Our breath is the wave of life… and life is the most beautiful thing we have.
Jersey, the Channel Islands
A year passed and we were on the move again, back to England. Not to the mainland this time but to Jersey, an island in the Channel Islands, about 80km off the coast of France near Brittany. I think the reason that my stepfather chose to live on this island was to start a fresh new life.
While we lived in Spain, my mother and Uncle D, as we came to call him, got married on the 3rd of June 1966, I was only years five years old at that time. The warm, balmy weather on the Island of Jersey and the huge tax advantages attracted them both to move from Spain to Jersey. We moved there the following year so that we would be in time for me to enter the only private day school on the island. A little later, happily for me, my Great Aunt Anne and Uncle Leonard, who had raised my father when he was a child, also moved from their home in Cornwall to Jersey, perhaps for the same reason as we had. They bought a large Victorian town house on a hill above St. Helier, which is the largest town in Jersey. Their house was close to my school, so I sometimes went to see them after school finished. My mother was often late picking us up after school, so we waited patiently at Aunt Anne’s house, for Mother to arrive and drive us back home.
The Island of Jersey is about thirty-five kilometres long and fifteen kilometres wide, and had a population of about eight thousand people at that time. The Channel Islands belong to England, but they have their own independent local government so the taxes on the island are extraordinarily low.
In St. Helier there are many good hotels for tourists to stay in. The town is close to the main sea port of Jersey. Along the waterfront, there are many good shops, banks and entertainment spots, such as a theatre, cinemas, ballrooms and a large concert hall. The rest of the island is mainly idyllic, sandy, saffron-yellow beaches and grassy, green farmland. Beautiful stone granite farms nestle in the small valleys, surrounded by fields of potatoes, cauliflowers and grazing pastures for the cows. The pretty Jersey Cows are now famous throughout the world, for their golden brown furry skin. Their huge dark eyes and long brown eyelashes attract many farmers to keep them, and their milk tastes so good for it is very rich and creamy.
The land on the island is on a high plateau. The rugged cliffs on the north side slope down to the long sandy beautiful bays. Along the south coast, there are many long sandy beaches to play on. It felt like a child’s heaven to us: the air was crisp with the salty tang of the deep blue sea on the west and southern coast. The low tides rushed in and out and left small pools among the rocks. These pools were perfect for catching small crabs, eels, mussels and prawns. They could be easily caught with our small fishing nets. Every summer we spent many happy days playing on the golden sandy beaches on the island. Our mother often left us with a picnic hamper on the beach. Our nanny, Dingding, was always there to take care of us, while Mummy went off fishing. At low tide she would disappear for hours while she walked alone out into the far distance looking for some shellfish to catch for our dinner. The weather there in the summer was usually warm, with a clear pale blue sky, so we would spend most of the day enjoying the warm sun, paddling in the deep blue-green sea of the English Channel and playing on the wet golden sands making sand castles. In the empty fields and the nearby sand dunes, there were many wild flowers such as wild thyme and rockrose. I often went searching on my own for flowers to make daisy chains or garlands for my hair. I would creep into an empty field and quietly look for wild berries or flowers that I could take home.
I still have a clear memory of the first time we went on the beach in Jersey. We went to Saint Aubins beach for a few hours after lunch. Charles and I looked for shells with Dingding, and Mummy took her fishing net to see what she could find in the rock pools.
In the late afternoon the evening sun began to set over the sea. I ran back to where Dingding was sitting. She was on a straw mat waiting with Charles for my mother to return from fishing. The low tide was beginning to turn, so we hoped she would be back before the tide changed. In the far of distance we saw her running, carrying a bucket of shrimps and some small crabs. She came back huffing and puffing and smiled as she showed us her catch to take back for dinner. Pale pink, fluffy clouds floated in the evening sky as we drove home to our new house. Charles and I nodded off to sleep…. the end of a beautiful day.
The island of Jersey is the largest of the Channel Islands. The history of Jersey is influenced by its strategic location between the northern coast of France and the southern east coast of England. During the era of the Vikings, long, long, long ago, Jersey came under the control of the Duke of Brittany. In 1066, when William the Conqueror, conquered England, the duchy of Normandy and the Kingdom of England were governed under one monarch. At that time The Dukes of Normandy owned considerable estates on the Channel Islands. In 1204 the Norman King Philip II Augustus retained possession of Jersey and the other Channel Islands. Since then the islands have been self–governed. Traditionally, the way of life in Jersey involved agriculture, fishing, shipbuilding and the production of woollen goods. Hence, a woollen sweater is sometimes called a ‘Jersey’ even to this day.
The island of Jersey is divided into twelve parishes, named after various, Christian Saints. When we arrived on Jersey, Uncle Dudley bought an old house on the east side of the island in the parish of Saint John. Until the 19th century the indigenous dialect of the island, Jèrrais, was an old Norman dialect that was the old language of the island, though French was sometimes used. After the Second World War, English gradually became the predominant language used on the island. I remember that the farmers next door spoke a French language (a patois), which it took me quite a while to understand.
It was our second week in Jersey, on a sunny autumn afternoon. My mother was getting ready to go shopping in the town. She put my sister Caroline in the baby car seat and drove down to town to do the food shopping. After she had finished her errands, she would usually pick up my little brother Charles from his play school and then came to my school to fetch me at three o’clock.
I remember coming home from school when the summer golden sun was fading and the soft afternoon air was calm. Today Mummy as we always called her, was as usual very late so I began to wonder if she would ever come to take me home. When we finally got home, it was almost four o’clock in the late afternoon. We rushed into the kitchen to get a glass of refreshing lemon barley water and grabbed some chocolate biscuits. Our French Nanny came out of the house smiling to meet us. She took out all the shopping bags from the car and carried them into the kitchen. She then went back to the car and picked up baby Caroline and told Charles and I, to go and change out of our school uniforms. After changing into some rough clothes, we ran outside to see what progress had been made in the garden. It was always lovely to see the new borders that had been made or if some flowers had started to grow. Whenever she had a free moment, my mother put on her green gardening gloves and went out to work somewhere in the garden. Today she was working like a demon in the borders of the front garden. She was planting white and red rose bushes along the drive to the entrance of the house. She seemed to be so totally absorbed in what she was doing that we decided that it was better not to disturb her. So we went to look for Uncle Dudley. He was in overalls, up a wooden ladder, painting the outside walls of the house white, he waved to us and smiled. Dudley always loved to play with us if he had some extra time to spare. His motto in life was to have lots of fun! He seemed to be busy too, so we ran to the back yard to feed the chickens and look for eggs and then went to the pigsty to see if the pigs seemed happy. They grunted and nodded their heads as if to say yes!
Little by little our house, was being redecorated. Later on evergreen trees and flowers were planted in the front gardens. At the back of the house, my mother made a kitchen garden and planted many seeds to grow herbs and a variety of winter vegetables and flowers. Each day passed very happily. Our house was called ‘La Grande Maison,’ meaning the ‘big house’. An extra wing was built by some local builders on the east side of the main building. It had four new rooms upstairs and a large playroom on the ground floor. A spacious new bedroom was built for our mother and Uncle D. The bedroom had a pale blue colour scheme with white silk edgings on the curtains. Behind the bedroom was a gorgeous, dressing room with enough cupboards for her large collection of clothes. Next to that was a shell pink bathroom with gold taps, which she absolutely loved she had a bath at least twice a day. The large playroom was made for us underneath her bedroom suite. It had a creamy white ceiling that was high enough to have a swing to play on. There was a trampoline to jump on and a stage for us to put on plays and a ping-pong table! Many happy hours were spent playing there in the winters or when it was raining.
With the help of a gardener, my mother was busy each day designing and building the flower borders in front of the house. It was here in Jersey that she designed her very first garden. Dudley also had his hands full, helping with the design and the construction work that still needed to be done on the house. He had hired some local builders to help him with the final renovations. As I remember, it took about two years to finally finish the garden and all the other renovations to the house.
We grew to love Uncle D very much. We were not his children, but I never ever felt that Dudley was distant or removed from us. In fact, I think we all felt closer to him than we did to our own mother. We could feel and sense how much he loved and cared for us, whereas with our mother sometimes it seemed she had little interest in us, especially when we were very small children. It was not her fault, for she had been brought up in an English stately home. During her childhood, she was taught to hide her emotions and was polished not to show her inner feelings. She had to keep a stiff upper lip! She was trained to become ‘the Belle of the Ball’!
Mummy was still only twenty-six and she was expecting her fifth child in the summer. On the island she loved to entertain two or three times a week. There would be guests for lunch, a cocktail party once a week and at least one dinner party every month at the house. On other nights she and Dudley would be out, attending a friend’s party somewhere on the island.
On the 29th of July, 1957 a beautiful baby girl with curly blonde hair was born in the new guest room upstairs. They named her Juliet. I still remember being brought in by Dudley to see the new baby. He was smiling and so proud of her, for this was his first daughter, a Cunliffe-Owen.
Dingding became busy with the new baby, so we tried to help her in any way we could. I enjoyed working with the earth and watching the seeds grow and turn into plants, sometimes growing taller than I was. Runner beans and cucumbers always amazed me, how quickly they managed to grow tall. The two things I didn’t like to do were to clean out the pigsty (as it was so smelly) and cutting off chicken’s heads with a carving knife. I hated watching them dancing around in our farm yard in pain until they died. After they died we were made to pluck their feathers and bring the chicken to the kitchen to be roasted! Uncle D told us that this experience was a lot more important than reading books at school or doing homework, and so there was many a day that I had to stay up late at night trying to finish my homework. Spring would be the busiest time of year when we would all help to cut and bunch the flowers. Looking back now I really think he gave us something special, even though it was hard work. We were able to experience the joy of eating vegetables that had just been picked a few minutes before and to really taste the juiciness of a fresh tomato or of a newly laid egg.
At the weekends we played with the children who lived in the nearby house, the Lewis family. Their father was a doctor and there was one daughter Phillippa and her two brothers Rodger and Paul. Phillippa was a little older than I and so didn’t join in our games, but the two boys were always happy to come and play, as they loved to build houses in our barn with hay bales. Sometimes we would make a den above where the pigs lived in the pig sty and take snacks and juice up there, happy to know that no one would ever suspect that we had built a house in such a smelly place.
Charles and I had started school in the nearby town and so every morning we were driven down to St Helier at eight thirty and picked up at three in the afternoon. It took me a few months to get used to the English ways. After having been to school in Spain, I often got teased for using Spanish instead of English. The school I went to, was an all-girls school, we wore a grey uniform, grey pleated skirt with a white blouse, red and grey tie and grey flannel jacket with red trim. I found it difficult to make friends, for everyone teased me about my posh accent and my funny way of mixing Spanish and English. I was also painfully shy. One of the reasons was that I never could really say what I wanted clearly. I was always afraid of being rejected or turned down, as my mother would frequently do that to me. I liked to study and enjoyed all the lessons, especially Geography, this was the first time I learnt about Japan, Mount Fuji and how Japanese women wore a dress made of silk called a kimono. I dreaded sports or P.E. or gym. Often I would slip on the asphalt and go running to the sickroom with a grazed and bleeding knee. I was afraid of heights, climbing ropes and jumping over boxes always made me go into a cold sweat. Even doing a simple somersault would make me shiver with fear. “Why can’t I be braver?” I thought. “Why am I so scared?” I began to turn this idea, over and over again in my head and when we went to Church on Sundays, I would always pray to God to make me fearless. I wasn’t very happy at school.
Rather than going to school I loved growing flowers. Since I was a very little girl I watched my mother make flower arrangements for the hall of our house and for dinner table decorations. She often planned new colour schemes for the borders in the garden, and she spent lots of time looking for new seeds that she could plant the following year. I think that for her the garden was a chance to forget about all her worries and just relax in the world of flowers. As a mother she was pretty dynamic. She wasn’t a gentle and loving kind of mother like Dingding, but she did like to make every day of her life exciting and full of fun.