Our post-pandemic travel world, with its patchwork of changing entry requirements, complicated my usual country-hopping trip plans. It made the thought of slow travel more appealing and where better to travel slowly than on the slow-moving Isle of Sark?
Sark is one of the Channel Islands in the bailiwick of Guernsey off the coast of France. It’s a 40 minute ferry ride from Guernsey and it’s small, just 3 miles long and 1 mile wide with only 600 permanent residents. It keeps largely to itself and preserves a way of life of days gone by.
It’s impossible to move quickly on Sark even if you wanted to because motorized vehicles, with the exception of one tractor per family, are banned. This leaves three options: a horse and carriage sightseeing tour of the island, a bicycle, or your feet. While the first two are for hire and will move you efficiently on the handful of crushed stone roads on the island, the latter gives you access to the miles of walking paths on the island. A combination works best – a bike to get you into the village and to the end of the roads and then feet to explore the highlands, valleys, meadows and beaches.
Arriving at Maseline Harbour you can leave your luggage on the ferry, marked with the place you are staying, and a tractor will deliver it to your accommodation for a small fee. Then you must climb the harbour hill to the village. It’s a steep climb but there is a shuttle tractor that drops you off at the top of the hill, beside a pub where you can freshen up with a pint because from there you will walk to your accommodation.
I stayed at a B&B near Little Sark, a 20 min walk from the top of harbour hill. It was a convenient location for hikes on both the main island and Little Sark. Little Sark is connected to the rest of the island by a natural isthmus, called La Coupée which due to erosion and landslides became narrower by the decade. By 1811, it was no more than 3 feet wide and there are reports of children crawling across it then to avoid being blown off by the wind. Railings were added to La Coupée in 1900 and in 1945 German POWs built a narrow concrete road on top with retaining walls.
Most people come to Sark on either a day-trip from Guernsey or for longer, like me, to spend time walking the paths. The spring time is glorious as the paths are lined with bluebells, gorse, wild garlic, campion and primrose, the cliffs are covered in sea thrift and clover and the trees are in blossom.
Paths begin where all the roads end, some accessed through farm gates and styles and all leading to dramatic headlands, lush valleys and beautiful beaches.
For the culturally oriented there are lovely cottages, a display with the story of the life during WWII (the Channel islands were the only British territory occupied by the Germans), the remains of an old silver mine and a more recent installation – Sarkhenge. Sarkhenge was built in 2015 to celebrate 450 years of fiefdom in Sark, but more on that later.
I’m used to squeezing in as much as I can during the day but Sark gets rid of that need. By the third day I’d given up the early morning run and would linger over breakfast, walk more slowly admiring the views and watching the sea birds, sit on benches with my book or talk to other slow passers-by. I walked all day but walking takes time and while the time seems to fly by, the sense of urgency disappears. By day 10, I was mellow. A coast walk after breakfast and another after lunch, a walk to the village for coffee, a walk home for a rest, a walk back to the village for dinner and a walk home for the night fills the day leaving you tired, relaxed and falling asleep in minutes.
There are even signs to remind you to move slowly.
With two ambulances pulled by tractors that take you to the harbour to board the Guernsey marine ambulance launch, slowing down might be a good thing. You will move even more slowly at night because there aren’t any street lights so a head lamp is a must. In fact, the lack of light pollution and its low population has allowed Sark to be designated as a Dark Sky reserve.
Eating too requires slowing down and planning ahead. Although the restaurants are numerous given the size of the island, popping out for a quick meal often won’t work. The schedule is this: some are open for breakfast and lunch and sometimes but not always for dinner; all are closed some days but those days vary with the restaurant; lunch is between noon and 2 pm if they are open for lunch and, if they serve dinner (but sometimes they don’t) it is generally between 5:30 and 8 pm. I suggest you reserve ahead. Between 2 pm and 5:30 pm some but not all have tea/coffee and cake. A lovely outdoor tea garden at the end of the main street does a long lunch until 4 pm when it is open and if it doesn’t rain but you must pay with cash. Commit that to memory or you might be left hungry.
One day I walked too slowly and absent mindedly and I missed all the meal times. Tired and hungry I begged a local pub owner to cook me a pizza before I died of starvation. He kindly agreed but I think made it in a slow cooker, this is Sark after all. As I waited, I drank beer with all the others in the pub (eight men) watching the Liverpool/Everton football match. The beer lifted my spirits and I began to cheer for the blue team (??) then just as the game finished, the owner loudly announced “ONE CANADIAN PIZZA FOR THE LADY”. All watched as I devoured the entire pizza, far too quickly for Sark, then bid my new football mates a goodbye and slowly shuffled home, woozy and stuffed.
Movement on Sark is slow in other ways too. Unlike the other Channel Islands, until 2008 it was the last feudal system in the Western world – a royal fiefdom based on the ancient feudal and later seigneurial system of land ownership. Granted to nobleman Hellier de Carteret in 1565 by Elizabeth I, Sark came with the condition that it must have an army of 40 men to protect against pirates. The seigneur did this by dividing the land into 40 parcels, leasing them to families that had a man with a musket ready to defend the island.
Not until 2008 was a more democratic system put in place. The parliament (or Chief Pleas) comprising the 40 tenants and 12 deputies of the people was replaced by a parliament of 30, with 28 elected members, the hereditary Seigneur and 1 member appointed for life. Even still, the system is a confusing mix of land ownership and hereditary laws and in 2017, the 28 elected members were reduced to 18 when not enough stood for election. For much of Sark’s operation, it relies on Guernsey although the little two-cell prison built in 1856, that holds prisoners for up to two days, is still in use today. Things change slowly in Sark.
Life seems to stand still here and residents must still travel to Guernsey for many necessities but we’re creatures of comfort, particularly the comforts of our modern world. Construction still happens and goods and services are required and so tractors don’t simply plough the fields. They travel up and down the roads pulling trailers full of things, doing what needs to be done to support modern life on Sark. One wonders whether quieter, dedicated vehicles with better emission controls would be a better option.
Sark is a dichotomy, a place with the activity to support our modern lifestyle and its tourist industry yet attracting those who come to slow down and experience life from an earlier time. It all seems to work though and after 10 days of slowing down and smelling the roses it was hard to jump back into the fast lane.