A new garden dedicated to Victor Hugo, fantastic food and natural attractions are among the delights on this easy-to-reach Channel Island
As I wander through the eclectic and ornate rooms of the grand house there are many trappings that reflect modern-day thinking. A door has been repurposed as a table, old carved sea chests decorate the walls, and a fireplace has been made from recycled materials. Upstairs a ‘standing desk’ offers inspirational sea views and the garden reflects the owner’s love of untamed nature. I later learn that he also opened his kitchen to give hot meals to schoolchildren from poor local families.
It is quickly apparent that Victor Hugo, who lived in Hauteville House on Guernsey, was a visionary and man before his time. From 1855 the author who wrote novels tackling recurring themes of social justice, poverty and oppression spent 15 years on the Channel Island while in exile from France. Reopening for visitors this April, the lockdown has facilitated a major restoration project at his former home, including rebuilding the conservatory as it would have been when he lived there.
Most people know of Victor Hugo from his novels The Hunchback of Notre-Dame and Les Miserables, both turned into films and the acclaimed musical produced by Cameron Mackintosh. But you don’t need to be an aficionado of his books to appreciate this fascinating house that contains many symbols and references to his work, pointed out by our insightful guide. In contrast to the opulent rooms, it was interesting to see Hugo preferred to sleep and spend much of his time in the sparsely furnished attic area.
It would be easy to spend a week on the second largest Channel Island, but I was on a whistlestop weekend stay. With a flight time of just 1hr 15mins Guernsey is easily do-able for a short break and as the island is only nine miles long by five wide it’s also simple to get around and pack plenty in.
The main hub is the capital of St Peter Port, with its charming waterfront lined with restaurants, bars, cafés and the harbour. Close by is one of the island’s newest attractions, the Victor Hugo Garden which is part of Candie Gardens. This was once part of a private estate and now it’s a large public garden that’s home to the oldest known heated glasshouses in the British Isles. A large statue of Hugo looks out to sea towards France, which can be seen on clear days.
The new garden, which has been added to a Victor Hugo trail around the island, is divided into five different ‘acts’ and based around plants the author would have known and grown during his life in Guernsey and France. Many were sourced from France and relate to characters in his works, his family and friends. Quotes from his books are dotted around the beds, such as “The flower is of the earth and its scent is of the heavens!” and, very prophetically in a time of climate change, “It’s sad to think that nature is talking but mankind isn’t listening.”
It was designed by the island’s renowned nurseryman Raymond Evison, who moved his clematis business to warmer climes from its original site in Worcestershire after a bitter winter in 1984 destroyed more than a third of his plants. He started his Channel Island nursery in one of the derelict greenhouses once used to grow the tomatoes for which Guernsey was so famous until cheap Dutch imports wiped out the market. Although his nursery is not open to the public, plants can be bought online or through UK nurseries countrywide. Indeed, if you buy clematis plant from a garden centre there’s a strong likelihood that it started life at Raymond Evison Clematis, which was awarded a gold medal at the 2021 RHS Flower Show Chelsea and scooped the coveted President’s Award.
When it’s time for a bit of personal watering Guernsey has a thriving food and drink scene, including Blue Bottle and Wheadon’s Gin made in local micro-distilleries and widely available around the island. We sampled the former at Le Nautique, and atmospheric seafood restaurant in St Peter Port that is set in vaults used in the 18th century by ship owners and merchants. Unsurprisingly it specialises in seafood, such as oysters from the nearby island of Herm, but there are plenty of dishes to satisfy carnivores and vegetarians.
When it’s time to walk off lunch there are plenty of places to go. We signed up for a guided stroll with Gill Girard who has an encyclopaedic knowledge of the island and can create bespoke tours for different interests, such as Victor Hugo or the Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society. When the book of the latter was made into a film, Gill helped the film crews with their research. Our walk took us past the island’s distinctive water lanes where locals used to collect their water from wells. We also followed in the footsteps of another famous visitor, the artist Renoir, who only spent just over a month on the island in 1883 but produced 15 paintings. The Renoir Trail includes a series of frames that capture the scenery he painted and is little changed today.
The base for my brief stay was Le Fregate Hotel, tucked away above St Peter Port with fantastic views across the harbour. The 22-room boutique property, comprising a handsome old house and new wing, has a lovely vibe with friendly staff and contemporary, comfortable interiors. Lunch in the airy dining room was divided between admiring the views and the food, which included a fricassee of local mushrooms served with Guernsey butter hollandaise sauce and an artistic and creative selection of five desserts that Hugo and Renoir would have been proud of. It looked almost (but not quite!) too good to eat. I wish I could have stayed longer.
Aurigny airline (www.aurigny.com) flies to Guernsey from multiple regional UK airports. Return flights from London Gatwick are priced from £100, including 10kg hand baggage. A standard double room at Le Fregate Hotel starts from £215 per room, including breakfast. Tailor-made walking tours can be arranged with Gill Girard by visiting www.gillgirardtourguide.com and for more information on the Islands of Guernsey, please visit www.visitguernsey.com.
Known as the ‘River Cruise Queen’, Jeannine Williamson is an award-winning travel writer, cruise expert and our cruise correspondent, who has clocked up thousands of nautical miles.
Photographs courtesy of Visit Guernsey