ABOUT HERM ISLAND
Most visitors will agree that Herm Island is a magical place. Every inch of the island is steeped in history and mystery. The north end of the island is made up of beautiful beaches and the vast grassy common, where woolly mammoth roamed millions of years ago, Neolithic settlements have been found, and where recent digs uncovered evidence of a prehistoric beach. This is where smugglers landed with their wares hundreds of years ago, where pirates hung as a warning to others, and where Prussian princesses walked in regal beauty. The east coast beaches, Shell and Belvoir, are where childhood memories are made. The soft white sand and clean blue water are perfect for play and swimming. The beach cafés are open in the summer months for snacks and sandwiches, and the famous Herm Ice Cream.
The south coast is home to high cliffs, winding flower-lined paths and white foam waves. Climb the hill to the Manor Village and you will find holiday cottages and log cabins to suit every size of family. This is where you can make a home from home, enjoy barbecues in the courtyard, and truly feel part of the island community.
A few minutes down the path leads to the Seagull campsite, a lovely, relaxing place to set up for a week or two, with beautiful scenic views over the water to Sark. On the other side of the island is the harbour village, the hub of island life. Here you can enjoy delicious food and Herm’s very own golden ale at The Mermaid Tavern and courtyard, or stock up on little treasures and souvenirs at the Herm Shop. The White House Hotel has been established on the island for many decades. Famously there are no TVs or telephones in the rooms, and the whole ambience is geared toward a peaceful, stress-free holiday. It’s two restaurants are a lovely place to sit and relax, with The Conservatory offering stunning views of the sea and sunsets.
Herm Island has been home to monks, Nazi soldiers, and even a famous writer. It’s beauty and charm have attracted many interesting characters over the years. A lot of our ways and traditions have been in place for several generations, having been established by the Wood family who ran the Island from 1949, followed by the Starboard Settlement, which took over their guardianship from 2008.
Whether you are new to Herm Island or have been coming here for many years, there are some things which will never change: the gentle lapping of the waves against the harbour rocks, the breathtaking views that make you stop and take it all in, and the feeling of well-being and peace you have when you step off the island onto the boat back to Guernsey.
The island has been home to Neolithic man, monks, quarrymen, farmers, writers, artists and wealthy entrepreneurs. A brief outline of which is below, but you can find more details of their rich and colourful lifestyles are detailed in Hidden Treasures of Herm Island by Catherine Kalamis, available at the Herm Island Gift Shops.
Up to the 16th Century
The first people to set foot on Herm arrived in the Mesolithic period between the years 10,000 and 8,000 B.C. – hunter-gatherers who came ashore in search of food. Settlers arrived in the Neolithic and Bronze ages, and the revealing remains of their tombs can still be seen. There are many around the common and on the hillsides of Petit and Grand Monceau.
In medieval times the position and solitude of Herm Island held great spiritual appeal for those seeking the monastic life. Missionary monks visited in the sixth century, including followers of St Tugual, a Celtic missionary. A chapel was dedicated to his memory, its first record in ecclesiastical literature being 1251. The church has been restored and is still used today.
From the middle 900s to 1569 all the Channel Islands came under the jurisdiction of the Duchy of Normandy. Herm was then handed over by Norman dukes into the control of Norman monasteries. Monks lived on the island for several decades, farming and giving religious instruction.
To the late 1800s
Between 1570 and 1737 Herm Island was used as a playground for the Governors of Guernsey. Wealthy gentlemen sailed over from Guernsey to hunt, shoot and fish. The island was stocked with pheasants, partridges, swans and rabbits. The island was then leased as farmland, and an inn was established in 1810. Herm Island then changed dramatically: it became a centre for granite quarrying as Britain entered
the Industrial Revolution. Tough Herm Island granite was ideal for road and bridge building, and it was supplied for the maintenance of London Bridge. The remains of several of the quarries can still be seen – beyond Rosaire Steps, behind the hotel, to the west of the hill above Fishermans Beach called Monku, and beneath the Obelisk on the common.
During this quarrying era the first large community since prehistoric times was formed and the harbour, roads and pathways were constructed. 400 quarrymen were estimated to be working on the island. To cater for their needs, accommodation, a forge, blacksmiths, brewery, bakery and a prison were built. A railway crane lifted blocks to ships waiting in the harbour. Herm Island’s industrial era was over by the late 1800s.
To the Second World War
In 1889 Prince Blucher von Wahlstatt, grandson of the famous Prussian Field Marshall Gebhard Blucher who fought with Wellington at Waterloo bought the island lease. During his 26 year stay, he tidied up the island, transforming it into his private kingdom. One of his children, Count Lothair, was born on the island. At the age of 69, Prince Blucher married a young woman named Princess Wanda Radziwell. Her sister, Princess Louise, went on to meet and then marry the Prince’s son, Count Lothair. Both couples lived on the island but were forced to leave at the outbreak of the First World War.
The novelist Compton Mackenzie was the next resident – he wrote much about the island and represented Herm Island in a fictional manner in his novel Fairy Gold. Mackenzie sold the lease to Sir Percival Perry, chairman of the Ford Motor Company, who in turn introduced the first motor car to the island. Legend has it that Henry Ford stayed at Belvoir House during on summer vacation. Perry lived in the White House (he named the building after his American connections) and improved the island by planting trees, restoring cottages, building a new inner harbour and investing in the island farm. Lamposts and cottage fronts were painted blue or orange – the colours of the Ford Motor Company. Perry loved Herm as a private retreat and found it useful for inviting the well connected. He would stage tea dances at the ‘Mansion House’ (now The Manor), and built a golf course on the common.
This rather grand era came to an end with the Second World War. The Channel Islands, including Herm, were occupied by German troops – the island was claimed by the Third Reich on 20 July 1940. The propaganda film ‘The Invasion of the Isle of Wight’ showed German troops sweeping ashore on Herm. The German occupation was by a small battalion of soldiers, although others visited from Guernsey to relax. On 9 May 1945, the Channel Islands were liberated – a British commanding officer arrived on Herm Island to begin a clearance operation and search for mines.
Soon after the war, it was agreed that Herm Island should be handed over to a tenant who would care for the island, allowing its natural beauty to be enjoyed by everyone. From 1946 to 1949 the island was occupied by Mr A G Jeffries. In 1949 Peter and Jenny Wood took over the lease of Herm Island, and it has remained in their family but was managed by Adrian and Pennie Heyworth, the daughter and son-in-law of Peter and Jenny until September 2008.
The lease of Herm Island is now owned by John and Julia Singer, Island Managers for the Starboard Settlement.
The White House Hotel opens just before Easter weekend, and it is this occasion which marks the start of the new holiday season on Herm Island. Ferry boats between Guernsey and Herm Island begin to operate a more frequent service, enabling afternoon or lunch visits. The pathways are adorned by a profusion of wildflowers, including bluebells. It is an ideal time for walking, bird watching or simply enjoying the early spring sunshine.
Herm Island now comes into its own with some of the finest beaches in the British Channel Islands. Belvoir Bay has lovely views across the sea to Sark, Alderney and France. Everyone enjoys swimming in the safe, clear water. But take the time to find all the other beaches ‘off the beaten track’.
Warm amber and gold colours and the appearance of blackberries on the Common mark the autumn months. Perfect for bracing walks rounded off by lunch in front of an open fire at The Mermaid Tavern. The White House Hotel stays open until the end of September. Autumn is also an excellent time for bird watching.
A boat service to Herm Island from Guernsey continues all year, but is dependent on the weather and runs less frequently. Guests can stay in self-catering cottages with open fires and central heating. The Mermaid Tavern and Gift Shops remain open for limited hours. The beach cafés and hotel are closed. Special ferry charters in November and December bring local Channel Island residents from Guernsey to do Christmas shopping.
During spring migrants from Southern Europe and Africa join resident birds to feed – from Herm Island they will fly north to the UK and Scandinavia. Residents range from the kestrel, the most common bird of prey, to rarer long-eared owls. They breed on the island, feeding on mice and shrews. House Martins, Swallows and Swifts can all be found on the island and the cuckoo calls from May onwards. Meadow pipits are often seen flying over the common.
The gorse bushes provide perfect perches for migrant whinchat, chiff-chaff and willow warblers. Robins, wrens, dunnocks, blackbird and song thrushes all breed here. In winter numbers are swelled by visitors from Europe. The redwing and fieldfare visit from Scandinavia.
Around the coast
The Bailiwick of Guernsey, of which Herm Island is part, is an important site for the turnstone. In winter it is joined by the curlew. The black and white oyster-catcher with its bright orange bill and distinctive cry can be seen on beaches at the water’s edge.
Between October and April around 60 Brent geese visit, flying in from the Arctic Coast of Siberia. Puffins are here every spring, although their numbers are declining. You may be surprised just how small they are.
Their cousins in the auk family, the guillemot and razor-bill can also be seen. Common terns flying in from south and west Africa nest on islets. The mewing of the herring gull can be heard all year round, joining the lesser and great black backed gulls, as well as black headed gulls. Shags, cormorants and fulmar petrels all breed here and nest around the cliffs and coast. In Autumn birds are on the move again, with flocks of plovers, sanderlings, knot and godwits frequently flying in.
To the north of the island and almost carpeting the heathland the Burnet Rose is well established. This is a sprawling shrub but reduced no doubt, by rabbits which nibble the young shoots. The creamy blossoms appear in June and have a delicate fragrance. Rush and Marram Grass flourish in the sand dunes, but the attractive Sea Holly, with its silver-green leaves and bright blue thistle-like flowers, as well as the Yellow Horned Poppy, are in danger of elimination.
The southern cliffs of Herm Island are home to the various Heathers, Stonecrop, Seapinks, and Rock Samphire all of which are found growing in natural terraces that have been worn away by the winter gales.
If you climb the wooded drive towards the church and which is flanked by giant Cypreses, Pines and Eucalyptus trees, you will no doubt see the many beautiful ferns and the following plants can also be found…Periwinkle, Woodspurge, Red Broomrape and Ivy Broomrape, Red Campion. Lords and Ladies, Ramsons, Foxglove, Rose of Sharon, Purple Toadflax, Triangular stalked Garlic, also the Gladdon (Iris family) with its impressive seed pods of red/orange in the autumn.
These are but a few of the wild flowers to be found in an afternoon’s ramble, and who knows, you might find something unexpected like….the Star of Bethlehem.