The northernmost Channel Island of Alderney, at just 3 miles long by 1.5 miles wide, is packed full of photographic opportunities and holds a special place in my heart (my wife was born there). This is a showcase of the finest views and places of interest that this tiny, tranquil, yet fascinating island offers for anyone lucky enough to visit.
History, history, history
Alderney is steeped in both human and natural history. Strategically important in the English Channel, Alderney is rich in military history - the island is covered in 19th century fortifications built to counter the threat of French invasion and more recent German fortifications from their occupation of the island during WWII.
The wildlife on island is diverse and rich. With habitats ranging from wetland to dunes, there is a large variety of natural history - be it the mighty gannets of Les Étacs, the puffins of Burhou (my favourite sea bird, as featured in my blog post on Skomer Puffins), the blonde hedgehog or the myriad of other flora and fauna that play a vital part of the rich ecosystem.
Arriving on Alderney by boat is an unforgettable experience. You first navigate the turbulent waters of The Swinge, one of the most formidable tidal streams in the world, followed by passing the incredible and world famous harbour breakwater.
Designed by Thomas Jackson and built between 1847 and 1864 by over 1,200 workers, it originally stood at an incredible 1,463 metres in length. At the peak of construction 2,000 - 3,000 tonnes of rubble were tipped on to the 150 foot deep sea bed each day! Sadly, storms destroyed a third of the imposing structure shortly after completion but it still stands an impressive 910 metres.
To this day it provides vital shelter to Braye Harbour and Braye Bay from the frequent, fierce storms that batter the walls of this amazing engineering feat.
Beyond the breakwater you enter Braye Harbour. A refuge for many yachtsmen over the years, not least the British Admiralty fleet of the 1800's. Nowadays you'll find only visiting yachts and the occasional RIB, tied up to one of the many moorings in this wide bay.
Further still in to the bay and the tiny entrance to the Little Crabby Harbour, also more commonly known as the inner harbour, reveals itself. A small safe haven for local tenders and small fishing vessels and, most importantly, the launch location for the infamous Alderney Week's "Man Powered Flight" competition!
Head slightly east and you stumble across Douglas Quay and the first of Alderney's exquisite beaches, Braye Beach.
Douglas Quay was built in the 1700's and pre-dates the huge breakwater that now protects the bay. These days it's most common use is to act as a the perfect platform to swim from, into the crystal clear waters of Braye Beach.
Fortifications of the island
Regardless of your passion for military history, the various forts of Alderney are fascinating for young and old alike. There are few places in the world with such a range of derelict and restored fortifications and, as a photographer, they provide a fascinating subject matter.
This blog post barely scratches the surface of these man made marvels but, I hope, should whet your appetite to take a visit to this gem of a place.
First of all we have Fort Clonque. Now a luxurious holiday retreat, The Landmark Trust describes Clonque as:
Fort Clonque is the most remarkable of Alderney’s great harbour defences, begun in 1847 and designed for ten 64-pounder guns in four open batteries, manned by two officers and 50 men.
However, the rapid increase in range of steam ships made Clonque redundant in purpose almost as soon as it was completed and it was left disarmed but intact. The Germans, briefly, again sought to exploit the Fort’s strategic possibilities in the 1940s.
At high tide the causeway, used to walk to the drawbridge entrance, is submerged by the rising sea, leaving the lucky (and I really do mean that!) occupants cut-off from the outside world. Bliss!
Next and probably my most favourite, purely due to its precarious position and isolation, is Fort Les Hommeaux Florains. Completed in 1859, it is now long derelict and slowly succumbing to the power of ocean storms. As such, it was the first on island to be abandoned and was untouched by the German occupation force of WWII. In recent years the outer pillars (one can be seen to the right of the fort in the image below) have been knocked down by the incredible waves that batter the coast in winter.
The views from Longis Bay, a half mile long beach, are no less impressive. With three, distinct, man-made features in clear view; it is protected by a formidable German anti-tank wall, built during the WWII occupation of the islands and in the distance you can see Fort Ile de Raz and the private residence of Fort Essex.
In 1869, Fort Ile de Raz, was armed with 10 guns and manned by 64 men. Fortified by German forces in WWII, it was then converted to a private residence but is now derelict. Like Fort Clonque it can only be reached at low tide via a causeway. It's this causeway where one can really understand the power of the tidal flows in Alderney. The water practically screams over it and once partially submerged no crossing should not be attempted.
Standing an impressive 32m high, the Mannez Lighthouse was built in 1912 to protect shipping channels in the deadly Alderney Race - a fast moving tidal flow running between Alderney and the Normandy coast of France. Located on the eastern end of the island, this once museum is now, sadly, downgraded and fully automated. It now uses two modern and powerful LED lights fixed to the side, not the old rotary beam you can see lit in the image below. Closed to the general public by Trinity House in 2019, due to a lack of footfall, it now stands a reminder of how dangerous shipping over the past 100 years has been in these formidable waters.
Finally, and by no means least, is the incredible Fort Tourgis. I could do an entire photographic study of this location alone! I plead anyone visiting the site to do so with extreme caution, however. Under no circumstance should you enter the structure. It's not only forbidden but, quite simply, it's just far too dangerous.
The fort was completed in 1855 and is one of Alderney's largest Victorian structures. Heavy canon and mortar batteries surround the fort and originally it would have had close to 350 men stationed there. It now stands a sorry shadow of it's former glory. Much touted for development and refurbishment, many of the internal floors have collapsed and the entire structure is slowly succumbing to nature once more.
The jewel in Alderney's crown
Finally, I leave you with a view that sums up Alderney's wealth of landscapes and natural history and that is the view to Les Étacs or the Garden Rocks. Two percent (6,000 breeding pairs) of the world's population of northern gannets cling to this tiny rock outcrop a mere 100m from the imposing cliffs of Alderney's western tip.
The area was designated a Ramsar Site in 2005 and includes the islet of Ortac and the island of Burhou, home to the cheeky and characterful puffins. Even from the cliff edge you can hear the cacophony of bird call as the gannets circle and perch on these imposing ramparts away from the danger of land based predators.
Arrive in May and the cliffs are awash with thrift and other stunning wild flowers. It really is a sight to behold and I cannot recommend a visit to this incredible vista enough.
So, there we have it. A tiny island that packs a mighty photographic punch. I'm sure you'll agree that any visiting photographer could be lost for months here and still not run out of inspiration and I feel incredibly lucky to live on the doorstep of this hidden gem. I know I've barely scratched the surface in terms of seasonal change and ideas I have for many more images as the opportunities arise.