Postcard from La Hougue Bie Jersey

The entrance to the Neolithic passage grave beneath the medieval Chapel of Notre Dame at Hougue Bie

This week I am revisiting one of my favourite archaeological sites on the Island of Jersey, La Hougue Bie. The site traces human activity and spirituality over millennia and the passage grave dates from around 4500 BC. Today it is in the Parish of St Saviour up in the country.

The name La Hougue Bie is thought to refer to ‘a building on an earth mound’. My father in law, Frank Falle, a respected Jersey historian, has spent a considerable time piecing together the importance of the Vikings in Jersey’s history and it is likely that Hougue derives from the Viking word for burial mounds, ‘haugrs’.

I think we suffer from a lack of humility in our current age when we reflect on the culture and achievements of our ancient forebears. It must have been an enormous undertaking for this community to bring the large upright stone and capstones from different areas in the east of the island. There are 69 large stones, some weighing 30 tons.

The passage measures some 31feet in length and although it is known as a grave passage it would have been used for rituals and ceremonies as well as burials, rather like a church today.

The site was first excavated in 1924 and the massive stone structure was revealed by archaeologists in the early 1990s. Their work revealed that the interior passage and chambers we see today were part of the first phase of building and were covered by a beautifully constructed cairn. Evidence of this can be seen at the entrance to the tomb. The dry stonework and earthworks followed.

Remarkably on the 20th March 1996 the rising sun cast its rays along the length of the passage grave, perhaps for the first time in some 4500 years, revealing that it was aligned to capture the rising sun of the equinox.

Inside the passage grave at La Hougue Bie, Jersey

The chapel was built in the 12th century and would have probably replaced an earlier wooden structure. There are fragments of frescoes depicting angels on the ceiling of the vaults but more of them anon.

Today La Hougue Bie is an extraordinary museum with what is described as the World’s largest coin hoard on display and with human structures dating from 4500BC to the Second World War. No trip to Jersey in the Channel |Islands should be complete without a visit to this wonderful place which captures the procession of human history so eloquently.

Sun, Sea and Sand on the Island of Jersey

Gorey Castle bedecked with flags for the Queen’s Jubilee

Just before HM Queen Elizabeth’s Platinum Jubilee I found myself in Jersey. The town of St Helier and the Parishes around the Island were swagged abundantly with celebratory Jubilee bunting, Jersey flags and Union Jacks. The whole island looked like a scene from a painting.

Jersey is the largest of the Channel Islands. The Islands have always held a strategic importance to the British Crown thanks to their geographical position just off the coast of France.

The English crown’s claim to be the rightful Duke of Normandy was not given up until the Treaty of Paris in 1259 when the King of France also gave up his claim upon the Channel Islands. In Jersey the loyal toast is traditionally to the “The Queen our Duke!”

Over the centuries these independent Island States, with their own parliaments, have remained loyal to the British Crown.

For over a century, we’ve flocked to the coast in search of sun, sand and sea. Jersey provided an exotic destination – at once familiar and abroad.

By the end of the 1930s some 15 million British people were holidaying by the sea.

Leonard Richmond – ‘Jersey Sunshine Sands Scenery’ colour lithograph, printed by Waterlow & Sons, circa 1930s

The railway companies were keen to attract customers by promoting leisure travel and seaside posters where often produced by those whose trains served the holiday resorts. The early posters were sometimes reproductions of paintings, but poster design soon evolved under the influence of professional artists, art directors, and designers like Leonard Richmond (1889-1965). Born in Somerset he spent a large part of his career in Canada before making London his home. He was most noted for his railway posters but was also as an author and an illustrator. In the 1930s he established a summer painting school at St Ives in Cornwall.

Richmond’s poster for Southern Railway and the Great Western Railway with its joyful palette and graphic qualities advertises Jersey as a destination for Sunshine, Sands and Scenery. It sold at Toovey’s in a specialist print sale for £1100. Published by Waterlow & Sons in the 1930s it promotes an idyllic image of a beach holiday. The bay is Anne Port, one of my wife and I’s favourites on the island. It is hard to imagine that until Jersey airport opened in 1937 with its four grass runways scheduled flights landed on the beach at St Aubins and West Park, the ticket office was a bus!

Jersey is still familiar and yet abroad – a special place for a holiday.

Lillie Langtry, Love and Life Expressed in a Jewel

A gold, diamond, ruby and enamelled brooch in the form of the King’s Royal Cypher, given by Edward VII to Lillie Langtry

This week I am returning to the Parish of St Saviour on the Island of Jersey.

The church has a particular place in my heart as it was here that I was blessed to marry Teresa a little more than twenty-five years ago.

Today, though, my visit has been inspired by a jewel that was discovered and sold recently by Toovey’s. This gold, diamond, ruby and enamelled brooch in the form of the King’s Royal Cypher is set with rose cut diamonds, designed as a crown above the initial ‘E’ and a ruby set number ‘7’ against a blue enamelled ground. It was accompanied by a note from Lillie Langtry’s granddaughter, Mary Malcolm, in which she writes ‘this jewellery was given to my Grandmother Lillie Langtry in 1879 by Edward VII (she was his mistress)’.

Lillie Langtry, née Le Breton, (1853-1929) was the youngest child of the Dean of Jersey, The Very Reverend William Corbet Le Breton.

Lillie met her husband Edward Langtry, a wealthy widower, at the wedding of her brother. They were engaged and six weeks later they married at St Saviour’s Church on the 9th March 1874.

During her first season in London she was acclaimed as a great beauty. Her beauty and character was captured in portraits by artists including Millais, Watts, Whistler and Burne-Jones, Oscar Wilde even published a poem about her. It was this same beauty which drew the attention of a series of wealthy admirers and lovers as the years went by, including the Prince of Wales, later Edward VII.

The Prince of Wales had arranged to be seated next to Lillie Langtry at a dinner party given by Sir Allen Young in the May of 1877. As his infatuation with her grew Lillie became his mistress and she was even presented to his mother, Queen Victoria. The affair lasted until 1880 and the diamond and ruby encrusted brooch would have been given during this time. They remained friends even after the affair had ended.

Lillie Langtry turned to acting touring Britain and the United States filling theatres and attracting huge crowds. The scale of her fame is difficult to imagine even in our own age of mass media and celebrity.

She bred racehorses in America and Britain which connected her with high society on both sides of the Atlantic.

In 1918 Lillie Langtry retired from the stage and built a villa at Monte Carlo where she lived until her death in 1929. In America she had been known as the Jersey Lily and in accordance with her wishes her body was returned to the island of her birth and she was buried at St Saviour’s. As you can see her grave is marked by a carved marble bust portrait by J Galle.

Rupert Toovey at Lillie Langtry’s grave in St Saviour’s, Jersey

As an antiquarian it delights me that objects give us a window onto the past and it seems fitting that this small brooch is returning to Jersey too where it will be on display at the Jersey Museum in St Helier with a number of items left to it by Lillie Langtry herself.

By Rupert Toovey, a senior director of Toovey’s, the leading fine art auction house in West Sussex, based on the A24 at Washington. Originally published in the West Sussex Gazette.

Lalique Masterpiece

The Lalique glass font at St Matthew’s
The Lalique glass font at St Matthew’s

I am in the Channel Islands visiting family as I write this week’s column. My cousins, the De La Hayes, today, decided to take me to St Matthew’s. The church exterior has been described as the ‘the ugliest church in the Island’. But it has hidden delights for those who venture inside!

The Lalique glass reredos of angels at St Matthew’s, Jersey
The Lalique glass reredos of angels at St Matthew’s, Jersey

St Matthew’s is to be found at Millbrook halfway round St Aubin’s bay, on the south coast of the island of Jersey. It has been a grey day and the fine drizzly rain enfolded us as we walked from the car park towards this plain, concrete clad building. Nothing of the exterior prepares you for what awaits inside. The interior is entirely decorated with Lalique glass.

As you come into the church you are gathered into a space of great peace and light. The unity of design afforded by the work of the famous Parisian glass art designer René Lalique, and the Jersey architect A. B. Grayson, is unexpected and beautiful. Behind the altar the illuminated four metre high glass cross is decorated in relief with lilies. The Madonna lily motif is repeated throughout much of the glass decoration. The cross is flanked by two glass pillars creating a scene which brings to mind the Crucifixion. The Lady Chapel and Vestry are enclosed by glass screens. The Lalique font lends an intimacy to this sacred space.

The Lalique interior of St Matthew’s church
The Lalique interior of St Matthew’s church

The interior was transformed in memory of the first Lord Trent, Jesse Boot, who founded Boots the chemists and lived in Jersey with his wife Florence. René Lalique and the Boots met in the South of France where they were neighbours. The Lalique glass works were famous for their bold Art Deco designs on vases, bowls and decorative objects. René Lalique was delighted when Florence offered him the commission to decorate St Matthew’s, near Villa Millbrook her Jersey home, to the glory of God and in memory of her late husband.

Lalique had accepted a commission in 1930 to redecorate La Chapelle de la Vierge Fidèle a la Deliverande at Calvados which was severely damaged during the Second World War. This design incorporated six pillars crowned with Madonna lilies, six angels formed the reredos and there was a fifteen panel glass communion rail. All these elements from the French chapel were assembled in the Pavillon de Marsan at the 1933 Paris Exhibition. Many of the components of this earlier design appear to have been incorporated at St Matthew’s, which provides the best surviving example of Réne Lalique’s important glass interior designs. The refurbished St Matthew’s church was completed and dedicated in September 1934.

I am drawn to the Lady Chapel. The heavy glass panel opens smoothly revealing the breath-taking reredos formed of four sculptural Lalique glass angels. Their arms are crossed framing their faces which express a timeless serenity. These monumental figures lead your eyes heavenwards as you pause in prayer, gathered in a space radiant with light.

On Remembrance Sunday we will reflect on the courage of those who fought, and continue to fight and give their lives, so that we might live in freedom. The courage of the Allied forces who fought in the Second World War liberated Europe and the Channel Islands from Nazi occupation. Our corporate acts of remembrance will take place in spaces like St Matthew’s, Jersey and at the Cenotaph in Whitehall, with familiar services marked by church and state. As we approach Remembrance Sunday each of us will reflect on points of love in our lives, and those we have loved and lost in acts of personal remembrance.

By Revd. Rupert Toovey. Originally published on 4th November 2015 in the West Sussex Gazette.

Spring Unites Sussex & The Channel Islands

Postcard titled 'Weighbridge during Potato Season, Jersey'
Postcard titled 'Weighbridge during Potato Season, Jersey'

As March draws to a close it marks the procession towards the end of the great reflective Christian season of Lent. The name Lent probably has Anglo-Saxon origins coming from a word meaning ‘spring’, which refers to lengthening days. Recently we have been blessed with some beautiful bright days punctuating the grey skies.

Colin De La Haye in the granite potato sheds at Bel Val Farm, Jersey
Colin De La Haye in the granite potato sheds at Bel Val Farm, Jersey

Last Sunday I found myself in the company of my cousins, Colin and Paulette De La Haye. They farm Jersey Royal potatoes on land bought by Paulette’s family in the late 19th century. Bel Val Farm sits confidently in its landscape in the North East of the Island of Jersey. For them this is not work, it is a way of life filled with dedication and love.

Our conversation moves, as it usually does, from the world of fine art auctioneering to the important business of this year’s potato season. One of my great delights of the year are the first Jersey Royal potatoes. There is something hopeful in their arrival. Their flavour, texture and colour, for me, marks them as the finest potatoes in the world, especially when they come from Bel Val Farm!

I comment on the chill in the wind and note that the covers are back on the early crop. Colin has the most extraordinary connection with the land. He observes and understands the language of the seasons and nature in a remarkable way. He says “We’re expecting the largest tide of the year tonight, it’s a full moon and the tide comes with the moon. If you are going to get a frost it will be with the Easter moon. Frost comes with the tide this time of year.”

Jersey Royals have been a major export for the Island for more than a century. The postcard illustrated here was sold in a Toovey’s specialist Paper Collectables auction. It depicts the bustle at the harbour during the potato season in the early 20th century. At this time there were hundreds of small farms and growers. Today there are just twenty growers. The Jersey Royal is one of the few truly seasonal crops. Its season lasts just a few months. Each year approximately 30,000 tonnes of Jersey Royals are exported to the UK, worth some £29 million pounds. The value of this crop comes from its unique flavour and that it is one of the earliest new potatoes of the season.

Being early to the market is important to a successful season as there is a premium to the price. Colin explains that each potato seed is individually stood up by hand in some 20,000 boxes over the winter months. They are stored in their potato sheds, some of which are built of granite and overlook the bay. With the eyes facing up it gives the seed an advantage once planted. The earliest Jersey Royals traditionally came from the steep sloping fields known as côtil which catch the sun and guard against the frost. Colin and Paulette’s côtil are so steep that they have to be ploughed with an ancient horse plough attached to a winch at the top of the slope. Vraic, gathered seaweed, is still put on some of the crop to improve the condition of the soil and the flavour.

Colin’s organisation, care and stewardship of the land always impresses me. He and his team will plough, plant, prepare and cover a field in a single day. But there is always the unknown in farming and in particular the weather. I ask Colin how this season is looking, he replies optimistically, as he always does “We haven’t had any frost since the 8th and 9th of January so that’s been ok.” He pauses and smiles wryly and continues “We’ll see what tonight brings. We need a bit of sun now to warm them up.”

Colin’s Jersey accent reminds me that whilst Jersey is part of the British Isles its rich history and traditions mark this proud Island people’s independence.

Always optimistic, attentive to the seasons and tides Colin is rooted in his landscape. Paulette and Colin’s hard work, stewardship and generosity is always inspiring and is to be admired.

Lent affords us time to reflect, a punctuation mark in our busy lives, a time to be reminded of things that we might, for a moment, have forgotten and to rediscover the familiar anew. So look out for the first of the seasons Jersey Royals they may well be from Bel Val Farm!

By Revd. Rupert Toovey. Originally published on 25th March 2015 in the West Sussex Gazette.