Deep underground: exploring Jersey's hidden past
Jersey is probably best known for its sun-kissed beaches, new potatoes, the doe-eyed, fawn-coated cattle which produce those creamy dairy products, and the hit 1980s TV series Bergerac.
Most of Jersey's holiday attractions are therefore firmly out-of-doors, and it claims in its advertising to be the UK's warmest spot. But I discovered a much darker, hidden side to the famous holiday island just 14 miles off the Normandy coast on a recent visit.
Underground Jersey offers a far more enigmatic glimpse into the island's turbulent ancient and not-so-ancient history, but one which repays exploration.
And the one site which encapsulates Jersey's amazing continuity of history extending over an astonishing 6,000 years is the enigmatic Neolithic passage grave of La Hougue Bie, near Grouville in the south east of the island.
Jersey certainly didn't rank among the nation's hotspots on the day I visited La Hougue Bie (pronounced La Hoog Bee).
Stinging showers of icy rain were lashing down as I crept, bent double, into the claustrophobic space of the four feet high and three feet wide stone-lined passageway. The cramped corridor led 30 feet into the echoing darkness of the huge, grass-covered mound.
As my eyes became accustomed to the dark, I could make out the smoothly carved granite of the columns which lined the tunnel and, looking back, light streamed in, illuminating the pebbled floor.
It was only in 1996 that reconstruction archaeologists saw for the first time in five millennia that at the spring equinox, the sun's rays extended the length of the passage and onto the back wall of the inner sanctum in the heart of the mound.
Reaching the 6½-foot-high oval central chamber, I could at last stand upright and look around what had been the holy of holies – the centre of the unknowable ritual activities which took place here.
It was a moving, slightly spooky, experience and I'm sure that the chill which ran down my spine was not caused solely by the weather.
Outside again, I climbed the winding, spiral pathway to the top of the mound, where the simple apsed chapel of Notre Dame de Clarte was built in the 12th century – probably in an attempt to reclaim the ancient pagan site for Christianity.
A small sepulchre was built into the mound by the mystic Dean Richard Mabon in the 16th century, designed to replicate the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem, and he apparently regularly performed 'miracles' there.
Then in 1792, Phillipe d'Auvergne built a mock medieval castle known as The Prince's Tower over the chapel, and it became a major tourist attraction and pleasure ground for visitors in the 19th century, complete with hotel, summer house and screaming peacocks. But the Tower fell into disrepair and was finally demolished in 1924.
However, the long story of La Hougue Bie doesn't end there. Following the German occupation of the island in 1940, soldiers of the 319 Infantry Division built their eastern command bunker into the western side of the mound. Over the next two years around 70 trenches were dug in Phillipe d'Auvergne's pleasure grounds, no doubt causing even more archaeological damage........
Posted by moss
12th July 2011ce