Forgotten in Time
The Crazy Medieval Island of Sark
It wasn’t until 2008 that a tiny dot in the Channel Islands gave up its feudal system…and then only formally. On Sark, horses and carts and feudal traditions still remain strong.
A diminutive island that I had never heard of hit my radar one winter’s day in March, when I was introduced to a small dot on a map of the Channel Islands by the manager at the Old Government House Hotel and Spa on the island of Guernsey.
The dot, I was told, was Sark, a land of horses and carts where motor vehicles other than tractors were outlawed and Feudalism was still alive and kicking.
I was intrigued and snagged an invitation to visit La Seigneurie, the King of Sark’s home.
The Seigneur, as he is called, is not really a king but more of a Lord of the Manor, a title that befits the leader of what was Europe’s last feudal state before elections were introduced in 2008. Now the island is a hybrid of the two systems, with old traditions introduced under feudalism remaining in place, like rules for land ownership, the absence of an income tax, and the existence of the Seigneur.
Elections came to the island six years ago in what is an ongoing local saga involving Britain’s billionaire Barclay Brothers who want, the locals say, to change things and take control of this little known tax haven.
They have since bought land and several hotels on Sark, and have built a vast home with its own helicopter pad on a neighboring island.
The oldest part of Le Seigneurie dates back to the mid-16th century, and it is covered in pretty turrets and filled with old world art and furniture. The incredibly beautiful garden that surrounds it is open to the public. Because of their advanced age, the current Seigneur, Michael Beaumont, and his wife live in another home nearby so they don’t have to deal with the official home’s seventeen flights of stairs.
It was in the drawing room of Le Seigneurie that the Dame of Sark, Sybil Hathaway, received the invading Nazis during WWII and put them in their place, making it clear she was the ruler of the island. When they left the island in 1945, they gave her a lamp made of Mahogany cigar boxes that now hangs over the vast dining room table.
Another island tale purports that there was once a banquet arranged at the manor for Queen Victoria and Prince Albert. But rough seas made it too rough for their boat to land. By the time the maids got back from the shore, peacocks had wrecked havoc on the waiting food.
As part of his main job as Seigneur, Beaumont is responsible for paying the British Queen the annual rent for his island of GBP1.79 or just over two dollars. This arrangement goes back to the days of Queen Elizabeth I, who had not thought to make the price for Sark linked to inflation when she rented it out. It is now a so called Crown Dependency, meaning it falls under the sovereignty of the British Crown, but is not part of the U.K. The top position comes with other perks as well: Beaumont is the only person who retains the right to own pigeons in a dovecote in this secret kingdom of 600 people.
Despite recent attempts at democracy and modernization, Sark is full of quirks befitting its history.
Waiting in the port for a boat to Sark, I was instructed to attach a label with my address on the island to my suitcase, so that Jimmy’s Carting Service could deliver it after the hour-long boat ride. Going hands-free is just one of the perks of a place where the only form of transportation is by carriage, bike, or tractor.
Another perk: As there are no street lamps on the island (which makes it scary getting home after dark), it was deemed the first so-called Dark Skies Island in 2011 by a U.S. organization dedicated to preserving dark skies around the world. It has since become a top destination for star gazing.
The main avenue on Sark is nothing more than a dusty street complete with palm trees, two banks, a supermarket, and colorfully painted shops that make one think of the Caribbean. Leading off in every direction are other dusty streets that end in spectacular beaches that look like something one might find on an untouched planet, like the Moon, with craggy rocky outcroppings and old granite houses scattered along the way.
The scenery all around is breathtaking—think rolling hills, rocks spilling into the endless water, and the lights of other islands twinkling a safe distance away.
While Sark is beach-hopping, island living at its finest, it also has a fully-functioning government and public services, including a court house, prison, and a school. The ambulance and fire engines, however, are kept in a warehouse near the church and must be attached to the back of a tractor in case of emergency (Sark apparently takes its no motor vehicles policy very seriously).
Besides the beaches, one of the best aspects of the island are the characters who have made it their home.
One morning, I went to meet one of the island’s many multi-hyphenates, the local rat catcher who was also a former sheriff and now a major collector. Alf Adams did not want to talk rats but he did want to show me his bottle collection preserved in a dusty shed.
He opened the door to the small shed he keeps on a property adjacent to the La Valette campsite run by his wife, a popular place to stay during the island’s sheep races and cult music festival. After he showed me his prized collection, he dropped his policy on on not talking about his day job.
“Did you want to know about rats,” he asked, finally, as we walk down the hill to drink tea in his living room.
One rat had once fallen on his head, he said, during a rat raid of a local home. Another week, he caught scores of the rodents that had been conducting raids on vegetables.
As the former sheriff of the island, he is adept at making sure neither rats nor humans get away, although the days when one could lob a rat or a human in prison here without a warrant are over, the local judge (slash operator of the crane when cargo deliveries are in the harbor) told me.
It wasn’t until 2004 that the island finally—and under pressure from the EU—voted to abolish a law that allowed hanging as a punishment. Locals were upset by the change—they like their traditions, even if it is just for the sake of being Sark.
During my trip, I heard about another character on the island who I had to meet—a masseur from Poland who wored at the Stocks Hotel and who had apparently identified six energetically charged hot spots. After a magic two-hour treatment, we went on a walk through the woods leading down to Dixcart Bay, stopping along the path at a half-dozen spots to feel the special energies that the masseur had identified.
I thought I could feel something, but it was hard to tell if it was residual tingling from the massage or magic on the path.
As drunken revelers guided me through the country lanes back home sans moon or street lights the next night, I realized cycles and torches are the main tools one needs to survive on the island. Or a horse and carriage, like the one driven a young man in a tweed suit and cap from yesteryear, as he gazed up at the stars.