Herm was a Crown Dependency from 1204 until the end of the Second World War, when the States of Guernsey purchased it for £15,000, so that it could be kept open for all to enjoy. It is now leased on a rolling basis, with the tenant required to maintain the island for the enjoyment of all.
Despite its size (0.77 square miles / 2 square km — 1.5 miles long, 0.5 miles wide) it is a haven for wildlife, with around 100 species of birds living there, including puffins and pheasants. The terrain is varied, with a common to the north occupying around a third of the landmass and leading down to the long golden sands of Shell Beach, and cliffs to the south falling to Belvoir Bay and the isle of Hermetier. Most of the island is granite.
Shell Beach (above), formerly known as Le Mielle, is so-named because of the sheer quantity of shells that used to be deposited there by the Gulf Stream from as far away as Mexico. Present-day visitors, however, will find that except for among the rocks much of the beach if now covered in a slightly coarse sand rather than unbroken shells.
There are some great views of Shell Beach in this drone video, which also shows a lot of the common and the clear, clean waters surrounding the island.
Plant life is just as varied as the wildlife, with woodland on the upper slopes, gorse on the common, and New Zealand Flax on the fringes of the beach. The temperate climate allow for an abundance of semi-tropical plant types that are less common on the mainland.
Boats ply the three mile crossing between Guernsey and Herm year round, with the Trident ferry (above) doing good trade in the summer when tourists visit the island from St Peter Port. At high tide it docks at the main harbour, but when the tide is low it instead drops off and collects its passengers from the Rosaire Steps (below), a short distance to the south.
Harald Eggert, writing in The Channel Islands described the Rosaire Steps as ‘a rock with a cave’, and claimed that ‘the local people will tell you that this is where in earlier days a mermaid market was held: the luckless mermaids were chained to the rock while the bidding took place.’ At the time of his writing (1978), six shipping lines ferried passengers between Guernsey and Herm daily between May and October.
Legend has it that Sir Percival Perry, who leased Herm in the 1920s and 30s encased a pristine Model T Ford within the stonework of the harbour itself, although without demolishing it, it’s unlikely we’ll ever know the truth of this tale.
Aside from the kiosks at Shell Beach and Belvoir Bay, most of Herm’s buildings are clustered around the harbour. These consist of the gift shop, White House Hotel (no phones, televisions of clocks, previously the private home of Sir Percival Perry) and the Mermaid Tavern, which takes its name from the sailing ship that brought supplies to the island for three decades leading up to the 1900s.
The manor and non-denominational 11th century Chapel of St Trugal sit up on the crest of the hill, connected to the buildings below by a winding track. A small campsite sits close to the western shore, looking out towards Guernsey. A granite, windowless building in the grounds of the White House Hotel holds some claim to fame for the island, being the smallest prison in the world.
One of Anthony Gormley’s casts of his own body was loaned to the island for two years as part of an art project and installed on Le Petit Monceau (below). However, the £150,000 sculpture was too expensive for the island to keep hold of for longer, and so in 2012 when the loan came to an end it was returned to the artist.
It is governed directly from Guernsey, and forms part of the electoral district of St Peter Port South in the States of Deliberation. It is home to Britain’s smallest school, with just one classroom, and has had direct dial telephones through the Guernsey exchange since the installation of a 60-channel digital radio link in 1985. The BBC’s Domesday Project described the island’s power station setup in 1985:
It is situated in a central position at the top of the island in the old farm buildings. There are three DAF generators, each with a power output of 71 kilowatts, though normally only one is run at a time. The diesel oil which the engines use is shipped over from Guernsey by boat, and piped to the power house from the harbour. In summer about 300 litres of oil are used each day, and in winter when the number of people on the island is smaller, about 225 litres per day.
Chapel of St Trugal
The chapel was built in the 11th century when Herm was home to many monks. It is not known whether the original builders were merely followers of St Trugal, who lived in Normandy, or if the saint visited the island himself.
Its angled layout meant that the monks could sit in the nave, to the north, while the public would sit in the west, from which they would be unable to see the monks.
The chapel was significantly overgrown when Major Peter and Jenny Wood took over the leave of Herm, but they cut back much of the growth to uncover the west front, replaced the stained glass windows and established a garden there. Many of the new windows feature scenes significant to the island, with the BBC reporting that one depicts two Guernsey cows boarding Noah’s ark.
The chapel is not consecrated, and so non-denominational, but there are weekly services from visiting priests.
History of Herm
Herm has been occupied at least since Neolithic times (10200 – 2000BC), as tombs from that period are found on the island, but little is known about its inhabitants until the 6th century when it was occupied by monks. Some speculate that the name is a shortened version or hermit. At that time it was supposedly connected to the neighbouring island of Jethou (below) until the land between the two was swept away by a storm in 709.
It became a part of the Duchy of Normandy, along with the rest of the Channel Islands, in 933, and an English Crown Dependency from 1204 onwards when Philip II of France took mainland Normandy from England, leaving the Channel Islands behind.
By the 1800s Herm’s rich granite deposits meant that it was used for quarrying (for which up to 400 people lived on the island at one time) and leased to tenants who, unlike the current tenants, treated the island as their private domains.
Herm during the Second World War
Unlike Guernsey, Jersey and Alderney, Herm was neither occupied nor fortified during the Second World, but its beaches were used by the German troops to practice troop landings in preparation for an invasion of Britain. They also shot a propaganda film there which, when shown back home in Germany, was claimed to be footage of a successful German landing on the Isle of Wight.
At the same time, the British forces had their eye on the, with a view to scoring a PR coup, with plans for raids on Herm, Jethou and Brecqhou on the night of 9/10 February 1943. Operation Hunchback, as it was known, would be conducted by 42 men, but was cancelled at the last minute due to bad weather, and finally conducted in a less grand scale (the plans for Jethou and Brecqhou were abandoned) on 27/28 February. It wasn’t a great success, and they found the island to be deserted.
Tenants of Herm
James Stevens Linklater
1884 – 1889
Linklater isn’t mentioned by many sources that discuss the tenants of Herm. However, he appears to have purchased the island from Louis Numa Brard and Augustin Claude Broquin for £7375 on 6 August 1884. It further appears that he tried to sell the island again almost right away, initially to Britain, suggesting the it should mount a 35 ton cannon on the highest point to bring St Peter Port under its control. After several years of negotiations he sold the lease of the island to Prince Blucher. (Source: http://quivis.co.uk/herm/herm.html).
Gehbard Furst Blucher von Wahlstatt
1889 – 1914
Famed for introducing wallabies to Herm, although none of these have survived to the present day, as they were housed in a zoo when Blucher left the island at the start of the First World War.
1920 – 1923
Best known for writing Whisky Galore and The Monarch of the Glen, Mackenzie was born in Barra, Scotland, and a lifelong Scottish nationalist. He co-founded the Scottish Nationalist Party (SNP). He was tenant of both Herm and Jethou. He wrote two novels while on Herm, including Fairy Gold which included recognisable descriptions of the island.
Percival Lea Dewhurst Perry
1923 – 1939
Chairman of the Ford Motor Company Ltd for 20 years from its incorporation in 1928, setting up its network of dealers, racing Ford cars and writing poetry to promote the vehicles. He opened Ford’s first factory outside of the US, in Manchester. He was the tenant of Herm until the start of the Second World War.
A G Jefferies
1948 – 1949
The States of Guernsey leased Herm to A G Jefferies following its purchase at the end of the Second World War on two conditions. First, it should be open to the general public during summer daylight hours, and second, the island should not be altered in any way, so as to preserve its beauty.
Jefferies established Herm’s own postal service when the Postmaster General refused to reinstate the financially unviable post office that had operated for half an hour each day between 1925 and 1938. Jefferies’ service only conducted the mail as far as St Peter Port where it was handled for onward conveyance by the regular postal service, so anything sent from Herm had to carry two stamps — one issued by Herm and one by Britain. Herm stamps were attached to the backs of envelopes and the top left of postcards, and could also be used to pay for messages sent to Guernsey by carrier pigeon before the installation of a telephone line in 1954.
Major Peter and Jenny Wood
1949 – 1980
The most famous of all of the tenants was Major Peter Wood (actually Major Alexander Gouch Wood) and his wife Jenny. They took over the 80-year lease in 1949 when the island was in a poor state, and made worse shortly thereafter when a naval mine, left over from the war, floated into the harbour, detonated against the wall and blew out most of the island’s remaining windows.
The major and his wife looked after the island until 1980, when they retired. He died in 1998, and Jenny wrote a book about their early life there, entitled Herm, Our Island Home, which described the work they undertook to bring it back to a habitable and commercially-viable condition. The opening page of the book describes the devastation caused by the blast:
We passed through the silent shattered village and reached the harbour and then we turned and looked back. The road was littered with seaweed, splintered stone and beach pebbles, so that we had to watch where we put our feet.
The roofs of the cottages were all awry and most of the windows were black and empty, blown in by the force of the blast from the mice which the night before had floated almost in the harbour on the rising tide and detonated with devastating force just 40 yards from the end of the mole, and only 100 yards from the centre of the village. Start against the skyline, 600 yards away, we could see that one of the barns was a skeleton, all the tiles blown off.
It was the 4th January 1952, and the British government had announced on 30 December 1951 that the English Channel could now be regarded as free of wartime mines. Just four days ago. Ironical.
When Jenny Wood also died she was buried beside her husband in a grave outside the Chapel of St Trugal at the top of the island.
Adrian Heyworth and Penny Wood Heyworth
1980 – 2008
From 1980 onwards, the lease was maintained by couple’s daughter, Penny Wood Heyworth, and her husband, Adrian. However, they put the remaining 40 years of the lease up for sale on 17 May 2008, initially for £15,000,000.
John and Julia Singer
2008 – present
The lease was acquired in September 2008 by Starboard Settlement, reportedly for a far smaller figure than its sale price. Starboard Settlement, a trust that provided financial support for developing world charities, formed Herm Island Ltd to manage the island for its trustees, and vowed to maintain it in the condition under which they had acquired it.
John and Julia Singer became the new managers of the island, and moved there from Guernsey following the purchase. John was Starboard Settlement’s investment manager, and according to the UK’s Independent newspaper, the couple had ‘met and fallen in love on Herm 14 years [previously]’.
No cars are permitted on the island, and neither are bicycles (despite these being permitted on Sark, which also forbids cars). That doesn’t mean you won’t encounter a powered vehicle when walking on the island, though, as some residents use quad bikes or tractors to get around. There is also a tractor-hauled fire tender, although this is only used as a stopgap measure while awaiting assistance from the Guernsey Fire Brigade.
The ferry route between Herm and Guernsey is operated under license by the Trident Charter Company. The two boats in use — Trident V and Trident VI — are each licensed to carry 250 passengers, and generally run at 10 knots for a crossing time of between 15 and 20 minutes.
The speed limit for boating in the immediate vicinity of Herm is 6 knots.
Health and Safety
Herm has one resident special constable who is accompanied by two officers sent over from Guernsey on bank holidays. It has no doctor, and so medical assistance is offered in the first instance by a team of first aiders. Herm is served by the Flying Christine III naval ambulance, which will take a minimum of 45 minutes to reach the island from Guernsey.
The aforementioned fire tender has a capacity of 2000 litres and a 60 metre reel to pump it onto the source of the fire, operated by the island’s team of 10 retained firefighters. The island doesn’t have any fire hydrants because it doesn’t have mains water. All water on the island is drawn from boreholes sunk through the bedrock.