Coast: St Brelade's Bay

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Coast:

St Brelade's Bay


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St Brelade's Bay in 1966


This article by Doug Ford, retired education officer for Jersey Heritage and a respected authority on Jersey's maritime history, was part of his Coast series for the Jersey Evening Post, but was not published


Once around the headland protected by the Beauport Battery St Brelade's Bay opens up.

'Flatt and Sandy'

In 1679 Colonel Legge described it:

"A Flatt bay and Sandy about one mile over . . . there is a deeper anchorage where there is good riding for all northerly winds, but the roade is small and is commanded by a neck of land called ‘’Le Proin’’ (Le Grouin) where formerly a battery beene when the Island was invaded by the Parliamentary forces . . . At the bottom of the Bay near the Church there is a small harbour for fishing boats and other small vessels ."
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Sailing along the coast towards Pointe Le Grouin, which means “the headland” in medieval French, boats had to look out for the small harbour tucked into the western side of the bay. The placenames here once again tell us of the people of the past, their concerns and activities. Les Jetures means a place where the sea spills over the rocks; Les Saline a place where salt was made; and the small cove known as Le Bouilly often means a place where the water boils or churns. In this case, however, I favour a Norse derivation from the words bol vik - the farm by the creek.

Just before the small neck of land protecting the small harbour is Le Creux Fantomie also known as Le Creux aux Fées. Creux means a hollow, and there was obviously something strange associated with the area as fées means fairies and Fantomie means phantom. This neck of land – Le Coloron – was protected by a gun battery and boulevard in the 18th century and the Richmond map shows that the attached guardhouse was positioned just above the jetty.

The cliff face giving onto Le Creux Fantomes and Bouilly Port was also scarped to make it more difficult for an enemy to climb. The three 24-pounders positioned here were removed after the defeat of France in 1815, but were replaced by the 1840s as international tension increased.

Nestling behind Le Coleron is Le Havre - a natural harbour offering shelter from south-westerly gales and a sandy bottom for drying out on. A jetty of sorts existed in the 18th century and is shown on the Richmond map.

Fishing

In 1872 the Fisheries Commissioners found that there are about six large boats and 20 fishermen working from the bay. One of the men, George Lambert, reported that they mainly caught mullet, whiting, lobster and conger. At times stranger things were caught: In 1886 and 1894 two bottlenose whales were reported as being caught in the bay, although the size given would suggest that both were disoriented juveniles.

The Northern Bottlenose whale is a deep-water specialist feeder and can grow to over 10 metres, but these were only about 3 metres. In 1920 a young thresher shark was taken, and five years later a blue-nosed shark was landed. These were obviously out of the ordinary as all four captures were also reported in mainland newspapers.

The bay’s association with fishing goes back further than this, for it was in the church above the harbour that the crews of the Newfoundland fishing fleet used to take communion - Le Communion des Terreneuviers - before leaving for Canadian waters. The earliest mention of this was in 1611. It is also fitting that just outside the church is the grave of Charles Robin (1743-1824), one of the great entrepreneurs of the Cod Trade and founder of the system known as the ‘Jersey Firms’.

Although the bay is now delineated by the German anti-tank wall, before the Occupation the shoreline was much softer. The Germans, like those before them, recognised that the bay offered a good landing site for an invasion force; Admiral Blake and the Parliamentarian fleet threatened this in 1651 and in the late 18th century the French general, Dumouriez, planned to disembark 300 men here covered by two gun-boats. By March 1811 the bay was protected by several batteries and two towers armed with 18 cannon capable of throwing 352 lb of metal every three minutes at anyone foolish enough to attempt a landing.

Sunday best dress for these visitors to the seaside in the early 20th century, ignored by the St Brelade's Bay fishermen in front of them

One of these batteries was in the churchyard and the Middle Battery was where the promenade gardens are today. Beside the churchyard is a slipway which also directs the stream on to the beach. The row of houses opposite the churchyard were originally thatched, which can be deduced from the “witch-stone” on the chimneys. During the Occupation this was where the surrealist artists Claude Cahun and Marcel Moore (Lucy Schwab and Suzanne Malherbe) lived.

Slipway for vraic carts

The other slipway, in the middle of the bay, was constructed using grey diorite and red granite setts in the mid-19th century. This made it easier for vraicing carts to get on to the beach. It was closed during the Occupation and it is still possible to see the scars left where the anti tank wall crossed it. Just beyond this slip is the Conway tower known as St Brelade No 2.

Built in about 1780, this was one of the earliest to be finished and cost £700. In 1803 it was manned by eleven soldiers from the 3rd Royal Garrison Battalion. It was the first Conway tower to be sold to a private individual and was converted into a private home in the 1970s, when a large opening was made on the seaward side to form a balcony. It was formerly used as a navigation marker, but the old colour scheme of black and white checks has long been changed.

Beyond the tower in the 1920s stood Brown’s Café operated by Constance Brown and her mother. Constance made a reputation for herself by rescuing the unwary bather from the sea and her exploits were often reported in the national press. Her first rescue was in 1926, and her last in 1958. On one occasion in August 1928 she rescued four women. In 1967 she was awarded the MBE in recognition of the 22 lives she saved.

A small headland, Pointe Le Grouin, separates the shoreline of St Brelade’s Bay into two distinct parts –Le Grouin means “the headland” in medieval French - and it was the obvious position to place a cannon. During the 18th century there was a battery here with a guardhouse nearby, the walls of which can still be seen. In 1811 the battery was armed with two 12 pounders.

The rest of the headland was acquired by the States in 1856 for use as a firing range for the regular British troops and the South-West (5th) Regiment. All that remains is a high winged wall in granite rubble. The firing position was on the beach and the headland behind was a safety area.

During the Occupation the Germans converted the area into an Infantry Strongpoint, armed with two anti-tank guns: One 7.5 cm Pak 40 and one by 4.7 cm Pak 36(t). The 47mm anti-tank gun in its casemate covered the length of the sea wall along Ouaisne beach. The strongpoint had a 60 cm searchlight for the night illumination of St Brelade’s Bay.

Despite the history, for many people St Brelade’s bay conjures up the image of seaside holidays, sunbathing and the heyday of Jersey’s Post-War tourism boom.

Further reading


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