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Rhapsody in Riduna
Alderney, Channel Islands

by Sarah Shuckburgh

Sarah Shuckburgh discovers why the tiny Channel island of Alderney is a naturalist’s paradise.

Minutes before I set out for Alderney, my suitcase was stolen from the locked boot of my car. I had dashed indoors to get a cloth to clean the windscreen, and in those moments, someone opened the car door, released the back seat and reached into the boot. The police came and we scoured the streets of the urban crime-hotspot where I live, but in vain.

A few hours later, I find myself in another world - safe, unhurried and friendly. My parents spent their honeymoon in the Channel Islands sixty years ago, and today my sister and I have returned with them, to celebrate their diamond wedding. Alderney – the only Channel Island genuinely in the Channel - is a perfect place for our nostalgic weekend. This barren, craggy isle, named Riduna by the Romans, retains a timeless, unspoilt feel.

The island measures only 3 miles by one-and-a-half, and its parliament - with president and ten ‘states’ members – is more like a parish council. Ridunians have always cherished their independence – separated from Normandy in 1204, they are subjects of the English Crown, but are not represented at Westminster. The island is not part of the United Kingdom or the European Community.

Alderney’s only town – St Anne’s – is small and beautiful. We are staying at La Maison Bourgage, its Georgian façade decorated in local fashion with mother-of-pearl ormer shells. In the cobbled high street, I buy a replacement sponge bag, toiletries and a digital camera (tax-free). Shopkeepers are shocked to hear about the theft. Alderney has two policemen but almost no crime. Cars are never locked.

After a delicious lunch of local crab, we visit Alderney’s first school, founded in 1792 (before any English state schools), and now an award-winning small museum covering Alderney’s 2,200million years of geology, its Palaeolithic inhabitants, Roman ruins, Elizabethan shipwrecks and Victorian fortresses. When we come to the cases of Nazi memorabilia, my parents remember how in June 1940, Churchill declared Alderney impossible to defend. British troops withdrew and almost all the islanders were hastily evacuated to England. Under German occupation, the island was massively fortified with concrete and barbed wire – Victorian forts were enlarged, batteries and towers built, and 37,000 mines laid. Four labour camps held thousands of Eastern European prisoners; one of them, Sylt, among the most notorious of SS camps.

When shocked islanders returned in 1945, they found their houses demolished, their livelihoods destroyed. But the Germans had installed water pipes, electricity and tarmac roads, and gradually the Ridunians restored their ruined homes and made a new life among the military relics. Today, the fortifications make for dramatic coastal vistas. Hitler’s coastal defences lie half hidden in sand; anti-aircraft batteries emerge from gorse and heather, and all along the coast, forts, turrets, towers and pill-boxes perch on rocky outcrops.

After the war, there were almost no birds in the barren terrain. But in the last 60 years, Alderney has emerged as a naturalist’s paradise, with 17 identifiable habitats, including marine heathland, cliffs and off-shore stacks, freshwater ponds, wooded valleys and a coastal wetland area which is recognised as an Area of International Importance by the Ramsar Convention. The Alderney Wildlife Trust was established in 2002 to study and promote the tiny island’s extraordinary biodiversity, which includes 270 species of birds, 70 species of fish, and more flower species per square kilometre than anywhere in Britain.

We meet Roland Gauvin, dashing head of the Wildlife Trust, and grandson of distinguished Ridunian physician Sir Henry Gauvin (whose house in St Anne’s is marked with a plaque). We follow Roland’s motorbike west, past ancient open-field strip-farming, fertilised for centuries with seaweed. At Giffoine Heath, we park by a ruined German battery on a cliff-top carpeted with gorse and tamarisk. Roland has brought us to witness an astonishing spectacle – a noisy colony of 14,000 gannets surrounding a guano-bleached stack. The rocky outcrop is crammed with birds, preening themselves or tenderly courting their lifelong mates. Thousands more are airborne, circling, swooping and dive-bombing into the surf – the world’s fastest-flying birds. The gannets have returned every summer since the war.

Just north of Alderney lies an underwater gorge – the Hurd Deep - where warm water from the Bay of Biscay mixes with colder water from the Irish Channel and fresher water from the Thames, Seine and Rhine. Tides here rise 30 feet, with the strongest currents in Europe. Uniquely (apart from the Isle of Man), Alderney owns three miles of seabed beyond its shores, and Roland predicts that the island could become a world leader in providing tidal power.

Stopping every few minutes for passionate descriptions of Alderney’s wildlife, Roland leads us past the romantic Fort Clonque to Platte Saline’s steeply shelved shingle. Grosnez and Albert forts guard the wide arc of Braye beach, where locals are collecting dark vraic seaweed in baskets. Most of the mile-long Victorian breakwater is now under water, and powerful waves threaten the surviving section. We continue to Saye, once the site of a Nazi labour camp, but today a peaceful, sandy cove backed by meadows and overlooked by the 19th-century Château l’Etoq.

From the lighthouse (no need to lock the car, of course) we stroll on springy turf past more ruined forts. The Normandy coast is visible eight miles away, beyond the turbulent currents of the Race. My father, who crossed to Normandy as an infantryman in June 1944, talks about Fritz Todt, who engineered Hitler’s Atlantic defences, and when we reach Longis Bay, we see an anti-tank wall carving through the dunes. Here we turn back across Longis common - the Channel Islands’ earliest nature reserve – undulating grassland with tangled thickets of gorse, bracken and bramble. On a hillock above a flooded quarry stands a Nazi naval lookout and gun battery, a stark art-deco tower known locally as the Odeon. We look in vain for black rabbits and blonde hedgehogs, endemic to the island since the 1960s, their arrival, it’s said, somehow linked with Harrod’s pet shop.

On our last day, we take a boat trip round the island. Our octogenarian parents clamber nimbly down a rusty ladder from the quay, and we chug through the calm waters of Braye harbour. As we reach the turbulent Race straits, we are buffeted by a four-foot swell and Steve, the skipper, has gleeful tales to tell of shipwrecks, lootings and drownings. Majestically sombre forts stand on every craggy headland, silhouetted against shimmering sea and pale, unpolluted sky. But beyond Longis Bay, the coast becomes wild, rugged and inaccessible, with hanging valleys slicing through crumbling pink cliffs. This is a perfect habitat for birds, and my mother spots cormorants, shags, ravens, fulmars, peregrines, oyster catchers, herons, little egrets and buzzards.

At Alderney’s western tip lie the tidal pools, shingle and sand of the protected wetlands area, home to 100 species of seaweed. Passing Les Etacs and the tiny island of Ortac, we see puffins, guillemots and razorbills, and marvel again at the grandeur of the gannets, their six-foot wings glistening white with black tips. Here, the treacherous Swinge pounds against scattered reefs - dangerous for ships, but welcoming for grey Atlantic seals.

Even Alderney’s airport has a comforting, homely feel. It dates from 1935 – the first in the Islands. As we wait for our plane, my mother, sister and I knit blanket-squares with needles and wool from a box in the waiting room. The airport staff are still talking about my stolen suitcase, but I have forgotten all about it. Over the six decades of my parents’ marriage, the island has recovered from desolation, and developed a rich and magical blend of manmade and natural landscape. What is one stolen suitcase compared with that?

First published by the Telegraph

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