Wednesday : Exploring St. Helier

My first full day in St. Helier and there’s going to be a lot about this town, the only one on Jersey, on this blog over the next few days. Which lets me drift off onto the subject of slow travel, something I probably haven’t written enough about before. Although after writing this, it might be said that I have gone to the other extreme and written too much.

Slow travel can be defined in a myriad of different ways, but it’s generally about staying longer in one place, not working to fixed itineraries, exploring the local history in depth, walking the streets often without a defined purpose, eating local food, visiting local pubs and cafes, reading books written by locals and meandering for far too long through the markets and museums. I’d better add now that this is just what I enjoy doing, others can do what travel they like, I am referring solely to my little adventures, it’s not for me to comment on how others deal with their excursions.

And I do have the advantage of being able to travel slowly, I can work from libraries, cafes, pubs, hotels and anywhere in between. Others with more limited holidays inevitably have to make sacrifices about what they can see and do, so I’m only going from my perspective. And I like doing that because it is usually, at least in the case of libraries, cafes and pubs, where locals will go, as long as I avoid the touristy locations. GeoGuessr can help with this, giving me random spots to visit in a defined area, to force me to find even more spots that I might not have discovered.

Only then do I feel I can even begin to capture a place and start to understand it. I devoured books about the history of St. Helier earlier this week, because if I walk by a statue, I want to understand how that persons into the story of the town. That’s inevitably much easier with a town of the size of St. Helier, it’s a perfect example of where it’s possible to understand the history quite quickly, it’s rather more challenging and much more overwhelming in larger cities.

For me, my sole aim really is trying to feel that I understand a place, which is perhaps slightly arrogant to even assume is possible, but I think it’s at least an opinion which is based on facts and experiences. I don’t think it’s possible to achieve that by spending a short amount of time in a place or even by travelling with others. Those are perfectly valid ways of travelling, but if you’re not on your own, then the dynamic switches so much. Things start to be become planned, times stop being fluid and become fixed and conversations with locals are skewed. Being on your own also means that you have to bring your own perspective to everything, you don’t get an immediate opinion from someone else which shapes that thinking. Solo travel is immensely exciting, I think it’s the best form, especially when the locals don’t realise that you’re a tourist. Having said that, I’m going to Prague, Barcelona and Wales with friends over the next few weeks, so it has its place, but not for slow travel the way I like it.

My friend Steve is walking the Camino over a five week period in a couple of months, that’s the gorgeous type of slow travel that I like, no rush, no hurry, taking things day by day and everything is an adventure. The conversations he’ll have, the people he’ll meet, the beers he’ll enjoy, the cafes he’ll visit, all unplanned and I imagine they’ll just feel right. And that solitude brings a connection to the environment, the landscape and the culture of the place.

Talking to someone at the YHA in Stratford-upon-Avon last week, it was mentioned that I could have caught the bus or got a taxi. I try and avoid that, not specifically the public transport, as that is a mobile extension of people watching, but I think walking is much better as it allows you to stroll or saunter through an environment and listen to things, see things and have random encounters. And, sometimes, an exciting pub, church or cafe can appear along the way. But, taxis, I hate, not just the cost, but they bypass all the best bits of an experience. That’s why when Nathan and I were doing our GeoGuessr challenge we banned the used of cars and went for public transport to take us to the nearest point we could walk from. That’s where the experiences lie.

I know a couple of people who visit museums to solely go to one room, to embrace everything in that room, to understand it, to connect with it and to ignore everything else other than the exhibits in that relatively small space. Harder said that done when visiting a gallery in a new place and wanting to see what they offer, but I’m always jealous of people who can make the time to do that focused sort of investment of time for just a few pieces. To visit a museum or gallery completely might take them 30 or 40 visits, but they’ll likely form a huge bond with that institution.

A very valid question here is why am I droning on about this? It’s because I decided that a visit to Jersey will take something like four weeks to even begin to understand it. I need to visit again to walk around the island, walk through the middle of it and also, more practically, visit all of the museums which are mostly closed at the moment. And, as the sole town on the island, to understand St. Helier will take at least a week for me. I mention that as I know some people will wonder why I’m spending four days in St. Helier without any attempt to move away from this urban hub (other than a vague plan to go to the zoo, which I’ll find a reason not to). The answer is that I want to have walked every street, had a crack of visiting most of the pubs, cafes and also perhaps see if they have a theatre or exhibition to liven things up further.

I’m conscious that the best travel writers have this ability to either connect with their area or to just take things so slowly that they can create seamless and engaging prose. Not guide-book writers who are rather more limited on time, but those who want to tell a story about a place. And indeed, the best stories that I hear from people in person about their travels are the random experiences that they’ve had, nearly always when travelling solo and slowly. That’s my selling point for slow travel, it’s the best form in my view, the most authentic and actually also the most valuable.

Anyway, that’s the reason this blog will be all about St. Helier for several days, I felt the need to explain.

Given my long introduction, this photo is from my visit to the library in St. Helier, a large building where apparently the politicians thought the hole in the middle of the first floor was a good idea aesthetically, meaning less space for books. Maybe that story isn’t true, but I get the feeling that it probably is.

This is a brilliant library, lots of space, quiet, plenty of power points and a large reference collection of local books.

The town’s covered market, built in the late Victorian period and originally there was glass in the roof, but perhaps a little sadly it’s all now Perspex. Although there’s perhaps a back story that some glass fell out and injured someone, so maybe Perspex is better. The fruit and vegetable selection was one of the best presented that I’ve seen at a market, some thought had gone into that. It’s not the largest of markets, but it had a certain contemporary vibe to it, whilst being in this very late nineteenth century building.

About a year ago they decided to take the fish out of the central fountain, but it’s still the centrepiece of the market.

I popped into Beresford Street Kitchen for lunch, a social project which gives assistance to those with learning disabilities and autism, a real positive for the community. They usually do more substantial meals at lunch, but they weren’t available this week, so I sufficed to just having a slice of Victoria sponge and a drink. There’s a nice vibe about this cafe, it feels like a worthwhile community project and the staff were on-point, kind and a credit to the restaurant.

The motto of this flying girl is “all good things are wild and free”, which I think fits in quite nicely with my random mutterings at the beginning of this post. It’s true though, freedom is undeniably a very good thing, I think the pursuit of happiness is a much shorter journey with freedom. Before I get too philosophical about matters, the sculpture was designed by Rowan Gillespie, who also designed the famine memorial in Dublin.

The lighting on this isn’t quite what I wanted, but it’s a hugely important memorial, the Liberation Sculpture, designed by Philip Jackson. It was a controversial piece when it was installed here in 1995 to mark 50 years since the liberation of the Channel Islands from Nazi occupation, as some felt that it didn’t really reflect the military contribution that was made, although I suspect that it was deliberately trying to thank the civilian efforts. Although the planned doves in the sculpture were removed, as it was remarked that if there had been doves during the food shortages of late 1944 and early 1945, then they’d have been eaten.

Unveiled in 2016, this is the Great War Arch, commemorating those who fought and gave their lives during the First World War.

The entrance to Jersey Museum and Art Gallery, which is pretty much the only museum open on the island at the moment. And it’s far more museum than art gallery.

A visit to the museum starts with an interesting video about the history of Jersey. It wasn’t a busy museum as can be seen from the theatre where the video was played, and indeed I didn’t see any other visitors during my two hours of shuffling slowly around. I can see why they didn’t open the other museums.

This large wooden treadmill was installed in the town’s Newgate Street Prison in 1836 and it meant that twelve prisoners could help to grind wheat, which was kindly given back to them in the form of bread a few days later. The treadmill arrangement could also be used to grind coffee, pepper, allspice, cinnamon and ginger.

A cell door from Newgate Street Prison.

The cat o’ nine tails on the right was used for public floggings, but it’s the rope on the left that’s rather more sinister. This is the noose that was used in the execution of Thomas Connan on 19 February 1907 and I’m not sure what I can add about this, although I looked at it for quite a while wondering why it had been kept and by whom. Incidentally, the last public hanging took place in St. Helier in 1875, seven years after it had been abandoned in the United Kingdom. It’s a sobering exhibit, it wasn’t quite the little burst of positivity I had expected from one of the first displays that visitors see. But, it tells a story, and quite an important one, although I hope that children don’t ask about it and get upset.

This is one of the floor slabs on display which were on the floor of Newgate Street Prison, with serial criminal Philip O’Toole firmly making his mark, especially impressive since he only had one leg. It reminds me of my tour of the cells at Bradford police station (as a visitor I’d add) where inmates in the 1970s wrote on the walls. They’re keeping those as something of an exhibit, just as it has been kept here, which means there’s a point where it goes from annoying vandalism to being of historical interest.

One of the hologram displays that is in the Victorian House, a genuinely historic building which has been linked in with the newer part of the museum and has furnishings that might have been in the property in 1861.

Some of the museum exhibits, more of which elsewhere when I start a web-site where I can put these stories. I’m getting there with that little project.

For the moment, just a few of the more notable exhibits, this is a wooden figure of Adolf Hitler on the gallows, which was purchased in Norway and brought to Jersey in the late 1930s. Rather sensibly, it was hidden in a quarry during the German occupation and later recovered after they had gone.

During the late nineteenth century, St. Helier was an important shipbuilding town and this is one of the figureheads from a ship built on the island.

This is a shop sign for Highlander Tobacco that was located at Belford’s on Halkett Place in the town. It must have made for quite a sight for customers, as it’s quite tall.

There were two railway lines in Jersey that were constructed during the Railway Mania period of the late nineteenth century, but both had closed before the advent of the Second World War. This is one item that has been saved, there’s little else remaining of the two lines.

Slightly unbelievably and if the caption can be believed, this fire engine was in use at St. Brelade fire station at the end of the twentieth century (I wonder if that’s right), but it was originally the one used in St. Helier in the nineteenth century.

This wooden letter box was placed on board the St. Helier to St. Malo mailboat until the outbreak of the Second World War, with the rope being used to attach it to the ship.

This was one of my favourite exhibits, a ballot box from the island’s first secret election in 1891.

A quick photo of one of the many rooms in the Victorian House.

And there’s the Victorian House from the exterior, with the newer part of the museum attached to it on the right-hand side.

This is the town’s old church and there has probably been a religious building here since the Saxon period, but small sections of this structure remain from the eleventh century. It’s quite some way from the sea now due to land reclamation, but once there were iron rings on the wall so that boats could be tied up. There’s not much of a churchyard today, it’s become more of a car park, but there are a few graves still visible.

Something a little different, the Blue Madonna which was gifted to the church by the artist John Robinson.

The grave of Frances Peirson, who won the brief Battle of Jersey for the British in 1781 when the French attacked St. Helier. It’s a little hidden away under the candle arrangement, but there’s also a pub and street in the town named after him, which would no doubt please him. Or, I hope that it would at least.

The rather beautiful chancel of the church.

And I really liked this, the church has set up an area where visitors can sit and have a free drink of coffee or tea, use the free wi-fi and just chat, pray, read or whatever they liked. What a marvellous community project, this is what I personally think churches should all be about, but so many just lock their doors when services aren’t on.

With that I popped to the Post Horn, one of many pubs on the island operated by the Jersey based Liberation Brewery. There was a friendly welcome and they’ve got three different beers from their own brewery available.

Half a pint of the brewery’s Liberation IPA and some rather delicious crisps. The beer was well-kept, at the appropriate temperature and had a pleasant enough taste, although the brewery don’t seem to do any darker beers which I would have preferred.

Some quirky street art, if that’s the right phrase with this particular set-up.

There is only really one craft beer bar in Jersey and it’s the only verified venue on Untappd on the island, JB’s. I was actually quite excited about coming here, it’s on-trend, interesting and quirky. The food prices are high though and although I’m sure the quality of the smokehouse food is high, it was I thought excessive and so I wasn’t tempted. Anyway, the on-line set-up suggests that this is a food venue and that everyone including drinkers must book, and pay £10 which is later taken off the bill. This didn’t make sense to me (not least I didn’t intend to spend £10), so I e-mailed them and they sent a lovely response back soon after saying it was fine to drop in for a drink, that was their core focus. They sounded really rather engaging, I thought this might be another early entry into my pub of the year and I replied mentioning that I’d be in later that day.

The service at the bar was polite, but lacking in engagement a little, especially since I asked for all of the beers made by the Bliss Brewing Company, who are based here at the premises. I had hoped to hear some more about the brewery and their beers, but I didn’t get any of that, so I skulked off with my selection of three one thirds. The beers verged between very good and nearly outstanding, this brewery knows exactly what they’re doing, they’re stand-out better than anything else I’ve seen on Jersey. The pub was clean and comfortable, everything seemed well managed, although the crisps selection looked very confusing.

The set-up is also modern and quirky, they have lots of table tennis tables that customers can book and play on, something a little different with the meal and beer. I very much liked what they’re doing here, but I was under the impression that I’d need to book to be able to get a table and it transpired that I was the only customer during my visit. Perhaps that’s partly a legacy of the set-up that they had during Covid and will likely need during the busier summer months when the tourists start to flood in. I’d happily pop by again next time I’m in Jersey, this place deserves to do well, but I’d suggest that they should enthuse more about their beers, they are certainly good enough for that. Definitely a pub worth seeking out for those who like craft beer and they have a couple of guests on keg as well, alongside some very decadent and interesting bottled and canned beers.

I hadn’t realised that Morrison’s Daily was a thing, actually already quite a big thing, seemingly through rebranding of some McColl’s outlets. I got some doughnuts which had a best before of the day after, but they were a little dried out already. I was forced to eat all five quickly in case they dried out even more. As an aside, the selection in the shop was drab and tired, but the staff member was friendly. I was going to get a beer, but they’ve got this stupid situation where you have to buy several and then there’s a big discount, so it makes little sense to buy one. I won’t be back in any Morrison’s Daily outlet and I’m surprised that the chain is willing to put its name to this disorganised nonsense. Anyway, I digress and don’t wish to moan, I was pleased enough with my doughnuts (which had fruit in them).

And then after around two minutes of trying to get the bloody door lock to activate, I got back into the hotel, with my evening snack being these two yoghurts from the Jersey Dairy from Morrison’s Daily. These were really rather tasty and keenly priced, they went well with my decaff coffee.