I had a meeting in St Helier at 9.30am in order to check my venue for the evening. We left in plenty of time. By 9.20am we were within 300 yards of where I needed to be and then the nightmare began. If you are ever contemplating driving in St Helier, don’t. Just don’t. Not ever, probably not even with the aid of a sat-nav. The one-way system was obviously designed by someone on magic mushrooms and the map only indicated some of the one-way streets and none of the pedestrianised ones. Then, just when we thought we had cracked it, there was a diversion. We managed to find our way out of town and tried approaching again, eventually arriving, very flustered at 10am. Needless to say, we overshot the only parking space and I bailed out leaving my hapless companion to attempt to drive ‘round the block’ without the aid of a navigator. I began to wonder if I would ever see him again. The car was necessary because we were carrying equipment and because we wanted to go on somewhere afterwards but it was a serious error of judgement. Never again. Well, actually, we did do it again later for me to give the talk but had it sussed by then and it was so easy when you knew how.
We drove north as our stress levels gradually subsided. Yet more diversions designed to confuse but I don’t think we actually got lost, or at least not much. I think there was only one three point turn when we missed the final junction. We were heading for ‘must see’ sight La Hougue Bie, which is allegedly one of the ten oldest man-made structures in the world, having been built long before the pyramids. La Hougue Bie is constructed on one of the highest points of Jersey (Hougue means mound in Jersey/Norman French, although the word is originally of Norse origin – sorry, no idea what Bie means). La Hougue Bie is a Neolithic passage grave; it was built some 5500-6000 years ago and was re-discovered in 1924.
The lady receptionist explains what there is to see. She adds that a reconstructed Neolithic house is currently being built on site. We have the ‘Neolithic house building’ tee-shirt and relate our experiences. In fact I do actually have the tee-shirt with me on the island but I am not wearing it today. It turns out that the project leader is Luke Winter, who also led our own Neo-building efforts (for full details of this experience and experience it certainly was, start reading here). We go to say hello to Luke and admire the start of a very impressive looking structure. He is only here one week in three, so we were lucky to catch him. Probably just as well I wasn’t wearing the tee-shirt as we work out that it was 4½ years ago that we were involved in our Old Sarum project. This actually makes the tee-shirt comparatively new in terms of my overall wardrobe but I expect it isn’t cool to admit that.
We look at the interesting museums. One relates stories of the archaeology of Jersey. We have already learned that, at low tide, the area of Jersey is 20% larger than at high tide and observations from our balcony confirm that the tide really does go out a very long way. Just popping out for a paddle at low tide is not recommended. Jersey’s archaeology is very diverse. In the nineteenth century, Jersey granite was used to build the Thames embankment. We also discovered that, in the eighteenth century, a passage grave from 4000-3250 BC was discovered at Le Mont de la Ville/Fort Regent and was presented to the then governor, General Conway. He took it apart and rebuilt it in Henley on Thames, where it still stands. Imagine trying to get away with this now; I am surprised Jersey hasn’t asked for it back!
The other museum was devoted to the story of the Jersey Horde. Initially, 12,000 coins were discovered in 1935. Then, in 2012, an enormous mass of coins were found by metal detectorists, in a field in a secret location in eastern Jersey. 66,898 coins (and counting), in a block weighing 1000kg have been excavated, along with gold torques and other jewellery. The torques were hollow to reduce the weight, an amazing feat of craftsmanship for something so ancient. The coins are about 2000 years old and are believed to have been buried by the Gaulish tribes from the St Malo area, fleeing from Julius Ceasar’s invasions. At this time, Jersey was controlled by Coriosolite tribe.
Next, to investigate the burial chamber itself. When it was constructed, the population of Jersey was likely to have been about 3000. The stone came from the eastern part of the island and some of the blocks weigh up to twenty tonnes. The chamber was covered by stones and then earth to form a cairn that is nine metres high and thirty six metres in diametre. The entrance to the burial chamber is a ten metre tunnel that is about three foot high. It is quite difficult to negotiate, especially as overnight rain has left puddles underfoot that need to be avoided but we accomplish this without injury. It was more than just a burial chamber and would have been used for various religious ceremonies. The entrance is aligned so that, on the equinox, the rising sun shines down the tunnel and illuminates the back wall of the chamber. The site was abandoned about 2500 BC and a belief grew up that it was home to a dragon. The legend goes that the Norman Seigneur of Hambye came to rid Jersey of the dragon but was himself slain by his own servant, who claimed the credit for killing the dragon and subsequently married the Seigneur’s widow. She discovered the truth, had the servant executed and a chapel erected in memory of her husband. An alternative story, told to us by the on site historical interpreter, is that it was a Viking pirate, rather than a dragon. Is this a case of make up any story for the tourists and they will believe it we wonder?
The first chapel, the Notre Dame de la Claté, is thought to date from 1155. It contains some Medieval wall paintings. These are very difficult to distinguish with the naked eye but the shape of an angel can just about been seen in the photograph that I took. The Dean of Jersey, Richard Mabon, was inspired to complete the second chapel in 1520, following a pilgrimage to Jerusalem. He staged fake miracles in the chapel to raise money from gullible visitors in order to pay his hefty tithes. The chapels were abandoned during the Reformation, after which Jersey adopted a Calvinistic stance. This led to the demolition of many chapels. At this time, there was a series of very severe winters to the benefit of the islanders’ knitting trade, much of which was exported to Iberia. The Calvinists however banned knitting in church and during the food and seaweed harvests. Knitting might be carried out as a communal activity and these were occasions for the singing and dancing frowned upon by the Calvinist church.
In 1792, Phillippe d’Auvergne acquired the chapel from his uncle, who owned the land at the time. He added a tower and converted it into a neo-gothic country residence known as the Prince’s Tower. It was derelict by 1821 and then became a tourist attraction. It was so popular that a small hotel was built on the site. The tower was finally demolished in the 1920s, to allow for the safe excavation of the remainder of the site. The Germans made use of the site during the occupation and the bunkers are now set up to commemorate the workers, of many nationalities, who lost their lives at that time.
We talk to the historical interpreter who is telling stories of the times of Dean Mabon. She tells us about the chapel and plays a recorder and a dulcimer using a goose quill. Well, obviously she doesn’t play the recorder with a goose quill; that would be weird and probably impossible. I decide that I’d really like a dulcimer and a goose quill, although I can actually play a recorder so maybe that would be a better option.
In the afternoon, we take a short stroll up the coast away from St Helier and then it is biting the bullet that is a return to St Helier by car. This time we know where we need to go but we do still have to circle the convoluted ‘block’, as the on road parking places are full and we need to return to the multi-story car park, which is fortunately free at this time of day. I give my talk to Channel Islands Family History Society. The topic is Writing up your Family History. This particular presentation is a bit full on but is well received. I am looking forward to running the full five week online version for Pharos in three week’s time, when I can go into a bit more detail. Join me, you know that you want to!