The pretty Channel Island of Guernsey, with its lovely beaches, country lanes, association with Victor Hugo and fascinating history proved to be a great choice as a short break destination for Anna Hyman and Joan Brown.
Why, I wanted to know, was the splendid St Peter Port hotel where Joan and I had stayed whilst enjoying a short break on Guernsey, called the Duke of Richmond? The estate of the Dukes of Richmond is at Goodwood in West Sussex. The connection with the Channel Islands intrigued me.
Survey map of Guernsey
It turned out that William Gardner’s famous survey map of Guernsey circa 1787 had been commissioned by Charles Lennox, third Duke of Richmond, Master-General of the Ordnance – making it a sort of early Ordnance Survey map.
On the site of one of Guernsey’s oldest hotels
Nevertheless, the Duke of Richmond hotel most certainly does not date back to 1787; but it does stand on the site of one of Guernsey’s oldest hotels – Grover’s Hotel which was in existence in 1815.
Grover’s was replaced by the Richmond Boarding House. It must have been a substantial establishment for as early as 1902 it was considered to be the ‘principal boarding house in the Channel Islands’.
Duke of Richmond Hotel
By the 1930s it had become fully licensed, trading under the name of the Richmond Hotel. Following World War II it returned to being a hotel, and in 1969 was virtually rebuilt re-opening in 1970 as the Duke of Richmond Hotel – named for the Third Duke who had commissioned that Map of Guernsey.
Since then the hotel has been further extended, and in 2011 was acquired by Red Carnation Hotels and totally refurbished.
And what a magnificent job they have done too. Today the Duke of Richmond boasts 73 supremely comfortable bedrooms and suites, some with sea-views; the Leopard bar and AA Rosette restaurant; a lounge; and a terrace.
Neither Joan nor I were sure how practical the fabric wall coverings of our bedrooms would be, but they looked stunning, and we loved the little touches like the drawer lining papers with their tiny red carnation motifs and fresh red carnation in the bathrooms.
Whenever we walked into the bright reception with its dramatic black and white flooring, or into the restaurant, we were greeted by the staff like long lost friends.
They had quickly learnt our names and what we liked, and how we liked it. One of the delightful waiting staff overheard us saying that we liked our meals served on hot, rather than warm, plates – from then on they were hot.
Food at the Duke of Richmond was good ranging from an excellent breakfast – Joan revelled in her Eggs Royale, through to well-cooked and presented dinners.
These included what we nominated ‘the best fish pie ever’ – an open fish pie with tiny diced al dente veg, scallops and prawns topped with fillets of pollock and sea bass along with asparagus, broccoli and samphire with creamy, smooth mashed potato in a rich sauce.
Petit Bot Bay
Unfortunately I was not well one day and was too ill to go out. But whilst I was coughing and sneezing in bed Joan set off on an expedition to find pretty, secluded Petit Bot Bay and take photos for a member of her family – memories of an idyllic childhood holiday.
She also stopped long enough to sample one of Guernsey’s specialities – a slice of fruit loaf called Gâche, spread of course with local Guernsey butter.
Luckily a day later I was able to join her for our visit to Victor Hugo’s house.
It had been many years since my previous visit and I can remember thinking it looked as if it needed some tender loving care.
Somebody else thought so too for the house closed in 2017 for renovation reopening in 2019.
Hugo lived at Hauteville House
Victor Hugo had settled on Guernsey seeking refuge from the regime of Louis Bonaparte with which he heartily disagreed. He was to live on the island for 15 years considering it to be ‘the rock of hospitality and freedom’. His home for 14 years, Hautevlle House, is perched high above the streets of St Peter Port and it was here that he wrote many of his most famous books,
The transformation from that rather depressing looking house has been astonishing; the renovation revealed long forgotten and damaged fabrics, carvings, etc. Enough for the conservators to have the fabrics reproduced and the rooms restored to Hugo’s own very individual style and taste where hints of Gothic rub shoulders with Renaissance and Baroque revealing his own philosophy on life.
The dark wood panelled entrance area is still on the gloomy side – as he intended it to be. But room after room opens up to reveal treasure after treasure. Family portraits in the billiards room, a tapestry room, a wonderful tiled corridor and a dining room with walls covered with Delft tiles.
He was probably something of an egotist – his initials appear frequently throughout the house – but also kind, local poor children were invited once a week for a meal in the dining room.
On the first floor are two lounges decorated in rich reds and blues along with Chinese artefacts. The second floor revealed a study and bedroom, plus a landing library. Be warned some of the stairs are steep and rather difficult.
Up even more stairs we entered the light and bright belvedere with its magnificent views. It was a favourite room of Hugo and where he would stand at one of the wooden desks writing many of his books, including Les Misérables, gazing out over the town and sea, or down into his garden. The garden is currently being restored.
Booking Essential at Hauteville House
In many respects it would have made more sense to have had a tour of the island on our first full day so we could get our bearings. But tours of Victor Hugo’s house, which was a ‘must see’ for us both, are guided with restricted numbers, and advance booking is essential. The only available day for us was our first day.
A Tour of the Island
As we walked beside the waterfront en route to Hugo’s house we had spotted signs for coach tours of the island; just what we needed. Lucie, our guide at Hauteville House had been superb; and later so indeed was PJ our island coach driver/ guide.
As he drove PJ told us that Guernsey is a self-governing British Crown dependency, a Bailiwick with its own parliament and government and at just under 15km and 5km wide the second largest of the Channel Islands
It is a pretty, gentle island with lanes interspersed with villages and hamlets, many with old granite built houses; lanes so narrow that in places where appropriate traffic is allowed to drive on the pavement.
PJ proudly told us that some of the granite was used to build the steps of London’s St Paul’s cathedral and the Embankment. Hedgerows bedecked with spring flowers gave way to green meadows where Guernsey cows munched placidly on the lush grass.
We stopped for a few minutes at the aptly named Little Chapel at Les Vauxbelets built in total three times by Brother Deodat from pebbles, broken crockery and shells to resemble the grotto and basilica at Lourdes.
We admired the wide sweeping sandy beaches of the north of the island and the granite cliffs of the south. We learnt that the island’s tidal range, some 33’ is one of the largest in the world.
He told us of the conditions during the Second World War when Guernsey along with the other Channel Islands came under German occupation. Conditions on the island as the war progressed became more and more difficult for the islanders with food, fuel and medicines becoming more and more scarce.
Evidence of the occupation in the shape of remaining fortifications is still much in evidence.
Lots to see on the Island tour
We drove through St Andrew, the only one of the 10 parishes not having direct access to the sea; we passed the little airport where Joan and I had flown into a few days earlier; and also spotted a cute village pump and SpecSavers headquarters. We couldn’t miss it.
Grapes were once a cash crop for the island, but gradually at the beginning of the 20th century their greenhouses were used to grow tomatoes which were exported to England in wicker baskets. It was labour intensive work and it became cheaper to import them from Holland.
PJ told us about, and pointed out, some of the island’s dolmen and menhir, plus an old burial chamber dating back some 6000 years.
Guernsey Museum is a must
He so inspired me to learn more about Guernsey that later that afternoon I took myself to the wonderful Guernsey Museum (it also has an excellent little café) in the grounds of Candie Gardens a mere stone’s throw from our hotel.
It was a fun and enlightening couple of hours opening drawers, pressing buttons learning of the formation of the island which thousands of years ago was connected to Europe, its history, folklore, original language and culture.
On our last day as recommended by PJ we decided to stroll down the hill into St Peter Port and visit Castle Cornet built in the 13thcentury and controlled at various times by England, France and Germany. There were rather too many steps for us to explore fully but it was interesting seeing the depictions of the life of a garrison and the neat little castle gardens.
We nearly jumped out of our skins when the noon day gun was fired.
Liberation Day celebrations
Without realising it our visit to the island had coincided with a very special date. 9 May was the anniversary of the liberation of the island from German occupation in 1945.
St Peter Port and visitors were in party mood with bunting flying and street entertainers; many people had dressed 1940s style; Les Blondettes sang, and bands played Glenn Miller tunes; we spotted and chatted with Winston Churchill along with his wife Clemmie there to address the crowds.
It was a day of celebration like no other.
A toast to the Third Duke of Richmond
Joan and I slipped away before the cavalcade, leaving them to continue their commemorations and celebrations and made our way back up the narrow streets, through pretty Candie Garden to the welcoming Duke of Richmond hotel and a glass of fizz before dinner.
I raised my glass and made a silent toast to the Third Duke of Richmond thanking him for his part in putting the island of Guernsey so well and truly on the map.
Duke of Richmond Hotel: dukeofrichmond.com
Red Carnation Hotels: redcarnationhotels.com
Island Coachways Ltd: www.icw.gg/
Victor Hugo House: visitguernsey.com/see-and-do/things-to-do/victor-hugo-house-hauteville-house/
Guernsey Tourism: visitguernsey.com/