An afternoon at Fort Grey

Fort Grey and Fort Saumarez
Fort Grey (with Fort Saumarez in the background)

It was overcast and threatening drizzle with a reasonably strong south-westerly as I headed over the granite causeway to Fort Grey, aka The Cup and Saucer, at Rocquaine Bay on a Sunday oozing typical British Summertime.

The old fort, a Martello Tower built on the site of a previous fortification that has been developed over centuries, is now part of Guernsey Museums’ string of venues around the island.

Appropriately, given its location, this one focuses on shipwrecks that have occurred around the island, and specifically along its treacherous west coast.

Heading up the comparatively new steps carved into the solid granite structure of the fort (they were installed in the mid 1970s when Guernsey Museums took over the premises to allow easier access than a precarious ladder) I heard the distinctive tones of a pirate regaling those gathered on the scrubby grass inside the fort with stories of the island’s rich seafaring history. Youngsters, parents and grandparents sat enthralled by the stories, though the pirate’s Jack Sparrow-esque costume seemed a little incongruous to what I would imagine pirates around Guernsey would be seen in.

Rocquaine Bay
Rocquaine Bay

Around the rest of the outside area surrounding the central tower others played games or took a look at the La Societe Guernesiaise stall or took part in activities organised by Guernsey Museums’ education team, while I headed up the steps in the central tower, into the museum itself.

The museum, though compact, packs in a lot of detail. Upon first entering it is best to bear left around the circular room, doing so gives an insight into the history of the fort from its original construction through its rebuilding in its current form to its use during the Occupation during the Second World War and up to its redevelopment in the 1970s

Fort Grey Shipwreck MuseumThis is followed by a look at the Hanois lighthouse that can be seen from outside to the southwest, again tracing its history with an impressive model of the ‘sea tower’. It was at this point I encountered the only criticism I have of the museum (and its hardly a bad thing), the various information panels around the room were packed with fascinating information but, in being so, were very dense for a casual observer.

Heading further around the top floor, a map shows the location of the many ship wrecks that have occurred around the island over the years and give some context to how truly dangerous seafaring can be. Having visited places like this as a youngster, as well as spending plenty of time in the sea, no doubt helped give me the healthy respect I have for the waters around Guernsey.

Alongside this is a display looking at the Orion oil rig that washed ashore at Grandes Rocques in the 1970s in impressive fashion.

Fort Grey Shipwreck MuseumContinuing clockwise around the tower and down the stairs leads to more in-depth looks at some of the bigger and more famous shipwrecks to have occurred. While all have their stories a couple stood out to me for different reasons.

First is the SS Briseis that was wrecked off Vazon in 1937. On display here was one of the barrels that made it famous, containing Algerian wine. Many such barrels were washed ashore and some of the quicker locals are said to have collected some and taken them home leading to not only a fair amount of drunkenness along the west coast immediately after, but also stories of barrels stashed for the duration of the Occupation and cracked open to celebrate the island’s Liberation in 1945 – though I’m unsure of the state of the contents after 8 years being hidden away.

Fort Grey Shipwreck MuseumThe other that always sticks in my mind does so for far more tragic reasons, that of the wreck of the MV Prosperity which wrecked in 1973 with the loss of all hands, though some suggest they could have survived had they stayed aboard the ship rather than manning the lifeboats.

Another wreck, notable for its visual impact more than anything else, and one recent enough for me to remember, is the Vermontborg which ran aground on La Capelle reef in 2003 which has been added to the museum since my previous visits.

I headed back outside the museum just in time to catch The Space Pirates of Rocquaine playing a lo-fi set atop the fort with many songs referencing the area, from The Beast of the Coudre to The Pirates Song giving a tongue-in-cheek view of life around the bay.

Most notable among the set following my visit to the museum was the haunting Prosperity telling the story of the wrecked ship. Their performance went down well with youngsters dancing while everyone else called for an encore, which came in the form of the Pirates’ version of Sarnia Cherie (far more palatable and suitable than the ‘official’ song).

The Space Pirates Of Rocquaine
The Space Pirates Of Rocquaine

Having spent a few hours at Fort Grey this afternoon, admittedly on a day with more events than usual going on, I left both entertained and with a new knowledge of some of the island’s maritime history, and there was certainly more to see than my quick visit allowed.

Whether visiting the island, or a local like me, the Cup and Saucer is more than worth a visit and, on a sunnier day, would come with some impressive views of Rocquaine bay and the rocky seas beyond.

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