A very detached house indeed, November 1947
A visit to the island of Brecqhou, by Bernard Brett, from The Star, November 1947. The detail is from a 1962 photograph in the Library collection.
If you go to Brecqhou at ormering time, which is this week, when the tide is at its lowest, you haul up against seaweed-covered rocks, scramble out the best way you can, and walk the best way you can, through seaweed and pools to the steel jetty leading to the steps. You will be trespassing. I was there by permission.
It is best to arrive at low tide because it gives you no inkling at all of the immense surprise waiting for you at the end of the steep and sandy road leading from the sea to the top of the 100ft plateau.
The harbour at the bottom is called Le Port. It is an inlet on the west of the island of Brecqhou, 160-acre Channel Isle now up for sale. It is advertised in the London papers.
I went as a visitor, not as a buyer—the price is £25,000, which is a shade more than I have in the old stocking—but as a visitor who has never lived through a Brecqhou winter I was taken with Brecqhou.
At reasonably low tides you can pull alongside the jetty at Le Port; at ormering tides you pull along the rocks. The jetty to concrete steps which climb to a road wide enough for a motor lorry. You walk up a road on the edges of which sea pinks and scabious flower until the autumn. The island seems harsher than Herm. The rocky coasts are far steeper, the wind more chill.
You wonder why you have come to visit this unvisited Channel Isle.
Suddenly,at the top of the hill, you see fields with netting round them and to keep out the rabbits, and, just beyond, an elegant and modern house, half-timbered, and on the verandah you stand and look over a walled garden and beyond to the sea and the cliff, and you wonder at the immense amount of work that went into the building of the house at Brecqhou.
In the middle of the desert, an oasis is a joy and surprise, In the midst of the Italian hills a line of cypress trees is a joy and a surprise, and at the top of the lane leading from Le Port through the wildness that is Brecqhou, it is a joy and a surprise to come across the walled garden and the terraces, the astonishing house, the sudden civilisation of a kitchen garden and a lawn, an outhouse, and a stone archway leading from garden to garden.
Estate agents say that this is ‘An attractive detached residence, built just before the war, built of stone, half-timbered upper elevation, the roof covered with dreadnought tiles, boarded and felted,' and that word, ‘detached,’ is just about the best word I have ever come across in an estate agent’s catalogue.
The house at Brecqhou is the most detached house I have ever come across. The White House at Herm is a built-up area by comparison, and Chateau à l’Etoc, near the Alderney beacon, an overcrowded district due for demolition.
The Brecqhou house stands in its own grounds, if I may be permitted my own understatement. It was finished in 1935 by the late Captain Clarke, and is now offered for sale by his widow, Mrs E H Clarke, of County Cork. It is so modern that it astonishes you.
Mr Henry Head took me on the good fishing boat Vera, with Mr Philip Hamon and Mr Carré, to have a look at this very detached residence. I was curious about it, because I had already made friends with Mr George Sharp,¹ now of The Barracks, Little Sark, a farmer who for 21 years tilled Brecqhou and made the island live again.
In 1903 he went there and found Brecqhou bracken-covered and gone to waste. With one man to help him he cleared the ancient farm, lived on the rabbits he shot and fish he caught, and weekly on Fridays set off in his own boat to sell two lambs in the Guernsey market. He had told me there was always something doing on the island. A London schoolteacher from East Ham had come and fallen in love with him and with Brecqhou, and married him, and their visitors had included Compton Mackenzie and Fay Compton.
He made Brecqhou a living thing, and Captain Clarke continued the work on a grander scale.
There were once in Brecqhou pirates, or so it is believed, and it seems likely, for there is still the Pirates’ Cave, and once Brecqhou was known as the Isle of Merchants, doubtless black marketeers. Mr Sharp and Captain Clarke developed the island, and of the 160 acres, between sixty and seventy are now usable, partly arable, partly pasture.
Rabbits have taken over the island, just as they took over Herm, but Mr Head told me that the rabbits could be defeated, just as they were defeated in Herm, and Mr Hamon and Mr Carré agreed with him. No one has taken over the house. It stands as a monument to one of the few places the Germans didn’t knock about a bit. The wide oak staircase is still superb, the oak block flooring has been kept polished since the Occupation by caretakers Ben Lyons and Mr Giles.
Coming from backward Guernsey, as I did, from a street where there are about two baths to every twenty houses, I was not unimpressed that the two large bedrooms had bathrooms attached, the single bedroom had a bathroom attached, and the maids’ room had their own bath, built-in and modern, with hot and cold water and lavatory and everything, and as I wandered from room to room I was more and more astonished that such a place could have been built in so wild an island.
Electric light is everywhere, central heating goes right through the house, and discreetly in the distance is the Dower House, stone-built and pleasant and not too far away is the Middle Cottage. Stabling, workshops, outhouses and such still give a living look to Brecqhou, and water, Mr Head told me, comes from three wells and is pumped by two engines.
In the Big House I tried one of the switches, but no light went on. ‘The price is a bit steep with no light laid on here in Brecqhou,’ I said.
‘The electricity plant was taken away by the Germans,’ Mr Head replied. ‘It was the only thing they did that was damaging,’ and I walked away rather disappointed and watched rabbits running over the wide paddocks and saw a flight of birds swoop into the walled garden.
‘What a place for a man who loves islands and boats and farming,’ I said to myself. ‘A pity there’s no electric light in the place,’ I remarked to Mr Head as we boarded the Vera again and took the journey back under the steep cliffs of Sark to the Harbour Gosselin, some ten minutes away, and into the overcrowded island of Sark.
¹ See also Coysh, V, 'George Sharp in Alderney,' Alderney Soc. Quarterly Bull., December 1971. Please contact the Library for further infomation on the history of Brecqhou.