It’s late Autumn.
This is the year I have gained a qualification which I believe (for a very short time) just might enable me to obtain a lucrative job in an offshore tax haven!
So I set off on my own to explore the mysterious islands of Guernsey and Jersey, which I have never before visited.
But even before I arrive, I have had my fleeting dreams knocked down. Telephone calls to local employment agencies have advised me of how badly the recession is affecting opportunities, of how the qualification is all very well but everyone is looking for specific relevant experience (which I don’t have), and, particularly, how extremely difficult it is to get accommodation on the islands, at least at a cost that makes taking an offshore job worthwhile.
“It was different a few years ago,” I am told. And it may change in the future. But for now, there’s no point even trying.
Yes, I should have made those phone calls before booking my flights, but it’s too late!
My Channel Islands excursion quickly mutates into a mini holiday, and maybe a sort of reverse nostalgia trip – to see what might have been.
Smallest plane I’ve ever been on, packed with men in suits talking about business meetings. Feel very out of place, but so glad I’m on my own time and not having to talk about work, like them!
Taxi to grand old hotel in St Peter Port (treating myself), leave my case, then I’m off exploring – in the wind and the rain!
The weather is dreadful and the atmosphere is desolate. Already I’m thinking that seriously, I couldn’t really have lived here anyway.
Lovely little posh shops in the town centre, exclusive ambience. (I’ll look at them all properly later.) Heading vaguely downhill towards the sea, to try to orientate myself and take stock of this strange place I’ve come to.
Since I’m a tourist, I’m looking for the most obvious tourist attraction to visit. Arriving on the seafront by the marina, I see it in the distance – a castle. ‘That will do,’ I think to myself, and set off walking towards it.
This is where the windswept atmosphere really kicks in, walking along the sea wall with the wind whipping the sea into something wild and forbidding, and the rain drenching me and blowing out my umbrella.
What a culture shock! Can I really have been in civilised, busy London this morning? I look up at the deep grey sky and wonder that I’ve just flown in such awful weather.
There’s virtually no-one about, it’s mid morning on a weekday in October.
I walk past moored yachts, their rigging clinking and clattering in the wind. The odd adventurous seagull swoops overhead, checking me out.
Despite the rain, I keep stopping to look at the waves – they are spectacular.
I have one of those ‘what on earth am I doing here in this deserted, windswept place’ moments.
I come to the entrance to Castle Cornet. I walk past it first, drawn by a long causeway – a harbour wall, with a red and white lighthouse at the end of it. Waves are breaking along this as I watch, each time throwing up a huge and slightly differently shaped plume of spray. The wind is in my face – this is the ultimate ‘fresh’ morning. Anyone with a hangover would soon clear their head if they stood here for a few minutes! You can walk along the harbour wall to the lighthouse, but no way would I dare to attempt it in this weather. You could seriously get swept away – it looks very rough and dangerous. Even close to where I’m standing, the waves could engulf you. No thanks!
I dig out my digital camera and take endless shots of ‘harbour wall with lighthouse and breaking waves’. One particular shot, with wet foreground cobbles, becomes my favourite from the whole Channel Islands trip. A good image, very atmospheric.
I watch a small boat and then a ferry negotiate the rough sea and harbour entrance. I observe a small bird that I can’t identify – some sort of wagtail, maybe. Eventually I head through the little tunnel into the Castle, searching for a toilet and a cup of tea.
Castle Cornet looks very picturesque and interesting, set as it is on such a spectacular piece of land, and with the pretty waterfront of St Peter Port behind it. As I will read in detail from the guidebook, on my return home, it has a long and intriguing history. But when you walk into a place like that, you don’t really need to know the history, understand the background, learn the dates. You just need to FEEL the atmosphere. Few places can have such a distinctive and moving feel to them – it’s all around you, in the stone walls, in the turrets and stairways, in the soft green grass growing in ruined courtyards. You can feel the history, feel the echoes of the people who lived here. You know when you stand and look at a particular view, out to sea or back at the town, that others have stood in the same place years, hundreds of years, before you, and maybe had the same thoughts about their surroundings and about life.
At the time of my visit – but presumably not always – the Castle is dotted with several Antony Gormley sculptures. Slim metal men standing at the top of a tower or on the edge of a wall, like sentries, or merely observers, looking out to sea.
My first thought (being moderately art-aware) is, oh no, not Antony Gormley again – can’t you get away from him? But I must admit that that the idea of these silent observing figures feels particularly fitting and relevant, and it really is the perfect place for such sculptures to be located. So I conclude that (in my humble opinion) it’s an artistic success, and the presence of the sculptures adds to the experience.
I wander for ages along passageways, up stairways, along walls, across gun turrets, through bunkers (the features of the Castle are historically cumulative and include second world war structures). Every nook and cranny is explored, every old window peered through, every bench briefly rested upon. I read the notices, I look round all the little museums, I watch the ceremonial firing of the cannon. But mainly, I just enjoy the place. The weather clears up a bit and the sun comes out. Everywhere I go, I stand and look at the views, then perhaps see another corner of the Castle I haven’t been to yet and go and seek it out, so I can stand there as well, and miss nothing.
I must admit it becomes rather a photography experience. Everything looks so interesting and pretty, there are so many colourful wildflowers growing amongst the ruins – I take dozens and dozens of shots.
In one place I look down on another tourist who is positioning a teddy bear on top of a stone wall, and taking a photograph of the teddy visiting the Castle, with St Peter Port in the background. Maybe it’s for a child, or maybe she takes photos of the teddy bear’s travels around the world and posts them online (as people do).
When she looks at the photo, she’ll never know that I’ve got one of her taking it!
Another strange photo from the Castle also becomes one of my favourites. Some red fire buckets hanging in a row on an old, lichen-covered wall. One of those photos that is unremarkable but nevertheless somewhat ‘arty’.
I’m at the Castle for probably three hours, including a nice long sit in the café with a nice piece of cake, and I realise it has done something pretty special – won me over, and transformed my mood.
At the beginning of the visit I was thinking – I’m cold and wet and tired and don’t know what I’m doing in this desolate place looking round some old Castle with a strange name that doesn’t really interest me, just for the sake of having done something distinct and not having wasted the day and the whole silly trip.
After three hours of views and wind and sea and sunshine and flowers and sculpture and photography and tea and cake (and spending too much in the gift shop) – I am utterly in love with the place and decide it’s one of the most amazing and memorable places I’ve ever been!
And I have to say that having spent several hours outdoors on a blustery day makes the subsequent long and wonderfully private soak in the hotel’s jacuzzi, and eventual excellent fillet steak and chips in the posh hotel restaurant, very welcome and enjoyable indeed!