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Between mainland England and France, the Channel Islands combine elements of both countries, resulting in their own unique history and culture. With a picturesque coastline, the Islands have a special charm. Writer Emma Shires grew up on Guernsey, the second largest island, and shares what life is like in this special corner of Great Britain.
Text by: Emma Shires
Photos by: The Shires Family
Country: England

ou can be forgiven for not having heard of my hometown, the island of Guernsey. Measuring just 15-by-8 kilometres and lying closer to France than England, even many British citizens aren’t aware of the Channel Islands. Guernsey is the second largest of the Islands, exceeded in size by its neighbour Jersey. Also nearby is a group of other much smaller islands including Alderney, Sark, Europe’s last feudal state, and Herm, an island so tiny you can walk the entire perimeter in around 2 hours.

Nowadays, the Islands are a laid-back spot popular with French and English tourists. However, with their critical position between England and mainland Europe, they have played a role in many important historical events, which have influenced the local landscape and culture.

Early History

The first settlers came to Guernsey in the Neolithic period and their legacy can be found in various statues across the island known as dolmens. In 933AD the Islands came under the control of the first Duke of Normandy, part of modern-day France.

1066, a year ingrained in all English schoolchildren’s memories, is when William the Conqueror (the Duke of Normandy) took control of the English Crown, bringing the Channel Islands and England under the same ruler.

This early link to northern France has left an interesting mark on the modern Islands. For example, local law is still based on old Norman practices and as a result, lawyers have to take a course in French law and have at least a working knowledge of the French language to practice on Guernsey. Even today, the Islands maintain a unique relationship to the English Crown. Guernsey and Jersey each have their own independent governments, locals do not vote in British elections, and the Islands are not obliged to follow U.K. legislation.

Skipping forward to the 17th century, Parliamentarians were fighting against the Royalists in the English Civil War, and Guernsey sided with the Parliamentarians. However, Castle Cornet, a fortress in the island’s harbour, became a Royalist stronghold. Islanders turned on the Castle, which was the last Royalist outpost in the entire British Isles to surrender during the war.

During the centuries that followed, Guernsey rose in prosperity thanks to its location on shipping lines and its strong stone and dairy industries. Guernsey granite and cows are still highly prized today. However, in the mid-20th century an event changed the Islands’ history forever.

Nazi Occupation

During the early stages of the Second World War, German forces began to take control of parts of mainland Europe. The British government realised that the Channel Islands were at risk of attack. To protect the local residents, it decided to demilitarise the Islands, hoping this would ensure they were not bombed. Much too late it was realised that there would need to be a large-scale evacuation of the Islands, and less than half of those who wished to flee were able to do so before German forces invaded in June 1940. Unfortunately, the arriving troops had not received the message that the Islands were demilitarized: 44 islanders were killed in raids before the Germans landed.

German soldiers took residence in local homes, and various bunkers and fortification towers were built, marks that are still visible along the Islands’ coastlines today. Many islanders still remember this time. At school my headmaster often told us humorous stories of hiding forbidden British radios in stews. There are various tales of romance between local girls and German soldiers, although the girls were fiercely punished by locals if they were caught.

Despite these light-hearted recollections, it was a dark time: those who were not locally born were deported to Germany, islanders were forced to work in newly built labour camps, and many people starved as supplies ran out towards the end of the War.

In May 1945, the Islands were freed and the event is celebrated annually on ‘Liberation Day’. The bank holiday combines fun and celebration with solemn remembrance of the occupation. One of my favourite memories as a child is from the 50th anniversary of liberation when everyone in my school dressed up as evacuees and the streets were closed for an island-wide tea party.

Modern-day Financial Hub

Today, Guernsey is best known to many for its tax status: its unique relationship with England means that taxes on the Island are much lower than in the U.K., so it is a fantastic place to invest in and to indulge in luxury products. Lower taxes mean that financial services are huge on the Channel Islands and the sector has to look to the U.K. for recruitment. My family came to Guernsey because my dad is an accountant. My parents thought a job on Guernsey was a fantastic opportunity for my dad and a lovely place for me and my brother to grow up, so that’s how I became an island girl.

The financial crisis didn’t have an immediate effect, but recent tax legislation has started to impact local business. Fewer investors are choosing the Channel Islands, and although the industry is still doing well, its development has slowed. As a result, people are beginning to think that the Islands might lose their reputation for financial services in the future, especially given the U.K.’s instability after Brexit.

Local Quirks

When I tell people I grew up on Guernsey, I am generally asked if everyone on the island speaks French. I’m afraid that islanders aren’t any better at learning languages than mainland Brits. However, Guernsey does have its own language called Guernsey French or Guernésiais. It is a variety of Norman French strongly rooted in Latin with Norse and English influences. Although it is a proud part of Guernsey’s heritage and everyone knows a few words, the language is not widely spoken, with only about 3% of the population able to properly understand it. If you speak French and English, you will find you can follow Guernésiais. For example, when you arrive in Guernsey you may see a sign saying ‘Bianv’nue à tous’, meaning welcome all. It would be ‘Bienvenue à tous’ in standard French.

Another fun thing about Guernsey is the island’s money. Our special status within Great Britain means the island has its own currency. Local notes and coins feature island symbols such as Guernsey cows, sea life and local produce including tomatoes and freesias. However, the most famous of these is the Guernsey pound note. Pound notes were withdrawn from circulation in the U.K. nearly 20 years ago, but Guernsey continues to use its own version. It delights and surprises visitors, that is, until they get home and realise they can’t use them elsewhere.

Fun facts about Guernsey

● Locals are known affectionately as donkeys, with the donkey being a symbol for the island. People from Jersey joke that we are called donkeys because of our stubborn nature, and in return we call Jersey people crapnauds, or toads.

● Guernsey is home to the oldest post box in the British Isles in the island’s capital, St. Peter Port.

● The island has one of the largest tidal ranges in the world at 33 feet.

● Channel Island cows are famous all over the world for their rich, golden milk, but most people don’t know that Guernsey milk also contains three times more omega-3 fatty acids than normal milk.

● Many houses in the west of the Island, including my family’s house, have a piece of protruding granite known as a ‘witch’s seat’. They were built to offer witches a place to rest, in the hope this would stop them from causing any mayhem.

● The French writer Victor Hugo was exiled in Guernsey for many years, and during this time, he completed one of his most famous novels, Les Miserables.

● There are many stories about fairies in Guernsey folklore, with some locals believing that they are descended from them. It is said that if you walk around the ‘Fairy Ring’ (a local sight) three times and make a wish, your wish will come true.




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Growing up in Guernsey


My hometown is the island of Guernsey. It measures only 15 by 8 kilometers and is closer to France than England. Guernsey is the second largest of the Channel Islands; its neighbour Jersey is the largest.

Guernsey was first settled during the Neolithic period and became part of France under the first Duke of Normandy. When William the Conqueror (Duke of Normandy) became king of England, the islands became British. During the Second World War the Germans invaded the Island and forced islanders to work in labour camps. In May 1945 the Islands were freed and the event is celebrated annually on 'Liberation Day'.

Today, Guernsey is known for its tax status. Taxes on the Island are much lower than in the UK, so it is a fantastic place to invest in. My family came to the Island because my dad is an accountant and there are many opportunities in the financial sector. He also thought it was a good place to raise a family.

Many houses in the west of the Island, including my family's house, have a piece of protruding granite called a 'witch's seat'. It is there to offer witches a place to rest, in exchange for not causing mayhem.

Guernsey is home to the oldest post box in the British Isles. Locals are known as donkeys. And even the cows are famous all over the world for their rich, golden milk, which contains more omega-3 fatty acids than normal milk.

Because of the French influence, Guernsey has its own language called Guernsey French or Guernésiais, but few people speak it. It also has its own currency, which can only be used on the Island. Nowadays, the Islands are a laid-back spot popular with French and English tourists.

 

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