Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

Starry, starry Sark

Europe's last fiefdom is a world apart

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We were in pyjamas when we trotted onto the front lawn of our bed and breakfast to gaze at the midnight stars.

"It's magic," said my wife, Oxana, awestruck at the twinkling canopy. "Sheer magic."

Not that we could identify anything beyond the Big Dipper. The mass of stars was enough for us thoroughly urban creatures. After all, we'd see nothing like it back home in Ottawa, because Sark gets dark. Really dark.

An island tucked away in the English Channel, around 35 kilometres off Normandy, Sark is home to just 600 people and tolerates neither cars nor street lamps -- all of which means the night sky's so black that in 2011 Sark became the world's only island to be certified by the International Dark-Sky Association, an organization that fights light pollution.

Sarkees worked hard for the honour. Homeowners eliminated unnecessary outdoor lights and ensured the remaining lamps don't illuminate more ground than necessary. Folks raised funds to transform an abandoned mill into an observatory. Even the island's few venerable inns, such as the Stocks Hotel, whose buildings date back as far as 1751, audited their lighting.

It's all meant to draw tourists in winter, when sky-gazing is best, and to convert summer day-trippers from Guernsey, the bulk of Sark's 40,000 annual visitors, into overnight guests.

The dark-sky push seems right for an island that attracts those fleeing the pace of contemporary life. To visit is to decelerate into a simpler time. As a former chamber of commerce president, Peter Tonks, put it: "Some have described Sark as a 'Famous Five Island,' " referring to the popular series of British childrens' books by Enid Blyton. "What better place for children from urban areas to get their first clear views of a sky full of stars?"


It's a place from a bygone time in many ways. Until 2008, Sark was Europe's last fiefdom, a form of governance bestowed in 1565 when Queen Elizabeth I deeded the 11.5-square-kilometre island to its first seigneur, Helier de Carteret.


In exchange, he had to populate it with 40 men, each of whom would own a musket and defend a mile of jagged coastline against pirates.

There's still a seigneur. He has lost his right to one-13th of the proceeds from any property sale, it's true, but remains the only islander who can own both pigeons and unspayed dogs. Governance is now in the hands of an elected parliament called the Chief Pleas. The island remains a dependency of the British crown, however, so requires royal assent on legislation.

"Famous Five" spunk shows up in the lack of health and unemployment insurance or old age pensions -- though there's no income tax, either. Divorce was legalized only in 2003. Residents take turns serving a two-year stint as police constable, and the two-cell jail, which tourists might mistake for a public lavatory, is the smallest functioning hoosegow in the world.

But nothing beats the no-car rule for setting Sark apart.

Cars were banned by the island's most colourful seigneur, Dame Sybil Hathaway, before the Second World War. Farmers are allowed tractors. The ambulance and fire truck are powered by tractors, too. But everyone else rides bicycles, or carriages, which serve as taxis and tour buses and are drawn by Shire horses.

Mainly, though, people walk. Road signs give distances in walking minutes.

When we arrived by ferry from Guernsey, just 10 kilometres away, we had to wend our way to the plateau where life happens, 30 metres above the sea. We could have opted to take the "toast rack," a tractor-pulled wagon-cum-bus. But we hiked instead, along a steep path lush with bluebells, ferns and wild garlic.

It was the first of several walks, as it turned out, past tidy green pastures, where Guernsey cows or sheep graze, past stone fences, thickly wooded valleys and majestic vistas of sea -- that's what a Sark holiday entails.

Most stunning of all is the narrow isthmus that joins Sark and Little Sark. Called La Coup}e, it's the island's most-photographed site, and for good reason: it's barely wide enough for a carriage, and steep cliffs on each side plummet to the sea.

When carriages cross, passengers must descend for safety and walk across the isthmus. With knees of jelly, we nevertheless revelled in the magnificent panoramas of Grande Grove Bay, where a small sandy beach is flanked by Sark's trademark red cliffs.

The landscape is dotted with approximately 600 species of wildflowers. A handy one-pound ($1.65) guide allowed us to distinguish foxgloves from seapinks, primrose from gorse. It's emblematic of both the pace of the island and its beauty that a top-rated festival is the Wildflower Fortnight each spring. (It's rivalled only by Sheep Racing Weekend in July.)

All summer long, groups depart from the visitor centre for tours of private gardens. Oxana signed up for one, where a mix of residents and visitors got to see -- among others -- the 3.5-acre flower garden of Peter Miller, former chairman of Lloyd's of London. The tour was led by Jean Higham, who has been Miller's head gardener for three decades.

One garden that's always open is at the Seigneurie itself. And what plants they are. We were gobsmacked by one unusual flower, osteospermum whirligig. "Looks like it was designed by a computer, doesn't it?" mused head gardener Jo Birch. That, or a daisy gone horribly mutant.

But for all that, local tourism officials reserve the epithet "the jewel of Sark's natural treasures" for the Gouliot Headland, where a network of sea caves is open to surging water at high tide. When tides are low, they're accessible by foot, and explorers are treated to a rich diversity of marine life, including anemone prawns and black-face blennies.

The strong current of the English Channel brings dozens of fish species, which in turn attract a zoo's worth of sea birds, including gannets, kestrels and oystercatchers. To see them is a prime reward of walking.

In such an idyll as Sark, food is important. The island seems remarkably self-sufficient. La Sablonnerie, for example, produces its own meat, produce and dairy -- much as must have happened when the long, low farmhouse was built 400 years ago. Another restaurant, at the Dixcart Bay Hotel, was recently named Britain's sustainable restaurant of the year for similar reasons.

It's small wonder, then, that Sark was popular with artists and writers, including landscape painter J.M.W. Turner and novelist Victor Hugo.

And that it was so magical to us. In daylight or dark.


-- Postmedia Network Inc. 2013

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition October 26, 2013 A1


Updated on Saturday, October 26, 2013 at 10:25 AM CDT: added video, fixed lede

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