FolkestoneJack's Tracks

Twentieth century castle

Posted in Jersey by folkestonejack on September 14, 2018

The highlight of most childhood holidays to Jersey was a visit to Elizabeth Castle. It is spectacularly located on three interconnected islands in St Aubin’s Bay and surrounded by the sea for much of the day.

At low tide you can walk out to the castle on a 1km causeway but when this is covered you can take an amphibious vehicle out to the entrance. The novelty of the approach just added to the excitement and the moment we stepped back onto that causeway I could feel that infectious childhood enthusiasm creeping back upon me.

A view across Elizabeth Castle towards the causeway and St Helier

The first phases of the castle were constructed at the end of the 16th century and when complete the official residence of the Governor was transferred from Mont Orgueil. The castle was originally named Fort Isabella Bellissima after Elizabeth I by Walter Raleigh (Governor of Jersey, 1600-1603) and became the royal residence when Charles II sought refuge on the island in the 1640s. Jersey was the first place in the British Isles to proclaim Charles II as king, 18 days after the execution of Charles I.

There is an earlier structure connected with the castle. In the 6th century a hermit named Helibert, better known today as St Helier, settled in a cell in a rocky outcrop south east of L’Islet. From this vantage point Helibert was able to keep a watchful eye for pirates and warn the locals – until one day they caught up with him. The pirates cut off Helibert’s head but legend says that he just picked it up and walked to the shore.

The hermitage, bunker and breakwater

Around this time L’Islet became a religious site – first with a monastery (6th-9th century) and then with an abbey in the twelfth century. A chapel was built on top of St Helier’s cell in this second phase of religious in-habitation, which remained an isolated spot until it was connected to L’Islet with the construction of a breakwater in 1872.

In a strange echo of its past, a concrete bunker with 2 metre thick concrete was constructed next to the hermitage during the occupation with space for a solitary soldier to guard the seaward approach to St Helier. This lone individual had the task, if required, of remotely detonating a string of mines located on the seabed at the entrance to St Helier’s harbour.

The later history of Elizabeth Castle is fascinating. In essence you had a castle that was preserved as a visitor attraction in the 1920s which should have been the end of its development, but instead a further evolution of the structures and arnaments was carried out during the German occupation. The modernised castle was a statement about control of the island as much as it was about the external threat from sea.

The entrance to the Type 621 Personnel Bunker (next to the Canteen) blends perfectly with the older structures of the lower ward

I had hoped that by now the many 1940s additions to the castle would have been better presented and explained than in my past visits, but no such luck. I think that is a pity as this is a unique site with some rare constructions and extraordinarily well integrated bunkers that you barely notice on a wander, such as a Type 621 Personnel Bunker discretely hidden behind a wall that looks much older. A comparison of the condition of the gun emplacements and tracks today with my photographs from the 1980s shows that they have deteriorated significantly since we last visited.

The Jersey War Tours team have done a terrific job of surveying the elements added between 1940 to 1945, providing a sobering assessment of the condition of the surviving features with recommendations for restoration and maintenance. I really hope their suggestions are acted upon and that this period in the castle’s history can be preserved for future generations before it is too late. It’s a fascinating story and one that needs to be told.

A view of Elizabeth Castle from the Hermitage

I thoroughly enjoyed my return to Elizabeth Castle after an interval of 33 years. As a child it seemed an amazing place, but as much as I loved it I don’t think I quite appreciated just how unusual or special it was with its strangely elongated footprint and peculiar history. Nor did I understand just how extensive the 1940s modifications had been. It was good to get a better sense of all that amidst the nostalgia-fest!

We left the castle shortly before the gates closed for the day and took a slow saunter back to the esplanade, then headed over to the Old Station Cafe for a superb Thai meal and a view of the sun setting over the castle. It was almost dark as we returned to St Aubin, which turned out to be perfect – allowing me to enjoy the long forgotten spectacle of the lights coming on across the entire bay.


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