19 Interesting and fun facts about Jersey in the Channel Islands

updated 7/15/2021
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Inextricably linked with Britain, yet more likely to borrow a cup of sugar from its closest neighbour, France. Not quite British, definitely not French, but with influences from both – this tiny island is unique. Visitors are lured here by its rich history, visible in its ancient remains and castles, its wartime relics and museums. They come for its picturesque walking, cycling trails and outdoor fun for kids, as well as luxury spas and a wealth of watersports right on its doorstep. But most of all, tourists flock here for the beautiful coastal backdrops and sun-kissed sandy beaches – this is the sunniest spot in the British Isles, after all.

There’s a lot to discover about the Channel Islands’ largest little island. Here are 19 fun and interesting facts about Jersey to get you started. And for more inspiration about Jersey, take a look at our Rough Guides Staycations Jersey.

1. How big is Jersey?

It might be the big daddy of the Channel Isles, but at just nine miles (14km) east to west and five miles (8km) north to south, it’s fair to say Jersey is a pretty diddy island. However, a whopping 20 miles (32km) of its coastline is made up of fine sandy beaches.

2. Tides

Although small, Jersey has one of the largest tides in the world. At low tide, twice a day, the island almost doubles in size, with miles of extra sandy beach and rockpools galore – a perfect playground for kids and great for small marine creatures who thrive in the warm shallow water. At Portelet Bay you can walk to Île au Guerdain, (otherwise known as Janvrin’s Tomb, after a plague-ridden sea captain was buried there), and along the causeway at St Helier to Elizabeth Castle. Just watch out for the sudden rush of water at your feet as the tide advances.

St Aubin harbour in Jersey © Jack Cousin/Shutterstock

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3. Is Jersey part of Britain?

At a distance of only 14 miles (22 km), the coast of Normandy is closer to Jersey than mainland Britain, 100 miles (160 km) away. And the close proximity to its neighbour has meant ties with France going back a thousand-odd years.

Until the Battle of Hastings in 1066, the Channel Islands formed part of the Duchy of Normandy. But once King Harold met his gruesome end at the hands of the Norman army, and William the Conqueror became monarch of England, the islands became part of the Anglo-Norman realm.

It stayed that way until 1204, when King John lost Normandy to France. As the Channel Islanders chose to remain loyal to the English crown, he granted them self-governing privileges, amounting to a certain financial and political independence. The long and short of it – Jersey is British when it comes to allegiance to the crown, not quite so when it’s time to file those tax returns.

Gorey harbour nestled at the foot of Mont Orgueil Castle © haraldmuc/Shutterstock

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4. Money matters

One of the more unusual facts about Jersey is that it’s perhaps the only place where you’ll see a pound note. Although the currency is sterling, the island also has its own Jersey pound. And what a lot of pounds there are, moving through Jersey banks’ coffers, as those with a considerable amount of them take full advantage of the island’s off-shore, tax-haven status.

5. Which language?

Ever heard of Jérrais? No? It’s the language islanders spoke not so long ago (along with French and English), which descended from ancient Jersey-Norman. During the German occupation in World War II the language proved a canny means of secret communication and outwitting the enemy. Only a few of the older islanders still speak Jérrais today, although there has been a move to reintroduce language lessons in schools.

Given the historical tug of war between England and France over Jersey, it’s not surprising that islanders spoke French, as well as English. What is perhaps surprising, however, is that French remained the official language until the 1960s.

French street sign in Jersey © Alagz/Shutterstock

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6. French and English street names

Rue Trousse Cotillon. Church Street. One street, two different names. Compared with the rather poetic sounding French, the English sounds positively humdrum. Rue Trousse Cotillon, meaning Tuck Up Your Petticoat, dates from times of poorer sanitation, when women wore long skirts and would have to lift them up to avoid the muck on the ground. In the mid-19th century English settlers changed many of the French street names to English, although many still show their French names alongside, often bearing no resemblance to the former. For example, La Rue des Trois Pigeons is now Hill Street.

7. German Occupation – Jersey War Tunnels

Jersey is scattered with visible reminders of its five-year period under German occupation during World War II. The Nazis built defences all over the island, including pillboxes, batteries, tunnels and observation towers.

German communications room in Jersey War Tunnels © Allard One/Shutterstock

The Jersey War Tunnels (known as Höhlgangsanlage 8, or Ho8) was an extensive network of tunnels created by forced labourers as well as Russian and Ukranian Prisoners of War. Initially intended to serve as bomb-proof protection against allied invasion and storage for ammunition and food, it was later turned into an emergency hospital unit, with operating theatre and wards, although the war ended before the tunnels fulfilled their purpose. The preserved and reconstructed tunnels are open to visitors, and the exhibits are poignant markers of life under the Nazis.

8. Knit one, purl one

Who would have thought that the harmless act of knitting could land you in jail? In the 17th century almost everyone on the island could knit, even the children. And with over 10,000 pairs of stockings being produced each week, that left little time to tackle the harvest, or vraicing (seaweed collecting). So, in 1608, an act was passed forbidding anyone over the age of 15 from knitting at harvest time. The punishment – a stint in prison.

Islanders even knitted during church. In fact, the clicking of knitting needles during the sermons was so loud and distracting that vicars called a halt to it.

Almost everyone knitted on the island of Jersey © fizkes/Shutterstock

According to legend, if a sailor’s body washed up on shore, he would be identified by his knitted ‘jersey’ and his body returned to his parish.

9. Surf’s up

Stand-up surfing came to Jersey when a bunch of South African lifeguards arrived in the 1950s and showed islanders how it was done. The story goes that they saw an advertisement for the island screened in a UK cinema, and the images of the lovely rollers at the bay at St Ouen’s inspired them to move to the island. It wasn’t long before Jersey became a surfing hotspot, spawning the Jersey Surfboard Club in 1959 and the first surfing championships in the early 1960s. By 1968 only one of the six members of the British surf team in the world championships wasn’t from Jersey.

Surfers at St Ouen's Beach © Johnny Reed/Shutterstock

10. St Helier’s grim history

What bad luck – you’ve spent your life dedicated to God and then a band of pirates cuts your head off.

The origins of Jersey’s only town, St Helier, derives from an ascetic hermit monk, Helerius, who came from modern-day Belgium to the island in the 6th century. The hermit settled on an islet in St Aubin’s Bay, living an abstemious existence, and spreading the ideas of Christianity to the islanders. 15 years later, in AD 555, Helerius met a gory end when he was beheaded by a band of Saxon pirates. Local legend has it that he picked up his decapitated head and carried it down to the sea.

The small craggy rock where Helerius lived out his days of abstention is known today as Hermitage rock. On St Helier’s day (the Sunday nearest to 16 July), pilgrims make their way to the rock, to lay a wreath at the entrance of the little stone chapel that was built on the site in the 12th century.

The Hermitage of St Helier © Kiev.Victor/Shutterstock

11. When is butter not butter?

Black butter (du nièr beurre), is an island speciality, which bears no resemblance to the familiar dairy product, as it’s actually an apple preserve made with cider.

Making black butter was a way to use up the enormous bounty of apples harvested from the orchards each autumn, and cooking it was part of the rural tradition. Islanders worked together, and it was very much a social event, involving singing and telling stories, while stirring large vats of the boiling, jammy apple sauce all day and into the night.

12. Fruits of the sea

It sounds like a myth: a sea creature that can only be fished on the first day of each new or full moon and the five days following, between October and April? But such is the decline of the ormer (the Jersey name for abalone) that there are tight fishing restrictions in place. There was a time when ormers were so abundant in the waters around Jersey, that they were a staple part of an islander’s dinner. The snail-like creature would be cooked in a casserole and the iridescent mother-of-pearl shell either binned, or used as an ashtray.

Fillets of conger eel © Golden Shark 2/Shutterstock

During the Middle Ages, The Channel Islands was dubbed “Isle of the Congers”, on account of the vast quantities of conger eel fished in the islands’ waters. These snake-like fish would be salted and dried and shipped to England, where they were hugely popular.

14. Super spuds

It may be just a humble spud, but the Jersey Royal potato has been elevated to higher status with its Protected Designation of Origin, meaning no one can nick the name for another product (in the same way as Champagne, in France). Jersey’s climate and soil conditions, along with the vraic (seaweed) farmers use as fertiliser, has helped to produce this particular type of papery skinned, flavourful potato since the late 1800s. La Mare Wine Estate even makes vodka with them.

Jersey Royal potatoes © SvitlanaR/Shutterstock

15. Prehistoric gnashers

Archaeologists on Jersey have discovered 13 teeth from cave dwellers dating from around 48,000 years ago, and their characteristics suggest interbreeding with modern humans. Teeth from two humans were unearthed between 1910 and 1911 at the archaeological site of La Cotte de St Brelade, at Ouaisné Bay, but scientists’ recent reassessment concluded they showed physical traits of both Neanderthals and modern man.

Ouaisné and St Brelade's Bay © Gail Johnson/Shutterstock

Stone tools and animal bones dating back even further were also found at the caves. In fact, evidence reveals the caves were probably inhabited on and off for 250,000 years. The piles of woolly mammoth and rhino bones suggest that hunters stampeded the animals off the edge of the cliffs, sending them plummeting to their deaths below.

16. Sanctuary for criminals

The series of perquages, or sanctuary paths, leading from the 12 parish churches on the island down to the sea, allowed criminals to flee the island. Before the Reformation anyone seeking refuge in a church was allowed to evade capture by making their way along the perquage to the shore, where they could then find safe passage by boat to France.

The shortest perquage is a flight of granite steps leading from the churchyard of the 11th-century Fisherman’s Chapel, the oldest church on the island.

St Brelade's church and the Fishermen's Chapel © Altrendo Images/Shutterstock

17. Famous connections

Jersey has a fair few heavyweights on its roll call of former residents and visitors. From racing drivers to socialites, painters to philosophers and novelists, they’ve all been charmed by Jersey’s balmy temperatures and coastal beauty. Oh, and there’s its tax haven status for those encumbered by wealth.

Socialite and actress Lillie Langtry was born on the island in 1853, and could count among her admirers Oscar Wilde and President Roosevelt, along with several well-known artists of the day. She also caught the eye of the Prince Of Wales (later Edward VII), and became his mistress for a while. You can see her grave at St Saviour’s Church, where her father was rector, next to the rectory where she was born.

Lillie Langtry, English socialite and actress © Everett Collection/Shutterstock

Writers drawn to Jersey include Victor Hugo, Anthony Trollope, and George Eliot, as well as Gerald Durrell, also known as a naturalist and ardent conservationist, who set up the Jersey Zoo (becoming the Durrell Wildlife Conservation Trust). Sportsmen with a connection to Jersey include golfer Harry Vardon, who was born there, and former British racing driver and Formula One champion Nigel Mansell, who has a swish pad on the island.

18. Post boxes

When you holiday in Jersey and you pop a “wish you were here” postcard into a post box, the name Anthony Trollope probably isn’t foremost in your mind. However, it’s thanks to the prolific Victorian novelist that Jersey became the first place in the British Isles to have a post box. Trollope’s day job working for the postal service (which he did for 30 years) saw him on an assignment to the Channel Islands to see how the postal system could be improved. He suggested the simple pillar box, and the first of its kind in Britain was installed in St Helier in 1854. Originally painted green, they were changed to the familiar bright red 20 years later. One of the facts about Jersey we bet you never knew!

A Jersey stamp shows a post box in Central market © Solodov Aleksei/Shutterstock

19. Black Dog of Bouley Bay

Jersey folklore tells of a huge black beast, with enormous eyes, which roamed the cliffs, dragging a chain behind it and terrifying the locals. There were numerous apparent encounters with the Black Dog of Bouley Bay, and any account of these sightings had locals hightailing it home to bolt their doors. One (likely) theory is that the stories were fabricated by smugglers. If parishioners were frightened into staying at home, the smugglers could get on with the business of bringing their illicit booty on shore.

If these Jersey facts have piqued your interest and you would like to visit the island, buy our Rough Guides Staycations Jersey. It’s packed with exciting ideas on what to do in Jersey, along with practical tips and recommendations on where to stay. What’s more, if you purchase the guide, you can download a free ebook.

Top image: Rozel Harbour, Jersey © Alagz/Shutterstock

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updated 7/15/2021
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