By Betty Gordon
© 2018 text and photos, except where noted. All rights reserved.
When the novel “The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society” was published in 2008, its release brought a flurry of interest in the second most-populated of the British Channel Islands.
With last Friday’s opening in the United Kingdom of the film adaptation of the book, by Mary Ann Shaffer and Annie Barrows, the island is likely to be ready for its closeup again. (Netflix has distribution rights to the film in the United States.)
Funny thing though: Not one scene was filmed on the island. English locations in London, Devon and Cornwall stand in for Guernsey.
In pre-production, directors came and went — actor Kenneth Branagh among them — as did lead actresses. At one time, Kate Winslet was to star, then it was Rosamund Pike.
Lily James, of “Downton Abbey” and “Cinderella” fame, in the role of Juliet Ashton, plays a post-World War II London writer, who strikes up a pen-pal friendship with Guernsey residents who formed the book club of the novel’s title, and comes to learn of their experiences under five years of Nazi occupation.
The cast is, in fact, a mini reunion of “Downton Abbey” actors. In addition to James, you’ll recognize Penelope Wilton (Isobel Crawley on DA), Jessica Brown Findlay (Lady Sybil Crawley Branson) and Matthew Goode (Henry Talbot).
The director is Mike Newell, perhaps best-known for “Four Weddings and a Funeral” and “Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire.”
In May 2009, I visited three of the Channel Islands — Jersey, Guernsey and Sark.
The word “charming” is often overused in travel stories, but it perfectly fits these islands, especially Guernsey, with its stacked-stone walls lining narrow country lanes and sturdily built, lovingly named houses (Southernwood, La Manse, Rose Cottage, for example).
I had read the book by then, but my interest was piqued years earlier, when I wrote a travel article in 2005 for my then-employer, The Atlanta Journal-Constitution, about the islands’ commemorations of the 60th anniversary of their liberation in 1945.
During World War II, the islands were the only part of the British Isles occupied by German troops. Nightly curfews, daily restrictions and food shortages were commonplace as islanders, in the best British “stiff upper lip” tradition, did what was necessary to survive.
Liberation Day is annually observed on May 9, and I planned my trip so as to witness the re-enactment of British troops (in period costume) arriving back on Jersey, and partake of the celebrations in general. I also visited several of the museums and WWII sights on Jersey.
The islands, including Alderney and Herm and several privately owned spits of land not open to the public, lie about 80 miles from the southern coast of England. They are far closer to the Normandy area of northwest France, about 14 miles, than the United Kingdom.
Though allied with France at the time of William the Conqueror, for centuries they’ve been self-governing British Crown dependencies. Their history and customs are a rich mix of both cultures.
About 60,000 people live on Guernsey today, making a living from banking and financial services, agriculture — think namesake fawn-and-white colored dairy cows — and tourism.
Guernsey is an excellent place to unwind. You can be as busy as you like, having a lengthy cliff-top ramble, investigating secluded sandy coves or going fishing. Or you can wander the shops in St. Peter Port — there is no Value Added Tax levied — and enjoy the freshly caught seafood at one of the cozy restaurants. There’s far more to experience than the sights I’ve mentioned here.
From Jersey, I took the ferry to Guernsey and caught just the tail end of its May 9 festivities, many of which were held harborside at St. Peter Port.
Guernsey, like Jersey, has an excellent bus system. A dark-haired Irish lad was often the driver on my route back to my small hotel, La Barbarie (labarbariehotel.com), and we had many brief, pleasant conversations.
Nearly 12,000 German troops occupied Guernsey during the war. Before the assault began in late June 1940, thousands of schoolchildren (most without their parents) were evacuated by boat to England.
So many others decided to flee that the island’s population was reduced almost by half, leaving about 17,000 to endure life under enemy control. Contact between friends and loved ones living islands apart was limited to 25-word messages, their delivery facilitated by the Red Cross.
On June 28, German planes attacked St. Peter Port over two days, resulting in 33 civilians deaths. No military resistance was mounted because the British government didn’t think Guernsey was of strategic value, and was still reeling from the massive evacuation of more than 330,000 British, French, Belgian and Polish troops from Dunkirk, France.
By June 30, the first Nazis, arriving in aircraft, had begun the occupation.
“All clocks and watches are to be advanced one hour as from midnight of the 2nd 3rd July, 1940, to accord with German time,” said order number six (of 17) from the Commandant of German forces, as reported on the front page of The Star, Guernsey’s oldest newspaper, on July 3.
At the privately-owned German Occupation Museum, visitors can see a small collection of weaponry, memorabilia (medals, uniforms, band instruments) and a re-creation of a typical kitchen from a Guernsey household. The scene is set after dinner, with the father listening to a forbidden wireless that is cleverly concealed during the day.
A street scene, filled with storefronts and period-costumed mannequins, offers another look at what life was like in the 1940s.
The museum also has an Enigma machine, used by the Nazis to send encrypted messages that they thought were unbreakable. Little did they know that teams of linguists, scientists, mathematicians and others at Bletchley Park in England had deciphered the secrets of the Enigma, led in part by the groundbreaking work of Alan Turing, often credited as being the father of modern computing.
La Valette Underground Military Museum, housed in slave-labor-built tunnels that were planned as fuel-storage depots for refueling German U-boats, has a much wider array of weapons, uniforms and vehicles. Some of the items date to World War I.
The fuel tanks were of great interest after the war when getting oil was still difficult, but the tunnel was closed over the ensuing decades. It wasn’t until the late 1980s that the site was converted into a museum.
I also went to the German Military Underground Hospital and Ammunition Store, which has a collection of occupation newspapers, fascinating in and of themselves. (According to Visit Guernsey, this sight is closed until further notice.)
The tunnels of the hospital and ammunition store, in the south-central part of the island, cover about 75,000 square feet, the largest physical reminder of the Nazi occupation.
Slave laborers (many of them POWs) from countries occupied by the Germans, such as France, Belgium, Holland, and others from Spain, Morocco, Algeria, Poland and Russia, along with some Guernseymen, were forced to work long hours on starvation diets, removing 60,000 tons of granite over a 3.5-year period.
Much of the work was done by hand with picks, shovels and sledgehammers, and the occasional use of explosives and pneumatic drills.
The tunnels had a full heating and air-conditioning scheme, five ventilation shafts, three entrances, an electric generating plant and their own reservoir.
The hospital, with space to treat 800 patients, was used for only about three months. Hundreds of wounded Germans were transported from the Normandy beaches after the Allies’ invasion in June 1944.
The concrete-reinforced hospital layout mimics a ladder: Two long parallel corridors connect a series of “rungs,” that housed the wards, operation room, X-ray room, lab, dispensary and staff sleeping quarters. Also included were a kitchen, store rooms, a cinema and a mortuary.
Not much remains today other than some beds and kitchen equipment. When the Germans fled, a lot of the equipment went with them and the British took a much of what was left in 1945.
The Ammunition Store was just to the north (and a tiny bit west) of the hospital. Similar in layout to the hospital but even larger, it was occupied for about nine months. Thousands of tons of tarp-covered ammunition packed the rooms. From the spring onward — the walls were dripping when I visited — considerable condensation would have posed a threat to the ammunition.
Less than a 10-minute walk from the hospital is the distinctive Little Chapel, about 16.5 feet long and 10 feet wide (5-by-3 meters), and the dream creation of Brother Déodat of the De La Salle Brothers.
His goal was a chapel in the style of the famous grotto-and-basilica Catholic pilgrimage site in Lourdes, France. Brother Déodat came to Guernsey in 1904, fleeing France and its laws forbidding religious schools.
In 1914, he built the first small chapel before demolishing it almost immediately. A second stood at the same site until 1923, when, after a visiting bishop could not fit through the door, Brother Déodat decided to start again.
The third, under construction for a number of years, is the one that stands today, though Brother Déodat never saw its completion, having returned to France in 1939 because of ill health.
Brother Déodat spent a considerable amount of time collecting small pebbles and seashells to decorate the chapel’s exterior and interior. Adding to its uniqueness are the colorful mosaics, and many pieces of broken china, including discernible English Wedgwood, adorning the chapel and steps leading to the entrance.
Deep in the countryside, it’s among the most-photographed sights on Guernsey.
Also high on my list of must-sees was the former residence of French author Victor Hugo, who lived on Guernsey for 15 of the 19 years of his political exile, 1856-1870. Among the works he wrote while in residence with his family (and his mistress living down the street) was “Les Miserables” (1862).
Hauteville House, a white, five-story structure and adjoining garden, is up a steep hill from St. Peter Port. From the top-floor, glassed-in porch overlooking the harbor, Castle Cornet and Havelet Bay, visitors can picture Hugo letting his imagination wander as he plotted what was next for his complex, often-troubled characters.
Much of the heavy wooden, ornately carved furniture was of his own design, drawing from his extensive travels in Europe.
The decor is an eclectic mix of styles and furnishings, and much of the interior is very dark, which doesn’t make it photography-friendly.
One room is covered, including the ceiling, with priceless Flemish- and French-made tapestries. Hidden behind a panel is a darkroom, where Hugo could indulge his keen interest in photography.
Blue-and-white tiles imported from Delft in the Netherlands surround the dining room fireplace, with the squares on the face arranged in two overlapping letters “H” for Hauteville House.
Hugo’s small bedroom and a book-lined corridor are also on the top floor.
The house, donated by descendants to the city of Paris in 1927, is administered by a French team. A major renovation is under way, and the house is closed for the rest of 2018. It is scheduled to reopen in April 2019.
Visit Guernsey is publicizing walking tours and bus tours highlighting locations from the book, as well as a host of other tie-ins.
Search the website for a link to two You Tube videos to see Guernsey chef Tony Leck preparing the wartime version of savory potato peel pie and a modern one, which is inverted to serve, like an upside-down cake. The recipe for the latter is on the Guernsey website.
For tour details, much more about the WWII occupation and further information about how much Guernsey has to offer, see www.visitguernsey.com.
For a schedule of this year’s May 9 Liberation Day festivities on Guernsey, see www.guernseyliberationday.com
Quick reference: Hauteville House: 38 Hauteville, St. Peter Port, Guernsey. http://www.maisonsvictorhugo.paris.fr/en/museum-collections/house-visit-guernsey
German Occupation Museum: Adults, £6 (about $8.40), children £3 (about $4.20) 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. daily April to October. 10 a.m. to 1 p.m. Tuesdays-Sundays in November to March. www.germanoccupationmuseum.co.uk
La Valette Underground Military Museum: 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. daily, March 1-November 15. Adults £6 (about $8.40), children £3.50 ($4.90). Opposite the bathing pools in St. Peter Port. lavalette.tk