Visiting the French-owned Îles Chausey off the Normandy coast proved an enlightening experience for Jersey resident Alasdair Crosby
Anyone looking for boutique shopping or a vibrant nightlife would be driven mad by the tiny French Channel islands of Chausey. But if you enjoy nature, foraging for shellfish or simply sitting on the shore and looking at the tide rise and fall, you will love them.
The islands lie 15 kilometres from the coast of Normandy and 45 kilometres from Jersey, the southernmost of the British Channel Islands, which is where I live. Approaching on the daily ferry from the port of Granville on the Cotentin Peninsula, visitors cannot fail to realise that they are travelling over a drowned landscape. It is obvious why the French refer to Les Îles Chausey in the plural – there are 150 of them, or 365 (apparently) if every little rock, reef and islet is counted.
Ahead is Grande Île, the biggest island and the only one inhabited permanently. Its distinguishing features – lighthouse, chapel, semaphore station and a few cottages and homes – gradually become clearer. Ferry passengers jostle to take photographs, because every moment brings another view and suggests another picture; the one of the Hôtel du Fort et des Îles on the hill above the jetty suggests a cup of coffee or an early aperitif after the 40-minute crossing.
We disembark at the wooden jetty at the foot of a slipway and pass the area where fishermen store their lobster pots and gear, before walking a few yards up to the hotel and the other buildings that make up the tiny built-up area on Grande Île.
On a fine day, there can be few things so restful as sitting in the hotel garden under a palm tree and looking down on the demonstration of Chausey’s remarkable tidal range in the anchorage of Le Sound (pronounced Soond) – Scandinavian for a strait. Norsemen settled in Normandy and all the Channel islands, so there are many Nordic words and place names in the area.
The variation between high and low tide on Chausey is more than 12 metres – the greatest in Europe. At low-water spring tide around 50 square kilometres of rock, sand, gravel and pebbles are exposed, which makes it a paradise for low-water fishermen and for anyone who enjoys pottering around rocks and pools. At high tide, the area shrinks to only 52 islets comprising less than three square kilometres. Grande Île is around 1.5 kilometres long and 800 metres wide at its broadest point, while the other parts of the archipelago on the far side of Le Sound are similar to the moonscape visible at low tide in areas off Jersey and Guernsey.
Thousands of years ago, the present Baie du Mont-Saint-Michel was dry land and the coast of the southern Cotentin Peninsula was, reputedly, the location of the Forêt de Scissy – a name that centuries later would become Chausey. According to folklore, at least some of the area was not submerged until the 8th century when, in October AD 709, at the time of the consecration of the basilica of Mont-Saint-Michel, there was a great storm and the sea flooded the low-lying parts of the bay. Where was Lyonesse, the lost kingdom of the Arthurian stories? No one knows, but the landscapes of the bay at low tide suggest how such legends were formed, and nowhere is this more visible than on Chausey.
Turning from legend to more worldly matters, the Hôtel du Fort et des Îles does an excellent lunch, heavily orientated, of course, towards seafood, with the shellfish coming from the surrounding rocks and reefs. Any fish not caught off Chausey comes from the market at Granville on the morning boat, which also brings bread, vegetables and other supplies for the hotel, neighbouring café and other residents.
Members of Jersey’s sailing fraternity are known to make the four-hour voyage for the express purpose of enjoying lunch here. The patronne, Michelle Lelièvre, is there to welcome guests; her surname is quite common in Jersey, although there it is pronounced ‘Le Leever’. The hotel is open from April to September, as is the nearby pizzeria-crêperie. In summer Grande Île has a resident population of around 50, but in the winter it becomes a sleepy and solitary place, with fewer than a dozen inhabitants remaining.
Inhabitants haven’t always been pleased to see visitors from Jersey. The latter occupied Chausey at various times and governed it until 1499. Then the islands were abandoned to the French, who had always claimed them. However, armed bands from Jersey (‘corsaires de Jersey’ in French sources) continued to make forays, burning everything in sight before departing again. There are no high cliffs, so the island is totally indefensible and each time the French built a fort, invaders from Jersey or England destroyed it.
Chausey’s resident population has probably numbered only a few dozen for most of its history, but in the more peaceful period of the 19th and early 20th centuries, it became a hive of industry and the figure rose to around 600. Hundreds of quarrymen arrived to extract the islands’ granite, and families burned seaweed to make soda ash for soap.
Many old Jersey houses are built from beautiful pale blue Chausey granite (Jersey people went there to quarry it, often illegally), as are parts of Mont-Saint-Michel, pavements in Paris and London, and ramparts at Granville and Saint-Malo. More recently it was used in the rebuilding of Saint-Malo after the ravages of World War II, when workers excavated 12,000 tons of granite in two years.
The soap-makers, called barilleurs after the wooden barrels they used for transporting their goods, came mainly from the coastal town of Blainville-sur-Mer near Coutances, and the area they settled on Grande Île is still known as the Village des Blainvillais. Alongside the quarry workers and the soap-makers were the fishermen. By the late 19th century 37 of the 52 islets were inhabited. There was farming on Grande Île to support this population as well as a weekly market.
A lighthouse was built in 1845 (it is automated now, but still generates electricity for the island) and a pentagonal fort was completed in 1866. The same period also saw the building of a church and school. A ruined 16th-century fort (destroyed by the English, of course) was bought and repaired in the 1920s by the industrialist Louis Renault, founder of the motor company, who was enthused by the beauty of Chausey. Château Renault was confiscated by the provisional French government at the end of the Nazi occupation in 1944 at the same time as it nationalised Renault’s automobile empire because of his alleged collaboration with the Germans – claims that still remain controversial. The fort remains a private residence and is not open to visitors, although one can walk past its perimeter on the edge of the beach.
As the 20th century drew on, so the population of Chausey diminished once again. A ban on quarrying was imposed in 1951 and there have long been other ways of making soap than by using soda ash from seaweed. The school closed in 1972; the last curé, the Abbé Delaby, reputedly “as talented in repairing boats’ engines as he was in repairing souls”, left the island in 1981. The farm, which had kept a herd of cows, ceased production in 1989 and the cows were taken to the mainland. The farm has since been converted into gîtes.
The old ‘weekly market place’ is still there – a green expanse of short turf near the top of the slipway – and it is a convenient place to start a walk around the island. Turn right from the slipway and pass the attractive former home of the 20th-century marine painter and sailor Marin-Marie (real name Paul Marin Durand Couppel). Follow the lane past his home and then pass the church (a service is held on Mondays, but the church is otherwise closed) and you come to the old farm on one side and the former homes of ‘les Blainvillais’ on the other. Further on still is the old semaphore station and then you turn round the north end of the island to pass Château Renault and walk uphill to the island’s highest point, a rocky hill set among broom and gorse. Then you can follow the path across fields that have reverted to scrub, skirt the charming Port-Marie bay with its view of the lighthouse on the further side and walk past the 19th-century fort and back to the hotel.
Of course, it is not just the buildings, with their white walls, coloured shutters and boats outside that lend a special charm to Chausey, but the countryside, which is so varied for such a small area. At one spot a lane cuts across the width of the island leading down to the former farm and for a few moments no sea is visible – you could be deep in rural Normandy.
In the summer the tiny population is swelled by day trippers, so it is quite a busy place. But perhaps the best way to enjoy Chausey is to spend a night there, once the trippers have left. Listen to the sound of silence and, in your imagination, re-clothe the jagged rocks visible at low tide in the lost countryside of the deep and distant past.
By ferry: The nearest ferry ports to the UK are at Cherbourg and Saint-Malo. Two operators run daily services from Granville to Chausey from April to September: Vedettes Jolie France (Tel: (Fr) 2 33 50 31 81, http://vedettejoliefrance.com) and Compagnie des Îles Chausey (Tel: (Fr) 2 33 50 16 36). Boats leave from Gare Maritime. The Ibis Le Herel hotel is a two-minute walk.
There are no scheduled ferry links between Jersey and Chausey, but excursions by RIB (rigid inflatable boat) are organised during the summer according to demand (Tel: 07829 772 222, www.jerseyseafaris.com).
WHERE TO STAY
Hôtel du Fort et des Îles
Tel: (Fr) 2 33 50 25 02
Small hotel with eight rooms, open from mid-April to the end of September. Doubles from €150 half-board.
The Ferme de Chausey has ten gîtes of various sizes, with a week in high season costing from €576 (Tel: (Fr) 2 33 90 90 53, www.ileschausey.com). Five gîtes are available at the former presbytery and school (www.ville-granville.fr/en/iles_chausey_pratique.asp). Provisions are available from the shop, La Boutique de Chausey.
WHERE TO EAT
The Hôtel du Fort et des Îles (see above) is the only full-scale restaurant on Chausey, but light meals and snacks are available at Bar-restaurant La Bellevue (Tel: (Fr) 2 33 51 80 30).
THINGS TO DO
Guide Olivier Ribeyrolles leads free tours (in French) around Grande Île. He takes groups on personalised tours by arrangement (Tel: (Fr) 2 33 58 44 82, www.lespasduguide.com).
Granville tourist office
Tel: (Fr) 2 33 91 30 03
Normandy tourist board
Tel: (Fr) 2 32 33 79 00