Follow in Lily James’s footsteps and discover the delights of Guernsey

As The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Society lands in cinemas, Ali Wood explores the island's wartime history and beautiful coastline

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The twin piers of St Peter Port reach out into choppy waters, where a dozen fishing boats are anchored. The harbour is the beating heart of Guernsey, embracing weary sailors from Britain, France and beyond with the promise of cliff-top walks and lonely coves.

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“It was here that my grandfather dropped off his wife and children during the evacuation,” says tour guide Gill Girard. “He went to lock up his shop – he was a coffee grinder – but when he returned the boats had gone. He didn’t see them for five years.”

Girard’s grandfather was just one of many parted from their loved ones during the Second World War. Over 17,000 evacuees – mostly children – moved to the UK prior to the German occupation, and life on Guernsey would never be the same again. The Nazis imposed curfews, issued identity cards and requisitioned food and cars. With a starving POW labour force, they built defences right across the island, which still stand strong over 70 years later.

“In Hitler’s eyes, Guernsey was a static battleship,” she says. “He saw it as a model occupation.”

German observation tower on Guernsey's south coast (photo: Chris George, Visit Guernsey)
German observation tower on Guernsey’s south coast (photo: Chris George, Visit Guernsey)

Although the story is documented in many books and landmarks, it was an American tourist whose depiction of life under occupation put Guernsey on the map. Since its publication in 2008, Mary Ann Shaffer’s book – The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society – has sold 7.5 million copies worldwide. The film, which stars Lily James as an English writer who strikes up a correspondence with a Guernsey book club, is released on 20 April.

“The book’s been amazing for bringing people to the island,” says Girard. “I’ve had a lot of groups – especially American women – who’ve booked tours because of it.”

It’s easy to see Guernsey’s appeal; just 9 miles long and 3 miles wide, this tiny island is criss-crossed with peninsulas, hidden bays and cliffs blanketed in wildflowers. The granite-strewn shores vary from dusky blue to flamingo pink and the landmarks are a confusion of ancient and modern history. Concrete WWII bunkers lurk amongst Neolithic dolmens and German watchtowers sit, quite literally, on top of Napoleonic forts.

Although a dependency of the Crown, Guernsey lies much closer to France, and together with Alderney, Sark, Jersey and some smaller islands, forms the self-governing Channel Islands. You pay in pounds and speak English, but the narrow streets – with their palm trees, camellias, French road signs and whitewashed villas – make it feel far more exotic. As Victor Hugo put it: the Channel Islands are “fragments of France which fell into the sea and were gathered up by England”.

Like the book’s heroine Juliet, I arrive by boat – though a fair amount faster than she did, having taken the high-speed Condor Ferry from Poole. St Peter Port is just as Juliet describes it: “rising up from the sea, with a church at the top like a cake decoration.”

I spend the morning at the Guernsey Museum & Art Gallery, where amongst the curious folklore and prehistory exhibits, there’s a display dedicated to the Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society. You can even see the costume worn by Lily James as Juliet – apparently she wore 50s underwear to help get into character. Opposite are several other film props, as well as a display featuring the many translated books. On most the title takes up the entire cover, though the German version is simply “Deine Juliet”. Very sensible, I think, having tripped over the title a dozen times already.

Fortunately, when I meet Gill Girard at St Peter Port, she knows exactly why I’m here, and we revert to using “The Book” or “The Film” when discussing Guernsey’s various landmarks.

(photo: Chris George, courtesy of Visit Guernsey)
Castle Cornet, St Peter Port (photo: Chris George, courtesy of Visit Guernsey)

Our tour starts at St Peter Port harbour where Gill points out an obelisk. Unveiled in 1995, it comprises 50 layers of blue Guernsey granite to represent 50 years of freedom. It’s a sundial too. Look closely at the seats behind and you’ll see a description of what happened on 09 May 1945 etched into the marble: 7am; surrender, 08.15; forces landed, and 10am; Union Jack flag was raised. The shadow cast by the column on that date highlights the inscriptions at the exact times.

We exit St Peter Port via the inland route as the coastal road is closed for the Val des Terres Hill Climb – Guernsey’s version of the grand prix, where racing cars compete against the clock. It’s an extremely popular event that takes place every bank holiday; the only time the youngsters get to drive over 35mph.

We head into St Martin, which is real Potato Peel Pie territory. We pass Calais Lane where the character Eben Ramsey lives, and where Elizabeth McKenna creates the literary society on the spot having been caught out after curfew by German soldiers.

In St Martin, like much of the island, the narrow lanes are dotted with sturdy Georgian houses, and between them are dark ivy-strangled footpaths that lead to the clifftops.

“We like to think this is where Dawsey and Juliet went walking,” says Girard, pausing at a lane barely a shoulder’s width wide. Next we stop at Gypsy Lane, which takes you towards La Bouvee, where Isola, Amelia and Dawsey lived. The traditional farm here would be similar to Dawsey’s pig farm.

Every 100 yards or so we pass “hedge veg” – wooden stalls stacked with everything from new potatoes to Swiss chard, and an honesty box for payment.

The hedgerows are blooming with primroses and wild daffodils, the latter a relic from the 70 when farmers grew them for export. These days the land is used for dairy farming and the cows seem delighted with their lot. I stop to take a photo and within seconds later they’re bounding across the field like Labradors. Maybe that’s why the butter tastes so good.

Guernsey is sheer rural delight; the only reminder of civilisation being the occasional roar of the island’s jet-plane as it takes off for Gatwick.

There are few cars on the roads – a lot of them French – and every driver we meet is willing to reverse; one swerving just inches from a 30ft drop, which makes me gasp. Girard, on the other hand, is a skilful driver; adept at squeezing into the nooks between granite cliffs, avoiding potholes and reversing down country lanes.

At the bottom of one such lane is Saints Bay, a quiet fishing cove where an arch is cut into the cliffs with a winch to hoist in the boats. It was here that Gill took Michael Huisman, who plays Dawsey in the film, during a tour of the island.

“I remember him sitting in the archway with his voice coach, practising his Guernsey accent,” she says. “He’s Dutch, and really wanted to get it right.” Gill introduced Michael to islanders at the Imperial Hotel, where he could listen to their strong Guernsey accents.

Before the war you’d have heard French spoken on the island. “Good French” was reserved for the courts and administration and “Guernsey French” was spoken by the inhabitants. Sadly, Guernésiais, as it’s known, declined sharply following the Second World War as the evacuated younger generation forgot how to speak it. There are now only around 200 speakers left, some of whose voices you can hear recorded in the Guernsey Museum.

Victor Hugo, who was enjoyably exiled on Guernsey for 15 years, spoke Guernésiais. It was here that he wrote Les Miserables and Toilers of the Sea, the latter about the island and its inhabitants.

Guernsey cliffs (photo courtesy of Visit Guernsey)
Guernsey cliffs (photo courtesy of Visit Guernsey)

Every turn-off from the main coastal road seems to lead to another beautiful bay. There are 30 at least – the local hospice runs a charity fundraiser “30 bays in 30 days”, where you have to swim in every one.

“The trick is to know the wind direction and tide times so you can always find a sheltered bay with water to swim in,” explains Girard. With 10m tides, Guernsey has one of the largest tidal ranges in the world, and a “swim” could turn into a squelchy low-tide trek if you’re not careful.

We look over the cliffs to Moulin Huet Bay, which Renoir painted whilst on holiday in 1883. Although the drizzle’s set in and the sky’s a mute grey, the water appears indigo, like a charcoal drawing daubed with acrylic.

The beaches are connected by a 42 miles of cliff and coastal paths, dotted with kiosks selling coffee and cake for hikers.

We park at Pleinmont headland and walk along the coastal path. Whilst I watch a kestrel hovering over the rocks below, I notice Girard disappear out of the corner of my eye; not straight away like a magician’s helper, but gradually, as though the earth’s swallowing her up. I veer off the path towards her and realise she’s coiling downwards into a trench.

Above us is chicken wire covered in makeshift camouflage, and ahead of us a dimly lit tunnel. I follow and find myself in the centre of a restored battery, looking down the barrel of a 10-tonne gun. Hot on my heels is an equally baffled border collie who darts round in circles, his owner calling wearily in the distance.

Batterie Dollman is just one of many concrete bunkers and watchtowers built by the Nazis. After the war people tried to remove them but it proved impossible. Instead, they’ve just become a part of Guernsey’s heritage. Most have been reclaimed by the earth, with only a rusty door or slit peering through brambles to reveal its eerie presence.

Ironically, for all its defences, Guernsey was not attacked by the Allies during WWII. The island’s casualties were all the Nazis’ own doing: the Jewish residents they sent to concentration camps and the 34 tomato truck drivers bombed in St Peter Port.

Though Batterie Dollman is fascinating – and when I later return with my kids, a great place to explore – for me it’s too brutal a relic to happen upon on during a peaceful coastal walk.

There are plenty of manmade structures I do like, however, such as the Little Chapel, which Juliet mentions in the book (though it doesn’t make it into the film). Diminutive yet strangely cavernous inside, the grotto is a glittering masterpiece started in 1923 and decorated over a 40-year period with thousands of pieces of broken china, seashells and pebbles.

The Little Chapel
The Little Chapel

Equally breathtaking are Guernsey’s megaliths. These ancient burial structures can be found right across the island. There are no ticket booths or signs telling you not to touch. On the contrary, one has a 4,000 year-old statue that newlyweds touch for good luck, and another – said to be the oldest in Europe – backs onto a golf course.

Guernsey is such a fascinating and beautiful island, why on earth could they not film The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society here?

They tried, Girard tells me. She took the location scouts on tours more than once. They even secured a house just like the one Elizabeth lived in, but in the end they were defeated by logistics – subsidence that couldn’t handle the weight of the vehicles, a new marina, or a crane that couldn’t be moved.

Whilst a lot of the filming took place in north Devon, the special effects team did visit Guernsey, and viewers will certainly recognise many of the landmarks.

By the time she drops me back at St Peter Port, I’m lost for words – and I haven’t even been doing the talking. In just 30-odd miles we’ve whizzed through thousands of years of history, a spell of hardship under Nazi occupation and a whistle-stop tour of Guernsey’s stunning coastline. After just a day I feel a connection with this rich, unusual little island. I can’t imagine how hard it must have been to leave it all those years ago.

“Lots of people still leave Guernsey,” says Girard, who herself spent several years in Dorset. “When you’re a teenager and everybody knows your business, you can’t think of anything else. But the funny thing is, most of us come back eventually.”

The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society is in cinemas on 20 April

For more information on Guernsey, see VisitGuernsey.com, where you can download walks, including the Potato Peel Pie Occupation Walk

Essentials

Getting there: We travelled to Guernsey by car with Condor Ferries. The Liberation trimaran from Poole took just 3 hours (be sure to pack your seasickness tablets if it’s rough). On our return we enjoyed a smoother, overnight sail on the all-weather Commodore Clipper. We arrived in Portsmouth the next day after a hearty meal, good night’s sleep in a cosy cabin and full English breakfast.

Where to stay: Albany apartments in St Peter Port are perfect for families and couples wanting a stylish residence with more space. With a guest lounge, heated pool, play area and relaxed ambience, they were lovely to come home to after a day’s exploration and beach-combing. For something a bit different, ask for the Victor Hugo themed apartment!

Eating and drinking: There’s no end to the wonderful restaurants on Guernsey. For Sunday lunch or afternoon tea, try the quirky but stylish safari-themed restaurant at the Duke of Richmond in St Peter Port. The food’s great and our kids were made to feel especially welcome (even the baby who fell asleep in her dinner). We also loved Hotel Jerbourg, whose café-bar on a wild, rugged promontory had the biggest selection of cakes (and helpings) we’ve ever come across. Team it with a walk down the steps to St Martins Point to burn off the calories.

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