by Chris Leadbeater, The Telegraph, April 23, 2018
Today (April 20) sees the release of The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society - the cinematic version of Mary Ann Shaffer and Annie Barrow's popular novel about life on the second biggest of the Channel Islands in the immediate wake of the Second World War.
It stars Downton Abbey alumnus Lily James as a writer who is drawn to Guernsey and the struggles of its inhabitants in the aftermath of the German occupation (1940-1945) - and is sure to pique interest in this pretty outcrop of coves, cliffs, castles and cream teas (despite the fact that none of the movie was filmed there).
It is an island which swirls with notes of interest - wilder than you might think, and swaddled in a history that rears its head in unexpected corners. If the film's pleasing tale of romance, recovery and loss has you perusing the map and planning a trip of your own, the following 13 facts (not all about the war, although the occupation provides many fascinating Guernsey anecdotes) may also provide reasons for travel...
1. Castle Cornet remembers a distant sweetheart
The fortress which dominates the waterfront in the Guernsey capital St Peter Port (museums.gov.gg) was built in 1206 to help the defend the island from France. But it found itself repurposed eight centuries later, fitted with heavy artillery and sniper nests by the invading Germans. Several of them left their mark in graffiti etched into its walls. But not just in the sinister scrawlings you might assume. In with the occasional swastika is a single word, scratched into the north-west watchtower. "Else" - a pining for a girlfriend somewhere over the horizon in Heidelberg, Hamburg or Hamburg.
2. The German Occupation Museum keeps secrets...
Pitched in the south of the island at Les Houards, the German Occupation Museum (germanoccupationmuseum.co.uk) offers a compelling snapshot of life on Guernsey between 1940 and 1945. It is just not the obvious artefacts - various items of weaponry; versions of the local newspaper, the Guernsey Evening Press, mired in propaganda commentary about the "friendly and honest" enemy soldiers - which catch the eye. Look too for the exhibit on Freda Oliver and Paul Schlimbach - she a local woman, he a German officer - who became a couple in the heat of war. The relationship cannot have been easy for either of them, but their letters, diary entries and photographs show two people in love - a Romeo and Juliet for their time. They would go on to marry in 1947.
3. ...in more ways than one
The museum collection also features one of the war's most iconic pieces of hardware - an Enigma machine. It is one of two such communication devices that the German forces kept on the island - for use in sending encrypted messages to U-boats in the Channel. Its hard round keys and black panels still sing of the cut-and-thrust of the early Forties.
4. You can sense ghosts in the Underground Hospital
There can be few more unnerving structures anywhere on this planet than the German Military Underground Hospital (details at visitguernsey.com/content/german-military-underground-hospital), which lies under Guernsey's skin, like a bad tattoo, near the centre of the island at La Vassalerie. This vast subterranean complex was hewn out of the bare rock using slave labour - and while it was used for medical purposes once complete, it feels shrouded in darkness. Unlike the sister labyrinth on Jersey (Jersey War Tunnels; jerseywartunnels.com), the passageways have only been restored to a basic level. They are haunted by the noise of dripping water, and by the shadows which coalesce in the corners of dank operating theatres and dead wards. It saw its busiest period of activity in 1944, when some of the German wounded from the D-Day landings were shipped here from Cherbourg. Their pain seems to daub the damp walls.
5. You can see where Oliver Reed made a splash
The Old Government House Hotel (theoghhotel.com) in St Peter Port was also a key player in the occupation era - it was the General Staff Headquarters for the German officers. Now a five-star retreat of afternoon teas and polite ambience, it remembers a rather more welcome guest in a small plaque on the wall of the lounge - even if it would be difficult to say that Oliver Reed added much to the property's air of refinement. On one woozy night in the early Eighties, the panel explains, the actor and notorious hellraiser followed the clear and sensible path open to those staying in an upper room overlooking the central courtyard - taking a running leap through the window, and crashing down into the swimming pool three floors below. Inevitably Reed was unhurt.
6. You can watch one of Europe's fiercest football derbies
Spurs v Arsenal. Manchester City v Manchester United. Liverpool v Everton. Celtic v Rangers. The football calendar in the British Isles is alive with derby fixtures where teams take on their nearest and not-so-dearest rivals. To that list you can add Guernsey v Jersey, and the battle for the Muratti Vase. The two islands have competed for this trophy, 11 men against 11, since 1905 - and with as much competitiveness of spirit as any game played at Old Trafford or Ibrox. Technically, it is a three-way tournament which also involves a semi-final against Alderney. But the third island has only won the competition once, in 1920 - and has not made the final since 1938. Guernsey and Jersey take turns to host the big match (usually on the second weekend of May). Guernsey are the current holders, but will not stage the fixture again (at the Footes Lane stadium, in St Peter Port) until next year. Jersey has lifted the Vase 53 times, Guernsey 46.
7. You can hold a board meeting
It may not have the sun-drenched cachet of California, but Guernsey is an island where you can surf - notably at Vazon Bay, on the north-west coast, where waves roll metronomically onto a broad expanse of sand. Guernsey Surf School, which offers tuition, summer camps and board hire, is based precisely here (guernseysurfschool.co.uk).
8. You can squash into a very quirky church
Few of us have built a church, but we can all have a rough guess at what the process would require. Hard blocks of stone? Yes. Some sort of design involving a steeple or tower? Most probably, yes. A huge number of seashells? Erm, maybe. Barely any room for worshippers? Sorry, what sort of structure is this? In the case of Guernsey, it's the Little Chapel (visitguernsey.com/content/little-chapel), a curiosity so small - it is a mere 16ft by 9ft - that it is difficult to squeeze inside. It was originally created in 1914, but has been demolished twice - the current building is the third incarnation. To add to its immeasurable quirkiness, its walls are embedded with seashells and fragments of broken crockery. It crops up in the plot of The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society (the book), and can be found in St Andrew's, (almost) at the heart of the island.
9. Part of St Peter Port is ironically Parisian
It rarely goes unsaid for long that St Peter Port was home - from 1856 to 1870 - to the great Gallic author Victor Hugo, who penned part of his masterpiece Les Miserables while he was living at Hauteville House. He was there, of course, because he had been exiled from native soil - he was persona non grata as long as Napoleon III was in charge of France. So there is a certain amount of "oh, so now you want to play nicely" to the fact that Hugo's former home is not just administered by Paris, but owned by it (see the name of its website, maisonsvictorhugo.paris.fr, for proof). It was given to the city by Hugo's descendants in 1927. Guided tours are available from April to September.
10. An artist stares across the hill
Another French cultural heavyweight in present just across town from Hauteville House - in the Guernsey Museum and its Rona Cole Art Gallery (museums.gov.gg), which crowns the top of Candie Gardens as it slopes down towards the harbourfront. It is the incomparable sculptor Auguste Rodin, and his bronze of, why yes, Victor Hugo.
11. There is beef, but there are no longer cows, at the Slaughterhouse
A relatively recent addition to the harbourside in St Peter Port, the Slaughterhouse (slaughterhouse.gg) restaurant gives the game away in its moniker - it was once the town abbatoir. It maintains a link to the past in the meat hooks which hang from the ceiling as part of the stylish decor - but otherwise keeps its big hunks of meat strictly on the plate. You can order a 10oz Irish rib-eye steak (with house-cut chips) for £22.
12. You want gin? There is gin
The majority of Guernsey's best hotels are on, or close to, the seafront. Bella Luce (bellalucehotel.com) is, however, a notable exception to the rule. This boutique hideaway is located at St Martin's, in the south-east of the island. And, as well as 23 fashionably decorated rooms, it has a gin distillery - where it produces its own Wheadon's Gin, a fragrant affair that comes infused with samphire and grapefruit. Tours and tastings are available between April and October (generally on Wednesdays).
13. Next stop is Newfoundland
Go at Pleinmont, at the south-west tip of the island, and you have pretty much reached the end of the line. This is the westernmost point of the Channel Islands. Indeed, if you climb into a boat and sail precisely west of here, there is nothing but waves and whales until you hit the town of Musgrave Harbour, on the Canadian coast, in Newfoundland and Labrador. One reason, perhaps, why, in 1942, the Germans crowned the headland with Pleinmont Tower, a concrete watchdog which still radiates a discernible menace in its retirement. Details at visitguernsey.com/content/pleinmont-observation-tower .