The islands within the bailiwick are Guernsey, Alderney, Sark and Herm. Brecqhou and Jethou are in private hands and the tidal island of Lihou is held by a charitable trust, but open to the public.
These Old-Norse names stem from the Viking rule of Normandy, the bailiwick’s nearest French-coast neighbour. Earlier Roman settlers had different names for the Channel Islands, still used in colloquial fashion.
Norman feudal law divided the island into fiefs, still recognised in law up to 1980, but the origin of Guernsey’s ten parishes is uncertain. It is possible that the island’s affirmation of Christianity in the 12th century asserted if not created parish identity, with the building of eminent churches. From this also derived parish douzaines charged to this day with implementing routine administration.
Development has blurred parish boundaries but parish pride remains strong and each has distinctive qualities.
Guernsey’s largest parish geographically and family-friendly at heart, with safe sandy beaches and leafy Saumarez Park, home to summer festivals, the National Trust of Guernsey’s Folk Museum and children’s adventure playground.
The near-legendary fish and chips on the sea wall watching stunning sunsets is as good as it sounds, shared by more formal west-coast dining, if preferred.
There are wide tracks of green-belt land, especially at Talbot Valley and nearby Fauxquets Valley, and an eclectic mix of housing styles and densities. This includes clusters of fine old farmhouses, notably in the hamlet of Kings Mills, although modern architecture is increasingly popular, especially when replacing 20th century buildings. The proposed redevelopment of La Grande Mare Golf Club to international status is affirmation of Castel’s inherent appeal.
Formerly known as Trinity, Forest takes its name from its once densely-wooded habitat. The parish is the highest in the island and includes dramatic parts of Guernsey’s south-coast network of cliff paths, best accessed from Le Gouffre. There is a honeycomb of hedge-lined lanes and an enchanting valley down to Petit Bôt Bay, with the charming hamlet of Le Variouf above.
The German Occupation Museum near the parish church is as much for locals as it is visitors, and the family-owned Forest Stores is delightfully retrospective, yet a must for the island’s best family kitchens. The community spirited and award-winning Forest Floral Group is tireless in enhancing the parish they see as a gateway to the island, in the form of Guernsey’s modern airport.
In the centre of the island is the garden of Guernsey. What the parish lacks in coastline it makes up for in rural pasture, and a Tony Jacklin designed golf course. At its heart St Andrew’s has fields of gold once central to cider making in the island. Its church is affectionately known as St André de la Pommeraye, or St Andrew of the apple orchard, as celebrated each year in good family fashion in the rectory gardens.
There are lovely clusters of granite farmhouses and the Little Chapel’s setting of Vauxbelets means pretty little valleys, watched over by a former monastery, now Blanchelande College. Talbot Valley is even prettier and while it lies predominantly in the Castel, St Andrew’s will point to where it begins.
Jerbourg Point marks St Martin’s and Guernsey’s south-east corner with panoramic views across to neighbouring islands. Fermain Bay was a favourite of Victor Hugo’s, and Pierre-Auguste Renoir captured Moulin Huet in fifteen of his paintings.
Cliff paths and green lanes provide excellent walks and Sausmarez Manor is a resplendent Queen Anne house, with regular events in its grounds. There are good family amenities, excellent hotels, restaurants and pubs, plus a M&S food hall for home dining. This is a sought-after location with a vibrant parish centre and housing market to match.
At the gateway to St Martin’s parish church stands La Gran’mère du Chimquière (the grandmother of the churchyard), where present-day brides often adorn the pagan statue-menhir (c.2500BC) with a floral headdress.
The picturesque harbour town combines pedestrian shopping and alfresco bars and restaurants. There are fine hotels, St James Concert Hall, Candie Gardens and two exceptional colleges in sight of each other, while Victor Hugo’s Hauteville House is in the older French quarter.
Its thriving square-mile in the business sector includes leading names in finance, insurance and law and Admiral Park is a modern, dockland-style redevelopment of apartments, offices and one of two Waitrose mega-stores in the parish.
St Peter Port still has open green spaces inland and a small park with a popular leisure centre. Old and new houses sit comfortably together but it is the larger Georgian townhouses, spectacular new-builds on high ground, brewery conversions and the Fort George private estate that catch the eye.
Step back a pace into rural St Peter’s, where the family next door will have owned the same house for generations. Tradition and the beauty of these houses go some way to explain why, and strict planning measures allow limited opportunity for new residents wanting to share this sylvan idyll.
St Peter’s has two coastlines – dramatic high cliffs to the South, with an exceptional stretch of the cliff-path network, and sandy beaches to the West that, with Torteval, host the annual Rocquaine Regatta (Henley, it’s not!). At the far end of L’Eree beach is the tidal island of Lihou and the adjacent nature reserve that form Guernsey’s first RAMSAR site. Also hereabouts are the showground fields for the annual two-day West Show, an agricultural and side-show extravaganza.
In the 6th century, Guernsey’s patron saint, Samson of Dol, had a church built where he first came ashore and where the parish church now stands, dating from 1111.
Industries have thrived in St Sampson’s, but its busy harbour is loosening its blue collar as alternative forms of energy are introduced and cloud-based industries take over. Private leisure boats moor in a marina where coal and timber were once shipped ashore and planners have earmarked the island’s second town for rejuvenation.
Delancey Park is its highpoint and L’Islet shows another side of the parish with a sandy beach and shops, including M&S food hall.
A smaller, detached section of St Sampson’s lies on the northwest coast, with an easier approach to town and to parish life in general.
Farming has been at the heart of St Saviour’s for centuries. The parish is blessed with great swathes of lush pasture and sheltered valleys descending onto a westerly coastline. Three of the valleys were flooded to form the island’s reservoir, around which the millennium walk takes an hour or so to complete.
St Saviour’s church and community centre are the focal points for parishioners and regular events often attract island-wide attention, such as the church’s annual music festival and revelry. Hotels and restaurants in the parish are few, but good.
The many fine farmhouses in St Saviour’s, some dating from the 17th century, are evidence of the parish’s inherent prosperity, and new development has been sparse giving rise to premium house prices as demand is high.
Torteval is in two parts, although only 100 feet apart at Rue de L’Aitte. It includes Pleinmont Point, a favourite walk beginning at the quaint harbour of Portelet. The higher ground is Guernsey’s equivalent to Land’s End and the start, or end, of the spectacular south-coast network of cliff paths.
The sandy stretch of Rocquaine Bay and its regatta shared with St Peter’s are mentioned above, but Torteval’s great attraction is the Scarecrow Festival, annually drawing in 8,000 people over two days, strolling through the patchwork of scenic lanes near the parish church.
There is space aplenty throughout the parish, due to the relatively low ratio of houses, and demand is high. Some buyers say it’s too far out, which, for others, is what makes Torteval special.
The ancient names of Le Clos du Valle and Vale Vingtaine de l’Epine remain on record but they are administered as one and jointly called Vale.
The parish offers wide sandy beaches and surfing at Portinfer, two fishing harbours at Grande Harve, a marina at Beaucette and horseshoe harbour at Bordeaux. There is a Royal 18-hole links course within extensive common land that also has a competition-standard rifle range.
Vale and its former abbey found favour with William the Conqueror and his father before him, whose storm-torn ship found safety at L’Ancresse (the anchorage). Wealth and industry have long since been Vale’s bywords, displayed in numerous 17th- and 18th-century farmhouses, pretty cottages and vast Victorian villas in an inland maze of lanes.