By Dea Birkett
I watched the 10-year-old twins fall over the edge of the cliff, tumbling down into the clear, cold water slapping the flinty rocks. I heard Savanna gasp then disappear. River let out a whimper, then a ‘Plop!’ as he hit the water. I made a screech like a car skidding, although there were no cars for a very long way.
'We pedalled through the vineyards topping the island and over to Little Sark, joined to the bigger island by an isthmus just a few feet wide, with a sheer drop on either side. At night, there are no streetlights. We steered our bikes back by the stars.'
The twins were coasteering – mountaineering but around the cliffs on a coastline – kitted out in wetsuits, buoyancy vests and hard hats. In coasteering, the aim is to scale down the rocks into the water and jump in, guided by an instructor. This was on the challenging coast of Sark, a tiny Channel Island with no cars and no airport. We took a small ferry from nearby Guernsey to reach it, then a ‘toast rack’ – a cart hooked on the back of a tractor, the only motorised transport permitted on the island – up the steep road from the one-boat harbour. A toast rack always meets a ferry; Sark works to a rhythm many of us have forgotten how to follow. Because there are no cars, there are no roads – just dusty gravel paths crisscrossing the four-and-a-half-mile-square island.
There are also no beaches – the deep grey cliffs of the coast ring fertile, overgrown fields, bursting with tiny, spindly wildflowers waving in the constant wind. We pedalled through the vineyards topping the island and over to Little Sark, joined to the bigger island by an isthmus just a few feet wide, with a sheer drop on either side. At night, there are no streetlights. We steered our bikes back by the stars.
This is Local Hero land – each of the 600 Sarkees has several jobs. The man who fixes the boiler will also look after your sick cat and work behind a desk in the local government, known as the Chief Pleas. It is a feudal system. Sark is independent from the UK and operates under its own unique laws. In particular, there’s no income tax.
The island has plenty of advantages. It’s a giant kitchen cupboard stuffed with yummy ingredients – being far from the beaten track, local produce doesn’t mean a few miles but a few metres. Sark specialises in seafood platters, topped by Sark lobster and crab. All cheese (goat, sheep and cow) and cream is made on the island, and the lamb is excellent.
Sheep aren’t only eaten here – they’re entertainment, with the annual Sark Sheep Racing attracting visitors from all over the Channel Islands. Soft toy rabbits are strapped to the back of each ewe, the starting whistle is blown and they race along the grass track, jumping bales of hay as hurdles. Bets are taken. We won £5, which we spent later in the Baa – a pub in a tent.
When a place is small, you get to know it quickly – the web of country paths, the route through the field to avoid the low-gear steep hills. And you get to recognise the people, too. So within a couple of days we were waving and nodding at those we passed on the paths, as if we’d known them for years.
We loved Sark. We loved the size, the bikes and the fabulous food. The twins even enjoyed coasteering. Although I’m not so sure I enjoyed watching them. That was terrifying.
Read more about family holidays and breaks in the Channel Islands.