Just eight miles from the coast of France, Alderney in the Channel Islands is a little known cycling paradise.
I’ve pedalled around most of the islands of Britain but, in my view, none surpasses Alderney for a family ride. It’s got the lot: empty roads, a network of flat tracks, next to no traffic, few hills, stunning beaches and many interesting old fortifications to provide an excuse for a rest. Adding further to colour to the island are blue post boxes, yellow phone boxes and blonde hedgehogs. Then there’s also a train formed of London Underground carriages from the 50s.
My eight-year-old son, Bertie, and I enjoyed exploring the island by bike so much my son we rode around it twice during our long weekend break – once to get notes and pics for my feature and then again to spend more time at our favourite places. We were based at St Anne in the centre of the island. Our only navigational problem was getting out of the village. The pretty cobbled streets don’t seem to be arranged in any logical pattern and there are no signs. Thereafter, though, our route was more straight-forward and, on an island just 3½ miles long by a 1½ miles wide, you literally can’t go far wrong. In fact, you can almost spend the day meandering without a plan because nowhere is far away from where you start. Going where your whim takes you rather matches the laissez faire mood of the island.
We headed south to begin a clockwise circuit, a broad, smooth and firm track taking us round the back of the airport. There are no formal rights of way as such on Alderney and all the tracks marked on the free tourist map are as good for cycling as many designated cycle paths in the UK.
The planes that use Alderney airport are almost all part of the fun of visiting. As we’d found out the day before, they have just 15 seats, there’s no aisle so you can rule out an in-flight meal and the cabin is so narrow every passenger can touch the windows on both sides! It wasn’t aircraft that caught our eye initially, though, but two other all together less expected forms of transport. In the garden of the Telegraph Tower we spotted a double-decker bus and a boat that was used in the Dunkirk evacuations. The owner of the tower came out to greet us (everyone’s like that here) and explained how he’d bought them largely for his son to play in. A short distance away was a much less amusing discovery: the site of the only concentration camp to have been built on British soil – by the German army in the second world war. Now only the stone gateposts, a sunken stairway and two sentry posts remain. As we were to discover on the rest of our journey, Alderney is equally familiar with war and peace.
We continued along the track diverting briefly to a fine vantage point towards Les Etacs, a dramatic islet that is home to two per cent of Britain’s gannets. From this distance each bird looks like a single feather and the guano like icing on a rock cake. Around the corner we gazed at Fort Clonque way below us, cunningly built onto a rocky outcrop. This is one of 13 formidable forts built in Victorian times to counter a perceived threat from the French who were massing their forces at Cherbourg. Ironically, the only time they were used was about a century later – by the occupying German army who built concrete gun emplacements and look-out posts on top of the forts in some cases. Getting down to the Fort involved a perilous descent via a narrow, bracken-bordered track with switchbacks. We stood out of our saddles and took the corners with care. Cycling across the causeway to the Fort was much easier and a great novelty but today it’s a holiday let (one of the German gun emplacements in now a bedroom) so you can’t continue over the drawbridge.
A little further round the coast is the next fort, Tourgis. In contrast to Clonque it is completely unrestored – and all the more atmospheric for it. Leaving our bikes for a little while we padded cautiously around the derelict interior, marvelling at the size and strength of the construction which reminded me of a factory or workhouse.
Most of the northern coast of Alderney consists of sandy beaches, all of them practically deserted even on the August bank holiday weekend of our visit. We passed along the backs of Saline Bay and Crabby Bay and then headed up and back along the breakwater which seems to stretch half way to Southampton. Again this was built as part of the island’s fortification. The shops, restaurants and hotels along the main street of Braye, the harbour village, provide a good, coastal eating alternative to St Anne. We opted for a simple alfresco snack at the mobile Little Rock Café.
Refreshed, we continued towards the eastern end of the island. Either side of a headland is a fantastic choice of beaches. To the west is a sweeping arc of sand called Saye Bay. As we approached it we heard the sounds of gunfire from the fort and a brass band playing in a field and watched the only group on the sands having a jolly sack race. To the east was our favourite beach, Corblets Bay, which has the added interest of rocks ideal for a quick scramble. Overlooking the beach is the Mannez lighthouse and particularly menacing German fire direction post perched precariously at the top of quarry. They will never forget the war here. The two structures sum up well the benign and malign facets of the island.
Skirting the lighthouse we headed off-road again down a relatively narrow and slightly bumpy track that hugged the coast. The causeway to Fort Houmet Herbé has all but disintegrated and is accessible only by foot at low tide. We were in luck with the sea and made the crossing, clambering up from the rocks and through the giant door for a nose around. The fort on the Isle de Raz – or Rat Island, as it’s also known – is connected via a concrete causeway so we made the crossing on two wheels. In common with all the forts on Alderney, this one is low-level and has a Moorish look reminiscent of a castle with its towers chopped off.
The shadows of a golden summer’s day were lengthening as we checked out a children’s beach art competition. It was being judged by BBC TV wildlife presenter Miranda Krestovnikoff on Longis Bay surreally just yards from a mighty German anti-tank wall. Time marching on, we headed directly and reluctantly back to St Anne along the main road – or, at least, on a road as ‘main’ as any around here.
Alderney is sometimes called the Cinderella of the Channel Islands compared to its allegedly bigger, ugly sisters. That’s a matter of opinion but Alderney certainly got me under her spell.
Distance: 11.5 miles
Time: Allow all day. There’s lots to see.
From Cycle and Surf head uphill along Le Val. Go straight over at a crossroads then bear left down Chemin du Meunier. Pass a mirror then fork left then immediately left again. Where the road ends continue ahead down a stoney track. When faced with a choice of three directions chose the middle one (a diverted right of way). Head round the back of the airport and past Telegraph Tower. Turn left signed towards the gannets then, after viewing, return to the path and continue. At a small green turn left to Fort Clonque, also signed ‘zigzag’. Descend with care down a very steep path, cross the causeway to the Fort then return and continue the circuit. Fork left twice to stay as close to the coast as possible – after Fort Tourgis and in the middle of Saline Bay. Join the road at Fort Doyle, turn left and pass Crabby Bay to reach the harbour. After a diversion along the breakwater turn left to pass the lifeboat station and freight terminal and along Rue de Braye. Turn left at t-junction and proceed around Braye Bay. After a football pitch turn left to pass a school. Fork left at the war memorial then left again to visit Saye Bay or continue on the road, bearing sharp right, to reach Corblet’s Bay. At a t-junction turn left to pass the lighthouse then turn immediately left. At Fort Quesnard fork left off the road and onto a path signed to Longis Bay. The path eventually joins the road at the back of the Bay. Turn left and continue all the way back to St Anne.
Recommended pubs and grub:
The Moorings terrace bar and restaurant, Braye. Tel 01481 822421. Informal eaterie with good home-made food and tables outside.
Little Rock Café (van), Braye harbour. Tel 07781 458800. Open 8am-4.30pm and Sundays 4.30-7.30pm. Serves great home-made smoothies, herbal and green teas and many veggie options.
The Georgian House, Victoria St, St Anne. Tel 01481 822471. Lively atmosphere with leafy beer garden.
Plus other restaurants, cafés and shops in St Anne and Braye.
Cycle and Surf (also bike shop). Near the bottom of Victoria St, St Anne. Tel 01481 822286 and cycleandsurf.co.uk. £9 per day.
Top Gear. Operates out of a private garage near the harbour just off Le Banquage. Tel 01481 822000 or 824672. £7 per day.
Getting there: Frequent direct flights from Southampton to Alderney or fly via Jersey and Guernsey. No direct passenger ferry to Alderney from England.