The Channel Islands: The Complete Guide

Sark Isthmus
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Great Britain—that part of the U.K. that includes England, Scotland, and Wales, but not Northern Ireland—is surrounded by islands. Some, like the Isles of Scilly, off Cornwall and Orkney,  off Scotland, are part of the U.K.

But others, in particular, Jersey, Guernsey, Alderney, Sark, and Herm, are independent states of sorts with their governments, their own laws, their own unique history (during World War II, they were the only parts of the British Isles to be occupied by the Nazis), and an oddly tangled relationship with the U.K.

The people of these islands, for example, are British subjects but not necessarily British citizens. They may be entitled to a British passport if they have a parent or grandparent born in the U.K. or if they, themselves, have lived in the U.K. for five years. In practice, that means just about everyone.

Morning light on St Aubins Harbour, St Aubins, Jersey, Channel Islands
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Jersey, the Biggest Channel Island and Little Bit of British France

Jersey, the biggest Channel Island at about 47 square miles, is 87 miles south of the U.K. and is considered the southernmost of the British Islands (the official designation—the "British Isles" being a literary and informal title). It is much closer to France than England, only 14 miles offshore.

Jersey is a popular vacation destination for its mild climate, long beaches washed by Gulf Stream waters, and unusual hybrid "franglais" culture. How this little bit of France became a Crown Dependency of the British monarch is a fluke of history.

The Channel Islands were a part of the Duchy of Normandy and among the possessions William the Conqueror brought with him when he became King of England in 1066. For about 200 years, the islands and Normandy and England were united, but the islands were administered from Normandy. In 1204, King John of England lost Normandy to the King of France. To keep the loyalty of the strategically important Channel Islands, King John decreed they could continue to be governed according to the laws they were used to—Norman law.

As a result, a separate system of government was created with the British Monarch ruling as the "Duke of Normandy." Although the systems have changed over time, Jersey retains its separate-ish status. It is not part of the E.U.—though it has an associate relationship to facilitate trade. It is not subject to the laws of the U.K. Parliament, though U.K. currency is legal tender, and it depends upon the U.K. armed forces for defense. The official languages are English and French, and a local patois blends them both.

Oh, and one last oddity—to islanders, Queen Elizabeth II is still considered the Duke of Normandy and referred to, by the island legislature, as "Our Duke."

Jersey's main town is St. Helier. It's a large, lively place with lots of shopping and dining options.

Guernsey, a Bailiwick in the English Channel

Like Jersey, Guernsey is a British Crown Dependency with its own government and an associate relationship with the British Commonwealth and the E.U. Known for its seafood, beaches, and yacht harbors, Guernsey, at 24 square miles, is the second largest of the British Channel Islands. It lies 75 miles south of the English Coast and 30 miles from Normandy.

Guernsey has beautiful beaches, cliffs and cliff walks, and areas of lovely rolling hills. It also has its own group of associated islands included in the "bailiwick": Alderney, Herm, and Sark, a feudal state until 2006 and Europe's newest democracy.

A bailiwick is an area governed by a bailiff. It's an ancient term and has little relevance today as most of the islands in this bailiwick have their own governments.

Guernsey's main town is St. Peter Port. The book "The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Society," about life on the island during World War II, was recently made into a British film and is set in St. Peter Port. The port is also the location of the 800-year-old Castle Cornet.

Dense cloud in blue sky above houses and grass
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Alderney, Unspoiled, Undiscovered Britain Just 8 Miles From France

Alderney is an unspoiled, natural island with a population of 2,000 noted for its traditional lifestyle, flora, and fauna. It is 23 miles from Guernsey and only 8 miles from the coast of France. Despite being only 3 1/2 miles long and 1 1/2 miles wide, smaller than both Jersey and Guernsey, Alderney has its own government, airport, and port. It can be reached by scheduled flights from the mainland U.K., Guernsey, Jersey, or mainland France. There are also scheduled ferry services from France and the other Channel Islands.

This tiny island's unusual attractions include the Channel Islands' only railway, composed of antique subway cars that saw earlier service on the London Underground. They were part of the Northern Line Centennial and still wear their 1920 Northern Line livery. The principal town is St. Anne.

Sark, Europe's Youngest Democracy

Sark is the smallest of the four central British Channel Islands. Three miles long and 1 1/2 miles wide, it has a population of 550 and no motor cars. One tractor-drawn ambulance is the island's only motorized vehicle.

Sark was the last feudal state in Europe—maybe the world. Through 2007, it was governed by a Seigneur, appointed by the British monarch, and its legislators were landowners who had inherited the right to rule. Then, in August 2006, the legislators voted to allow all of Sark's residents to stand for election, and Europe's youngest democracy was born. The transition to full democracy took place in 2008.

Surprisingly, given its tiny size and population, Sark has three hotels, about 10 B&Bs, and several self-catering accommodations.

Herm, Tiny and Peaceful

Herm, a tiny islet 3 miles from Guernsey, is part of the Guernsey bailiwick. Too small for independence, it is owned by Guernsey and has been operated, under a lease, by the same family for three generations.

This is a place for really getting away from it all. The island's one hotel has no television, no telephones, and no clocks. Wi-Fi? What's that?

Besides the hotel, there are campsites, vacation rental cottages, and a piazza of gift shops where you can buy anything from ritzy beachwear, toys, and seaside fashions to the island's colorful stamps, issued until 1969.

United Kingdom, Channel islands, Sark, sailing boats off shore the island of Brecqhou
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Other Channel Islands

There are three further Channel Islands in the Bailiwick of Guernsey. Jethou and Brecqhou are privately occupied and not open to the public. Brecqhou is owned by the famously reclusive Barclay brothers, wealthy twins who own the London Telegraph. And last, Lihou is an uninhabited island off St. Peter Port that is a wetlands bird sanctuary and the site of some neolithic ruins. It can be reached on foot at low tide over a cobbled causeway and can be visited on organized walks.