Times and tides
Thursday 13th September 2007, 12:00AM BST.
Some families have lived in the Port Grat area for generations. Chris Morvan speaks to some of its local characters and learns of the region’s rich history
ACROSS the main road from the centre of Port Soif Bay, over the delicate dune that is now protected, is a sports field.
This is the home of Rovers, a long-suffering football club hoping that this season will be the one they finally shake off the also-rans tag that has been their traditional lot in life. In the summer, though, this is a land with a history of success, the cricket club bearing the Rovers name having been one of the leaders in the island for many years.
But how easy is it to maintain a high-quality sports field in such a sandy area so close to the sea?
John Mountford is a former PE and mathematics teacher who has finally made it into the great outdoors to earn his living on the groundstaff at Port Soif.
When I met him there one fresh but pleasant September morning there was an international archery competition in progress. As this silent sport went on in the background, with only the occasional thud of arrow hitting target, Mr Mountford spoke of the earth – or mainly sand – beneath our feet.
While it wouldn’t appeal to many gardeners, for a sports groundsman this represents drainage. Much was made earlier this summer of the flood-dispersing qualities at international cricket’s headquarters, Lord’s, where the recent introduction of a large quantity of sand in the outfield enabled a downpour of rain to disappear in record time and a match that would have had to be abandoned in most places to go ahead with minimal fuss.
At Port Soif that is a natural feature, as is the almost ever-present wind that helps to dry the grass. It seems that irrigation is more of an issue in this case than drainage and Mr Mountford points to a ring of barely visible sprinklers that make this area verdant.
Ah, but where does the water come from?
‘We’ve got a borehole,’ he said, ‘which enabled us to keep it green even in a dry summer like last year.’
With a good clubhouse adding to the property’s appeal, Mr Mountford is proud of the condition of the ground which he, Les Ferbrache and head groundsman Alan Hamilton have achieved.
‘We’ve had some nice comments from Jersey sides who’ve played here this year, calling it the best surface in the Channel Islands,’ he said.
Travelling north from Port Soif we pass Portinfer, which, according to Marie de Garis’ book of local place names, means ‘anchorage, cove covered with stones’, while a similar little publication by Cliff Howlett suggests it incorporates an extinct family name, Infer.
Mr Howlett compares it with a place at Cobo called L’Estrainfer, which he explains as, ‘a corruption of L’Etre Infer, ‘etre’ meaning stable. Port Soif, by the way, containing the French word for thirst, suggests that a stream might have flowed into it at one time.
Both compilers agree on the ‘port’ part, which brings to mind the expression ‘any port in a storm’, because with the sort of surf generated at Portinfer it would hardly be a skipper’s first choice for shelter. As if to demonstrate that, the Vale parish church cemetery contains a tomb dedicated to the victims of the wreck there of the Sea Witch in 1818 and includes a carved piece of wood, attached to one side, while on the opposite face, carved into the stone, is a sculpture of the scene, showing the splintered vessel on the rocks at the mouth of the bay.
The wood may be purely decoration, but there is also a school of thought that it is a piece of wreckage. I prefer to believe that version.
For the sports community, Portinfer means clay-pigeon shooting, the headland providing the space and privacy needed for such a pastime.
Just past it is Les Pecqueries (a variant of eperqueries, pezeries etc. and meaning fish-drying grounds).
While this may not be the prettiest bay in the island and lacks the sort of comfortable sand or even small, smooth pebbles that most beachgoers prefer, Les Pecqueries has over the years provided the children of the area with rich pickings as regards rock pools.
Across the road on the corner of La Passee is what is now a private house, but was for many years a shop providing general groceries in addition to the ice creams, soft drinks and sweets which youngsters regarded as its prime purpose (anyone for a bag of tooth-rotting pink sugar ‘shrimps’?).
It was for several years run by the Carre family who also delivered milk, originally in bulk, measuring out pints into customers’ own receptacles, before the pyramid-shaped tetrapaks revolutionised the industry (themselves to be replaced by the barely-believable bags, while the bottle-loving Brits looked on in amazement) and then cartons.
Next stop around the coast is the area just before Port Grat, where Pulias Pond has become known in recent years mainly for the pranksters who wade into it under cover of darkness and put ‘amusing’ objects on the rock in the middle.
The pond has a beach attached just over the headland, which again is not the sort of place frequented by sunbathers and swimmers, being rocky and inhospitable, but hardy fishermen used it at one time.
On the Duke of Richmond map of 1787 it is called Pulias Harbour, which, when you look at it, sounds rather grand for what it is.
There is no general agreement on the meaning of Port Grat. According to Marie de Garis’ book it means a ‘favourable mooring place’, while Mr Howlett suggests it is a corruption of Port Gerart or Gerard, a theory based on the fact that ‘this part of St Sampson’s parish is known as the Fief Henri de vau-Gerard, the name of an early seigneur. He is mentioned as a Jurat in the Assize Rolls of 1309′. Support for this idea comes from the name of the hill just inland from the bay:
Le Vaugrat, vau meaning valley, as in Vauvert (green valley).
This is Laine country, the family of that name having lived here for centuries and still owning much of the land, including the fields that have in recent decades been used as a campsite. In a farmhouse halfway up the hill lives Len Le Tissier, who is 77 and has been a denizen of this area all his life. When he was a young man, the major figure in his part of the world was Leonie Henry, daughter of Tom (not the L’Ancresse legend of that name, but a similarly prominent man).
Both Len and his friend, Mr Blondin, still refer to this redoubtable woman respectfully as ‘Miss Henry’ as they talk about her family owning a large area of land including what is now the island’s only stone-producing quarry, long since acquired by Ronez.
Two of Mr Le Tissier’s prized possessions relate to the wreck off Port Grat in 1898 of the SS Channel Queen.
In one, a thank you from the Marine Department of the Board of Trade, Mr Henry is commended for taking care of some of the survivors, while the other, a huge poster-type affair which would be unreadable when reduced sufficiently to put it on a page of this newspaper, was issued, intriguingly, by a local swimming club.
With the family farm having gone the way of most such businesses in Guernsey, Mr Le Tissier currently works at nearby Les Vardes Farm, at the west end of Port Grat.Before we leave Le Vaugrat, though, as we go back down the hill there are a couple of interesting points on the flat part of the road near the coast.
On the left as you approach the main road is a short piece of wall leading down to a stream, which was where cows could be taken to drink.
The road at this point was, at least well into the 1960s, surfaced with concrete rather than tarmac.
This, Mr Le Tissier told me, is because the railway built by the Germans in the Second World War ran through there. Further evidence of this can be found at the aforementioned Les Vardes Farm, where concrete structures still stand, clearly German but unusual in that they are not bunker-like. These were chutes for loading granite on to the trains.
Mr Le Tissier can also remember digging large amounts of sand out in the grounds of the farm, behind what are now bungalows, and finding two human skeletons.
The farmhouse was once a hotel, as the painted sign on the wall by the road still proclaims, with a restaurant specialising in seafood.
ARTHUR BLONDIN is a professional fisherman who has been based in the multi-faceted bay that is Port Grat for 35 years.
With the better known and equipped Grand Havre just around the headland, I asked the 67-year-old why he chose to operate where he does.
‘Because there’s not many people around, so I can please myself and there’s no hassle,’ he said, not sounding quite as grumpy as his words look in print – he’s an affable enough character.
The bay is very different from Grand Havre, not least in the performance of its pier. While the one at Rousse manages to stay usable for hours as the tide moves, its smaller Port Grat counterpart goes from dry to swamped in a short time, which means that someone who wants to take his boat out every day, rather than a leisure-only sailor who fits in with the tides, has to juggle his resources.
‘You need two or three punts,’ Mr Blondin explained, using the local fishermen’s word for a dinghy and meaning that he has to have them strategically placed on the beach to be able to access his boat, Sarah Ann, as and when he needs to.
Anyone who has spent time at Port Grat will appreciate that, while the sandy beach slopes at the top ideally for bathing and is flat but eminently swimmable at low tide too, in between is a long stretch of no-man’s-land full of shingle and shells where, at half tide, you can wade out for 50 yards and still be only up to your knees. For the beach-lover this is an inconvenience that can mean we go there only at certain times, but for Mr Blondin… well, you have to wonder why he has put up with it all these years.