from a rock of the same character, emerge, in different directions, above the surface; but they have now more the appearance of natural protuberances than of artificial deposits. One assemblage of stones may indeed seem to favour Mr Falle's opinion. On an adjacent height is a quarry, of a similar rock ; and near it are masses, equally equivocal as those described by the reverend historian.

Mariner’s compass

From Le Die we pass along a low flat surface, bordered on the right hand by the sea, and on the left by rising umbrageous grounds, that separate the parish of St Clement from that of Grouville. On these heights, near the manor house of Samares, some former proprietor of a field has caused to be chiselled, on a large stone, lying horizontally, a mariner's compass, of about a foot in diameter. All the 32 divisions are very accurately cut, and the direction of every one points to its proper place: there are not, however, any distinguishing letters round it: it bears the date of 1644.

Offshore rocks

When the tide rises to its full height, the sea presents a most picturesque scene, exhibiting a multitude of islets, issuing from their green liquid bed, and seeming to invite the incautious mariner to approach this attractive archipelago: but wo to the stranger thus allured, for as the flood recedes, the number of those projections increases, until the whole coast is laid open, and discloses a terrifying congeries of rugged rocks, varying in height and dimensions, and that appear to render all access to the Island absolutely impracticable.

The whole marine extent, from Elizabeth Castle to the long and narrow point which forms the southern boundary of Grouville Bay, is completely studded with irregular rocky masses; and this natural embossed shield is rendered more eminently defensive by the strong and varying currents that intersect those craggy protuberances.

It has been conjectured, that an immense portion of land might, in this quarter, be gained from the sea, by strong embankments, notwithstanding the various rapid currents that run between the rocks, and the overwhelming force of the waves in stormy weather.

A subscription has been opened, for the purpose of accomplishing this object: it is, however, hitherto a plan in contemplation only, with little probability of being attempted. This part of Jersey has been thought in a precarious state, as in several places the contiguous meadows are liable to be overflowed by equinoctial tides.

Tidal range

The necessity of a formidable barrier against the incursive waves has been strikingly displayed in a survey of this coast. The tides rise at times so high as to be from seven to eight feet above the level of land that is distant a mile from the sea. The bank along the shore of this part of Jersey have been reeently repaired and strengthened, at a great expense.

On the beach, near the first Martello tower, is a bed of peat, overflowed at high tides, and indeed seldom to be seen, being in general covered with sand. This affords a convincing proof that the part where the peat still remains was, in former times, a valley which the sea has ingulfed.

Continuing along the sandy beach, St Clement’s Church appears on the left, erected on a rising ground inland; commanding from its steeple a boundless sea prospect, while a beautifully diversified landscape fills up the intermediate space.

La Roque

Another mile brings us to La Roque; from whence a projection, composed of low rocks, stretches out for more than two miles into the sea. On one of the most distant of these craggs stands Seymour Tower. La Roque terminates the southern coast of Jersey.

Directing our course northwards, along the eastern shore, we might follow the sea line on to the northern end of Grouville Bay at Mont Orgueil: but to diversify the scene, let us, for a little while, quit the coast, and, ascending the rising grounds, proceed towards Grouville. When arrived at the summit of those heights, there is a delightful prospect of the old castle, Grouville Bay, and the adjacent country, with a distant view of the French shore, to bound the visible horizon.

Though respecting all the churches in Jersey the original model seems to have been that of one long aisle, with two short transverse wings, yet Grouville Church appears to have deviated in its construction from the general archetype, without entirely abandoning the crucial standard. It comprises three aisles; and over the middle of the central one, which extends in length, both eastward and westward, beyond the other two, rises a spire. Being one of the least ancient of all the Christian edifices, it probably has not been subjected to so many alterations as some of the others. It was consecrated on 25 August 1312.

St Margaret’s Chapel

On an elevated spot, near the church, is a venerable and solid structure, that, in days of yore, was a chapel, dedicated to St Margaret. It is now degraded into a house of merchandise, and part of it into a stable. The interiour of this fabrick is plastered, which was probably the case with all the similar buildings that no longer exist; but time, neglect, and perhaps a saline component, have so corroded this coating, that it now exhibits a kind of fillagree work, spreading itself in an infinite variety of convoluted forms. The cemetery of the chapel is now become the garden of a public house.

Bending again towards the sea, that fine inlet called Grouville Bay displays itself to view. It forms a beautiful curve, and when a fresh breeze ruffles its waves, at full flood, it presents an interesting marine prospect; especially if, to enliven the scene, a number of oyster vessels should be sailing in and out of the bay, while others are at anchor, in an agitated state, there not being a proper pier to shelter them.

Among the rocks, at the southern extremity, stands Seymour Tower, already noticed. Its appearance is very striking; for though, at low water, connected with the land, it is completely insulated soon after the flood begins to rise. It then appears like a tall column in the midst of surrounding waters. It is frequently obscured by clouds of spray; and when the swelling waves become turbulent and mountainous by violent gales of wind, it seems to be absorbed in the ocean.

Mont Orgueil

Approaching Mont Orgueil, we traverse a sandy level, between barracks on our right hand, and the ancient village of Gorey on our left. This was once a place of island importance, being then the seat of justice. The most distant part of the village sweeps up a beautiful ascent towards the castle, and thus soars above those marine inundations, that frequently menace the lower extremity, and occasionally injure it.

The castle of Mont Orgueil, named also the old castle, was once an impregnable fortress ; but, since the invention of gunpowder, its lofty bulwarks have been suffered to decay. From it there is an extensive view of the French coast, at a distance of five or six leagues from its nearest point.

The rocks about the castle are differently coloured; they are chiefly of deep olive and red. In some places are large distinct blocks of each hue; in others portions of both are blended together in the same mass.

A little beyond Mont Orguell is another projection called Geoffroy's rock; from which, according to traditionary report, criminals were formerly precipitated into the sea.

Oyster beds

Two miles from the land are large oyster beds, from which a considerable supply is drawn; but the grand depot, for that species of shell fish, is much nearer to the coast of France.

About 40 smacks are employed in the fishery. The oysters arc mostly taken up whilst young, sent to England, and there deposited in beds; principally about the isle of Sheppey in Kent, near the confluence of the rivers Thames and Medway.

To the north-east of Mont Orgueil, and about a league from the shore, a long range of low rocks, named Ecrehous, emerges from the sea, and presents an additional barrier to this side of the island.

Proceeding northwards, the coast assumes a more solemn character than that which is displayed in the former part of our tour. We now move along the side of lofty precipitous cliffs, whose craggy summits exhibit an infinite variety of fantastic forms : these vie with each other in grotesque magnificence ; and reflect from the swelling bosses, that jut out from the green sward, a profusion of tints; while the heaving surge below breaks in hoarse rumblings against their dark green bases; and, in recoiling, traces a long streak of silvery foam on the ruffled surface of the ocean.

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