Taking the previous day’s lesson on board, that it’s really not that far to Icart Point, I decide to walk back in. Up through the village, along La Rue des Courtures, Saints Road and Icart Road. At the car park, I pick up the cliff path.
It’s another day of cliffs and ravines. I remember Pete Hawkins describing pretty much any day’s walk as “a little bit up, a little bit down”. In terms of height that’s all we’re talking here; a little up, a little down. Only the ups and the downs – more precisely the downs and the ups – are harsh. Steep enough to require not only zigzag routes, but also steps cut into the cliffs. Another thank you to the walking pole – and to the weather. I would not attempt these paths without the pole, and more than once it occurs to me that I wouldn’t want to do them in the wet either. I’m walking in trekking sandals. Boots would give me more surety, but even then there are places that in the wet would be slip-slidingly dangerous.
One of my lessons from this week of good walking weather is to know not to come back to these paths in any kind of weather that would make my footing uncertain.
Another of my lessons over these two days is that I am subconsciously gathering data for other walks on other days, in other years, walks to take in more of little bits of this – to maybe take some of the side trips I am studiously ignoring this time around…maybe climb down to one of those bays “accessible only by ladder”. Or maybe not!
The path rises and falls around La Bette and Le Jaonnet. The map shows sand beaches. The world shows high tides and rocks and crashing waters. I take time to stop and look at them. I feel I want to write about them, but the truth is my brain is in neutral. My mind is body-focussed. I spend a fair amount of time looking at where I am putting my feet, maintaining my balance, standing aside when people much fitter than I am come rushing up or down behind me. I am in no rush. I figure that this is one of the gifts of age: I no longer need to justify not being in a rush.
“Any excuse for a pause?” I offer to a gent struggling with an up that I am struggling down and we both offer the step back. He smiles. I tell him it will be worth it. “It had better be,” he says. He is clutching the island bus timetable and what looks like a Sub sandwich. No water. I hope he isn’t intending to go far.
Not very long after that encounter, I unintentionally walk off the trail. I take a right rather than a left, and the climb is such that when it reaches a road, I am not much inclined to backtrack it today. I had already had a glance of a steep climb up the other side of this latest ravine and, in the heat of the midday sun, decided that I wasn’t up for going back down in order to go up there. Not today.
I take a squint at the map and decide to weave my way back through the lanes up through La Villette to St Martin.
I’m settling into the rhythm of walking now. Walking. Not thinking. I’m looking at the sea a lot. The swirling waters. I’m taking pictures in the hope that at some point I may be able to wrap more poetic words around this experience. The truth is that I am not writing anything even in my head. I am just walking.
My mind is on my feet, on my balance, on the sheer drops and rocky landings, on the white waters and deeper blue of the sea. I adore this rugged coastline, and do not feel any need to extol its virtues, not right now.
I think maybe I am just connecting with it, glad that it exists, grateful that I am able to walk it, however slowly. I think about smugglers. I think about fishermen. I think about islanders of long ago, before the modern age, before the German occupation, before the threat of French invasion during the Napoleonic period. There are ruins from the mediaeval period and menhirs and passage graves from the meolithic. I wonder about the first people to live here. Did they move here deliberately, or just somehow wash up on these shores. Or were they exiled? If I am going to keep coming here, I am going to have to delve deeper into the history and the mythology of the place.
That makes me smile. Maybe I have just given myself another reason to keep coming here.
The next day I do actually get on a bus, and manage to get off exactly where I intended to. I get the first few turnings right as I negotiate the lanes back down through La Villette, but then I don’t. A later look at the map tells me I should have taken Rue de la Falaise, instead I stay on Rue des Pages. At some point I will look up all these names, find out what they mean. Right now, I’ve enough to keep hold of trying to remember which ones I need to be taking.
By the time I realise that I’m off-track, I’m so far down this lovely cool, under the trees road, that is clearly heading to sea level, that the idea of going back up it, only to come back down to this same bay by another route makes no sense whatsoever. I decide that this still counts as circumambulating the island, I started from where I got to, the fact that I’ve taken the road route rather than the cliff route shouldn’t matter. No. Strike that “shouldn’t”. Add in "does not matter". I can almost hear Jason telling me these are the options, the alternatives, and reminding me not to be too ‘anal’ about it.
Le Petit Bôt is a deep and secluded cove. I fail to find a translation for the name. Perhaps it is named for a fisherman who once lived here. There is a road down to it. I wonder a lot about the roads and paths on the island. Who formed them? When? Why? This one I suspect was the way in for the defence forces during the American War of Independence.
When we think about Guernsey and war, we think about the occupation during the Second World War. We forget just how close these “British” islands are to France. During the American war of Independence France sided with the successionists. That made the Channel Isles (just as they
would be again in the mid 20th century) possible gateway acquisitions, bargaining chips, at risk.
There are various towers around the coast, dating from various wars. The one about Le Petit Bôt is what is inelegantly named a Pre-Martello Loophole Tower. Fifteen of these were built around the island between August 1778 and March 1779. Despite their appearance, they were really little more than guard-houses for the men who would man the gun emplacements dotted between them. They may have had magazines, a rooftop carronade, but basically they served as warm-up /
dry-off spots for the soldiers, as stores, and probably given their height as look-outs for enemy approaches.
I'm more interesteed in the tale of the depths of the waters off Le Petit Bôt…so deep that no-one can dive to their floor. This is where the mermaids live. Les Siraunes. The French word echoes the Greek sirens, and it seems that how mermaids are viewed on different islands reflects the stories that may have been told over the years. On Sark the consensus was (is?) that the maids of the sea are young and beautiful. Guernsey fishermen on the other hand tell tales of youth and beauty, but also of hideousness and age. The Guernsey folk repeat the Greek poets in their belief that the sea maids sing to lure ships onto the rocks.
I climb out of the bay up a steep staircase, wondering about the sign banning cycling along this path. I guess there must be fools who try it or there would be no need for the fines.
I climb down equally steep-sided ravines...the kind of steep that has me taking off my hat, for fear that a sudden breeze might lift it and my instinctive attempt to catch it would be enough to unbalance me. A fall to those rocks and crashing waves would do serious damage. On these parts of the path, I start to wonder about the sanity of walking alone. There are short stretches where I feel distinctly unsafe. I take it very slowly.
We say that we walk one step at a time but the truth is mostly, we do not. Mostly, we are already lifting the hind foot before the fore foot has fully connected. On these descents, I literally take it one step at a time. At all times I make sure that of the three points of contact, two are in full contact with the ground. A pole and a foot, or both feet. Slow. And I focus in close. I don't need to see what the path way ahead looks like, I have enough to be dealing with right here & now.
My mountain goat days are long gone. I will keep doing this for as long as I physically can, but I recognise that I will become more and more conscious of ‘how’ I walk.
There is always a reward, however. Today’s recompense is lots of gentle climbs, lots of full-on, stride-out high level walking, a dropped apple is added to my pack, there are blackberries to pick and eat under way, there is shade to be had, and there are still rocky coves and crashing waters down below. There is a sense that today I might actually be covering some distance.
I pass La Corbière, the site of a castle already known to bein ruins by 1680. There is evidence of medieaval occupation and later robbing, but I’m more fascinated by the idea of the double-bank and ditch across the narrowest point to the headland, reckoned to be prehistoric. Who were these people? How did they come to be here? I feel myself being drawn further into the past of this little piece of rock in the English Channel. I want to know more.
Again, I am storing ideas, for walks, explorations, returns.
During the Occupation, La Corbière became Stutzpunkt Rabenstein. A defensive position is always a defensive position. The name, though, has me thinking about the nature of language. To my anglophone ear Stutzpunk is as brutal as the architecture to which it refers, while Corbière sounds almost romantic. Then I look that one up: a gathering place for crows - a murder site if you will.
The steep drop from there turns into a long slow climb up to the German Observation Tower at Prevôté, a solid concrete, no-nonsense, look-out point commanding Le Havre de Bon Repos (odd name for something that is not remotely a safe harbour) and all the coast as far as Les Tielles. These structures remind me of the milecastles on Hadrian’s Wall…the coverage, the purpose. Plus ça change…
I’d had thoughts of continuing, but a few minutes sitting in the shade of the Tower and wondering about whoever it was had left their Ray Bans on the steps, decided me that…maybe not…maybe I’ll call it a day.
Sometimes, I have to admit, the universe speaks and I listen. What should have been a five minute amble to the road and a bus stop, turned out to be a five minute amble to a ‘road closed’ sign and bus stops with ‘suspended’ notices on them. Ok… a bit more lane walking back to a main road and the chance of buses that were actually running.
As it turned out: a pleasant stroll – roads going nowhere have even less traffic than usual – and
the bus arrived just after I did. It was full to bursting but the man stopped and let me on. Gratitude duly acknowledged – and doubled up when I heard someone talk about how many buses they had not been able to board. Another universe-whisper to reinforce the idea of walking in the mornings and using the afternoons to get back to base. A routine is being to establish it self.