A Farmer's Vacation, 1873: Sark
From George Wearing's A Farmer's Vacation, 1873, pp. 231 ff. The photographs are from the Library collection; that of the Seigneurie in Sark is by Thomas Singleton and dates from c. 1875; above is Baker's Valley in around 1880. 'The population of the island is less than six hundred souls, and of these over ten per cent are confirmed drunkards.'
With all its advantages, the best thing about Guernsey, so far as the tourist is concerned, is its nearness to Sark. The morning after our arrival 'Boots' appeared. 'Please, sir, would you like to go to Sark? It is a fine day, and Purdy is below, sir.' Of course we would, and we were soon booked for the little sail-boat which makes irregular excursions, rather than to take the chances of the weather for the small steamer of the next day.
He who goes to Sark, if he is wise, leaves no positive engagements behind him. The trip has all the excitement of uncertainty as to its duration. When Dana, the artist, went over to pass the day, he was gone for a whole week. Sky, tide, and rock are all treacherous, and even old fishermen who have passed their lives in the perilous navigation of these waters make no calculation of the length of their trip. We were a party of seven, in a stout open boat, with little rags of sails stretched from the movable masts; Purdy at the helm, and his two boys half asleep on the spray deck near the bows. It was a beautiful day, with only a rippling breeze to move us slowly out of the harbor, under the gray walls of Castle Cornet, across the swelling open sea, and into the narrow passage between the outlying rocks of Jethou and Herm—wild, storm-beaten rocks, hung with yellowish-green sea-weed, the ceaseless spray breaking at their feet. Drowsy cormorants and snow-white gulls stood motionless upon them, basking in the warm sun, or swept slowly about in the very idleness of motion. On Jethou, near its only house, long unused, a few goats stopped nibbling the grass to watch us. They were Purdy's flock, and they alone represent the agriculture of Jethou. Across the narrow channel the tidy-looking island of Herm lay, sloping its green fields to the sea, and stretohing away its dismal coast, among the wild rocks, toward the west and north.
It took some time for us to run through this rocky passage, where conflicting currents and unexpected eddies elevate navigation to the rank of a fine art. As Purdy expressed it, in some places the tides are regular, and in others 'it flows till half ebb and takes a lifetime to understand 'em, and then you don't.'
The day being fine and the sea quiet, we were bound for L'Epercherie Harbor, at the north end of Sark—Sark, of which we had heard so much, which had seemed, as seen through the haze from Guernsey, such a dream of a high-lying blue fairy-land, and which now stood in its stern majesty high and wild above the glassy water. The little wind there had been had died quite away, and the boys had to be awakened to take a pull at the sweeps, rowing incessantly for nearly two hours before we reached the harbor. And what a harbor! A little open bay flanked by rugged cliffs and set about with rocks, many of them half submerged and foaming with an angry swash, as the swell of the sea broke over their weed-grown crests. Below, through the clear water, the deep-lying boulders told the tale of the devastation that had been wrought on the granite cliffs by the fearful north-wind seas. Small though our boat was, there was not even a friendly rock against which she could lie, and we had to be transferred to a very tub of a heavy surf-boat, which was rowed near the shore, and then hauled up, by men wading leg-deep, on the beach of rolling paving-stone.
Once landed, we found only a barely practicable foot-path leading, zig-zag, up the steep cliffs. After we had toiled to the top, we could have tossed a stone into the little boat which lay on the beach nearly three hundred feet below us. A small scion of the great house of the De Carterets served as guide, and showed us our way over barren pastures and past neglected fields into the embowered road that leads past the arched entrance to the Seigneurie, through which we had our first glimpse of the beautiful grounds of the Lord of the Manor, whose picturesque buildings—parts very old, and all well kept and in good taste—are well suited to their charming setting. This place is worthy of careful study as a capital example of gardening in the natural style, where most judicious use has been made of the ample materials this genial climate allows to be employed.
From the Seigneurie we walked on past the very plain and unattractive church and turned into the fields, taking a foot-path that led down a wooded valley, and coming soon upon an old stone fountain at which a young girl was filling her pail. This fountain was shaded by high trees and thick-growing shrubs, and from it ran a trickling stream that follows the course of Dixcart Valley to the edge of the eastern cliffs. Crossing a little foot-bridge, we ascended the southern slope and came out in the grounds of the Dixcart Hotel, situated quite in the interior of the island, sheltered by hills and trees from every wind, and surrounded by the most home-like yards and offices. While we fortified ourselves with a hasty luncheon, our little guide went to engage a carriage for us, and we wandered slowly toward the high-road to meet it. Our path lay through a lane that is hardly excelled by any in Jersey, and which has the attraction of being almost the only one of its kind in Sark. About a quarter of a mile from the hotel this lane joins the main road running north and south through the island, crossing the 'Coupée' which connects its two unequal parts. We drove to the Coupée, but old Mr. Guille, who owned this only 'carriage to let' in Sark (an open two-seated phaeton), declined to drive across, saying that he had driven over, but he never did so except in case of absolute necessity. We were very far from urging this as a case of necessity, and when we were fairly upon the Coupée we were glad enough to be safely on our own feet, for the road, which had only recently been elevated from the condition of a foot-path, was barely wide enough for a single narrow vehicle, and at both sides the rock descended almost vertically to the little bays nearly three hundred feet below.
The distance across is about two hundred yards, and the passage is guarded by no parapet of any sort,— not even a hand-rail,—save at two places where a harder rock has better resisted the action of the rains, and where the road has been cut through. With all its improvement, the Coupée is but a rugged path along the crest of a narrow vertical ledge, from whose giddy height it requires a steady nerve to look down over the steep granite walls that support it, and one naturally seeks a safer point from which to examine the ponderous cliffs that surround the adjoining bays. High though it is, it is much lower than the mainland of Great Sark and Little Sark, which have no other means of communication, and which, as seen from it,—or from the sea at any point,—look like majestic rocks topped with treeless fields.
The habitations of Sark are built mainly in sheltered nooks and valleys, where they are protected from the frequent fierce winds. In these hollows, too, vegetation is luxuriant almost to rankness, and the impression gained by even a hurried examination like ours is of a great wealth of vegetable life and of the charm that this alone can lend; and this amid surroundings of such grandeur as makes Sark one of the wonders of the natural world.
Mr. Guille must be a model cocher to those who understand—if any one but born to it can understand—the barbarous language of this island. Though a loyal Briton, he preferred to speak French, but he had some original conceptions of that tongue. The information we gained from him was extremely meagre; in statistics and sociology it was confined to the facts that the population of the island is less than six hundred souls, and that of these over ten per cent are confirmed drunkards. Fortunately, the student of the Channel Islands has good help in the few books that have been written about them, and we found it chiefly important to be guided to the different points we indicated; and, after all, it was a real advantage to escape the routine gabble of the professional cicerone.
From the Coupée we went to the Creux du Derrible on the eastern shore. This is a deep vertical shaft, about fifty feet in diameter, descending from the bigh table-land—or from the side of a high hill, for one side of the opening is much lower than the other—to a yawning cavern into which the sea rises at every tide by two large entrances, wave following wave, with a roar that comes up in deafening reverberations through the fearful Creux. It is possible at low tide for a good cliffman to climb down the face of the steep shore, by the aid of iron rings fastened to the rock, and to enter the cavern from below. Here the blue sky is seen above as from the bottom of a well, while through one of the entrances are seen the bright, clean-cut rocks of the Point du Derrible, and through the other the distant coast of Jersey.
Returning to our vehicle we drove around by the road to the seaport of Sark—Creux Harbor. This is the only landing-place on the island that is at all worthy of the name. The few valleys terminate in steep cliffs, up which it is impossible to climb, L'Epercherie is accessible only in calm weather, and is always difficult. Le Havre Gosselin, and the Port-és-Sees, are practicable only for the chamois-like fishermen of Sark. Creux Harbor is a curiosity in itself—a little cove shut in by a breakwater that leaves passage-way only for small boats, and within which these are secure only when hauled high above the reach of the tides and made fast with ropes and chains. On the land side there is only a rough beach of cobble-stones and bold rocks of enormous height, through one of which an artificial tunnel leads to the only road by which vehicles may reach the shore. Passengers and goods arriving must be transferred to small boats and landed inside the breakwater, and then be hauled up the steep picturesque valley—a valley charming with superb seaward views, and well sheltered and shaded stone houses.
We now returned to the hotel to see what Sark, in its isolation, could do for us in the way of dinner, hoping at least to appease the hunger our clambering had aroused. Why will not some benefactor of his country send a ship-load of American hotel-keepers to difficult Sark to leam from Mr. Gavey the important art of public hospitality? Our repast was not sumptuous, but it was more than sufficient, and with ample variety. The cooking and the service, while they were simple, and such as might be easily compassed in any of our villages, were tasteful, cleanly, and thoroughly excellent. A dozen guests would crowd the house; but our own caravansaries, made to accommodate hundreds, are barbaric feeding-shops compared with this home-like little inn, which, once known, remains in the traveller's mind as a perpetual invitation to return to the green valley in which it nestles. We left it with real regret, and if we are fortunate we shall some day return to it with delight. There is another hotel which is well spoken of, and comfortable lodgings are to be had in private houses.
Sark offers many advantages to those who wish to spend some time in quiet retirement. The climate is perfect, better, if possible, than that of the other islands, and it is said that the inhabitants of Guernsey resort to it for the benefit of its more bracing air. It is, however, the student of nature who will get the greatest satisfaction from a sojourn in Sark.
The botany of the island is quite similar to that of Guernsey. There is little cultivation of foreign plants, except in the grounds of the Seigneurie; but here there are very good examples of successful adaptation, and in every damp valley the native ferns grow in great variety and with remarkable luxuriance.
The magnificent cliffs on every side of the island are pierced with huge caverns, where the sea has worn its way into the softer veins, and the shore is piled with masses of fallen rock, and boulders undermined or torn away by the waves. All is wild and weather-beaten, and one sees at every point combinations of nature's boldest rock-work, not less grand than those shown in the illustrations given herewith.
[....]The adjoining island of Brechou, which is about three quarters of a mile long, is less high than Sark, but it has the same rough, bold coast, pierced with caverns, and the same angular cliffs. Brechou has two farms, and is inhabited, according to the last census, by seven human beings, one horse, one cow, one dog, and several sheep.
The great attraction of Sark to the naturalist is to be found in the marine life of its frequent caverns. This is said not to be equalled in Europe—not even by that of the celebrated caves of St. Catherine's Island, near Tenby. The zoophytes exist in singular multitude and variety. To seek these requires the most vigorous and the most invigorating cliff-work, and the stimulating element of danger is rarely absent.
Ansted¹ says on this branch of his subject: 'The great range of tide, the complicated character and gloom of these vast natural vaults, whose deeper recesses are not accessible more than a few hours in the year, are among the causes of this wealth. They may, with truth, be regarded as the Grüne Gewölbe of the Channel Islands. They are treasure-houses, where, instead of the accumulated stores of mediaeval art, such as are lavishly spread out in the chambers so named in Dresden, we find all that is brightest and richest and most varied of nature's work. There is, however, one curious difference. The beauty of form is here confined to animals, whose structure is of the simplest kind, and all we see of life is in a form that involves the smallest possible expenditure of other substance than sea-water. .... The largest and heaviest individuals, even if carefully preserved, scarcely yield more than a few fractions of a grain of residuum, and with all the colors of the rainbow, and varied forms imitating trees and flowers, there is no more substance in them than in a soap-bubble.'
Taken all in all, Sark and its surroundings combine more of out-of-door attaction, especially for a vigorous and studious tourist, than any other spot of equal size of which I have knowledge. A literary man seeking retirement would find it as well suited to his wants as a light-house; and the artist would find here such marvels of marine grandeur as, if faithfully portrayed, would bring him the reputation of a genius.
[....]Politically, Sark belongs to the 'Bailiwick of Guernsey,' but it has, much in the same way that our States have, an independent legal existence. The local government is vested in an Assembly, consisting of the Seigneur and his forty tenants. He must be present at all meetings (three times a year), either in person or by deputy, and his approval is necessary to the validity of all ordinances. He alone receives all tithes, getting the tenth sheaf of wheat, barley, oats, and peas; also the tenth of wool and lamb. His tenants, who hold the forty divisions of the island outside of the Seigneurie, are tenants by right of birth and purchase—absolute owners under the laws of the island, but owing certain feudal obligations to their chief. The holdings are indivisible. No tenant can sell, or in any way dispose of a portion of his property. He may sell the whole, but in that case one thirteenth of the price goes to the lord. In case of death, the property all goes to the eldest son, or, in the absence of sons, to the eldest daughter, or to the next heir. In this way, all properties continue intact, as granted by the first De Carteret.
The Jersey system of agriculture prevails; the soil is said to be even more fertile than that of the larger islands. The dairy has little prominence, and the cows are inferior. Parsnips are very largely grown, and are much used for fattening oxen and swine. The supply of meat and grain to Guernsey is the principal source of money income to the farmer. Sea-weed is hardly less used than in the other islands, notwithstanding the difficulty of collecting it, and the enormous labor of hauling it up the steep road from the sea.
Formerly a silver-mine in Little Sark was actively worked, but it is now abandoned, and the industry of the island is confined exclusively to fishing and farming, and latterly to the supplying of a considerable number of visitors; of these there were in 1873 over four thousand.
The language of the people is 'Sarkais.' It should be a dialect of the Jersey, but it has peculiarities which seem to ally it to the patois of Béarn and Gascony—such as the use of b for v, (beux for veux). To the stranger it has even a ruder sound than the dialects of the other islands.1
As the day was closing, we climbed down the steep foot-path, and regained our boat, leaving Sark with the light of the rosy sunset on its western cliffs, and with the unfading light of the rosiest memories settled forever on its image in our minds.
We had a charming moonlight sail back to St. Peter Port, and during the rest of our stay in Guernsey the clean-cut outline of the enchanted island remained unclouded before our window. The sea kept its unrippled stillness, and we had the unspeakable satisfaction of glassy smooth water for our trip to Southampton—not a frequent experience on this journey. At the three-towered Casquets we bade good by to the material presence of the Channel Islands; but, once known, they remain bright in the recollection for many a long day, inviting to renewed acquaintance, in a degree equalled by few other places.
See also: A Farmer's Vacation and A Farmer's Vacation: Dairy farming
¹ Ken Hawkes in his Sark, 1993, writes his dedication in serquais and gives a list of serquais words (Appendix D, p. 154.)