With its stunning scenery, friendly peoples, and a Mediterranean-esque ambience, the Channel Islands offer an interesting juxtaposition of French and British influences. The islands are in the English Channel, just a few miles off the coast of Brittany. They are bailiwicks, or self-governing British Crown Dependencies, and their form of government has been in existence for 1,000 years. Sark is actually still ruled by a Seigneur, which hearkens back to European feudalism.
Christianity came to the islands in the sixth century, thanks to St. Helier and St. Sampson, then in the tenth century, belonging to the Duchy of Normandy. Upon the Norman Conquest in 1066, ownership passed to the English Crown. In 1204, Philip II of France confiscated the Duchy of Normandy, so the islands remained under the control of King John and England. There was an unsuccessful French conquest attempt in the 14th century. Today, you’ll hear both English and French spoken and there’s a certain air of Norman-French everywhere you go.
Time practically stands still on the islands—no expansive resorts, no theme parks, no glitzy casinos. Just tranquil, quaint life at a stress-free, leisurely pace. The history of the Channel Islands has not always been so peaceful, occupied as they were for five years by the Germans during World War II, after an invasion on June 30, 1940. In fact, this was the only British possession occupied by Germany during the Second World War. The Channel Islands, offering the most fortified sections of the Atlantic Wall, held tremendous strategic value for Hitler. Day-to-day life changed markedly at that point, with some islanders choosing passive resistance and others choosing to work with the Germans. Winston Churchill was quick to turn over the islands, recognizing that they held little strategic value for the United Kingdom.
Today’s population stands around 160,000, with a majority of native islanders of Norman French and British heritage. A growing sect of European Union citizens, particularly those from Portugal, is found here as well. For a look into the Islands’ past, visit the German Occupation Museums on Jersey and Guernsey, including the underground war tunnels on Jersey. And, also on Guernsey, visitors may stop in at Hauteville House, where French writer Victor Hugo spent 14 years in exile on the island. On Sark, look for the remains of a 180-year-old silver mine near Port Gorey, an artifact of the island’s past industry, despite the fact the mine never did turn a profit.