Island of dreams

26th September 1997 at 01:00
Gillian Thomas explores the wealth of choices for school groups on Jersey.

We've all worn a jersey or watched Bergerac. But this wealthy little island reveals many surprises. I tasted Black Butter (apples boiled in cider), cycled along a green lane and heard Jerriais, its old NorseNorman language.

Jersey packs a lot into its small area, only nine miles by five. Like a mini-England, it has narrow country lanes and villages clustered round neat granite churches with slender spires. The small fields are devoted to its two specialties:Jersey cows and Jersey Royal potatoes.

Yet it has a distinct flavour of France, which is only 14 miles away. The little fishing harbours and red sandy coves on the rocky north coast reminded me of Brittany and many street names are in French - the official language until the Sixties.

The island has an eclectic array of attractions, enabling schools to pick almost any theme for a visit. Farms grow lavender and orchids and there are museums devoted to everything from steam to the annual Battle of the Flowers.

The Channel Islands were annexed to the Duchy of Normandy in the 10th century and so became part of William the Conqueror's Anglo-Norman kingdom after l066. Many battles have been fought to repel invaders. Coastal fortresses include Elizabeth Castle, which has stood guard over St Helier, the busy little capital, for 400 years. One of the island's most dramatic sights is the 12th-century Mont Orguiel Castle, which stands silhouetted against the sky at the north end of the Royal Bay of Grouville.

Reminders of more recent conflicts include the Underground Hospital, now an evocative museum of the island's occupation by the Germans during the Second World War, and St Peter's Bunker where German military relics are on show.

The island's history comes alive through tableaux and interactive exhibits in the award-winning Jersey Museum in St Helier. Among the displays are a prehistoric archaeological site, a hoard of coins minted to raise money to defend the island against Julius Caesar and the story of how potatoes first came to be grown 150 years ago - by fluke. A l9th-century merchant's house, furnished in original style, forms an annexe to the museum. In the night-nursery and schoolroom children can play with replica toys.

The new Frances Le Sueur Centre at La Mielle de Morville in the mini-national park on the west coast is run by Jersey's Environmental Services Department.

Visiting schools can use it for natural history projects, as sand dunes, wetland, reed beds, scrub and seashore (where a marine aquarium has just been created) are all on its doorstep. Guided walks tailored to particular themes are available.

The building is constructed with salvaged wood and slates, heated by solar panels and insulated with recycled fire-resistant paper.

Jersey pursues rigorous environmental policies, being constantly aware of the pressures on its 45 square miles. It was the first place to commit itself to the international Green Globe scheme and to introduce green lanes (maximum speed 15mph) where pedestrians, cyclists and horseriders have priority over cars, despite the island having one of the world's densest concentrations of vehicles in the world - 1,700 per square mile.

In 1963 Gerald Durrell founded his zoo for endangered species in the grounds of Les Augres Manor. Now it is the island's most famous attraction and the Jersey Wildlife Preservation Trust based there has become a worldwide organisation dedicated to saving rare breeds from extinction.

The animals, which include gorillas, orang-utans, lemurs, giant jumping rats and white-naped cranes, live in surroundings similar to their natural habitats.

Keepers give talks, illustrated with videos. Schools can also book workshops at the zoo on topics such as survival, hibernation, pollution and tourism, all backed by comprehensive worksheets.

Crystal Schools organises inclusive packages to Jersey, from Pounds 199 for five days, including visits to the Jersey Museum, Mont Orguiel, the Underground Hospital and zoo; themes can include history, tourism or watersports. The island has no youth hostels but some village halls are available for groups, arranged through local scouts and guides.

Inevitably, the island lacks wide open spaces but opportunities for outdoor pursuits are plentiful. For walking, cliff-top paths stretch all along the rugged north coast in addition to the growing number of green lanes.

Grouville and St Brelade's Bays have watersports centres for windsurfing, canoeing and sailing. St Ouen's Bay, running down the sandy west coast, offers challenging waves and has clearly marked zones dedicated to surfing.

Jersey Museum, St Helier. Contact Doug Ford: 01534 30511. Book for groups * Frances Le Sueur Centre, La Mielle de Morville. Contact Mike Stentiford: 01534 483140

* Jersey Zoo, Les Augres Manor, Trinity. Contact Mark Tomlinson: 01534 864666

* Crystal Schools: 0181 241 5151.

* Free booklets, including What To Do In Jersey, available from Jersey Tourism, 38 Dover Street, London W1X 3RB. Tel: 0171 493 5278

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