by Sally Hammond
OK, I'll admit it. When the darkly clad man jumped off the back of the tractor right in front of me and grabbed a shotgun, I did the only thing I knew how to do in an emergency. I panicked.
After all, I was alone on a deserted road, on foot, just metres away from him.
The fact that this was Sark – peaceful little, feudal and friendly little, crime rate zero little Sark – didn't enter my mind – even though I had seen the minuscule lockup just that afternoon and learned how the rare offenders on this tiny island may be detained for only 48 hours before being toted off to the larger Channel Island of Guernsey. Regardless, I hit red-alert.
Nor was it surprising that my potential assassin launched himself from a tractor. For Sark is also car-less, the only modes of transport being these ubiquitous farm tractors, (there is even a tractor ambulance) horse-drawn carts or vans euphemistically referred to as carriages, and a couple of tractor buses to haul visitors up Harbour Hill from the wharf. And loads of bicycles.
Just fourteen kilometres, and a 45-minute ferry ride from Guernsey, Sark is the fourth largest (and, if you like, the fourth smallest) of the seven Channel Islands, all of them just specks in the English Channel and closer to France than England. But as you step ashore, you feel separated by more than just distance. It is as though time pulls away with the retreating ferry.
For this is still a feudal place. The Seigneur, who inherited his title from his grandmother, the famous Dame of Sark, is allowed - according to quirky feudal law - the only pigeons, and the only bitch on the island, although other residents may own male or spayed female dogs, of course.
His responsibilities under this, the last remaining feudal constitution in the western world which dates back to Elizabeth I, include paying an annual rent of 'one twentieth part of a knight's fee' (today about A$5) each Michaelmas, the maintaining of forty musket-armed men to 'keep the island free of the Queen's enemies', as well as taking an Oath of Allegiance to the Crown. Sark's officers bear grandly medieval titles: the Seneschal, a judge magistrate, the Prevot, a sheriff, and the Greffier, clerk of the court. Sark has no income tax, no death duties and its own government, the Chief Pleas, and is gently unassuming, a step removed from modern life.
No land on Sark is held as freehold either. Complicated laws and fees spell out the relationship of the land tenants to the Seigneur, but there are some compensations. 'Under Norman custom a person can obtain immediate cessation of any action he considers to be an infringement of his rights' writes the Seigneur in an informative booklet explaining the system. 'At the scene he must recite the Lord's prayer, in French, and cry out "Haro, Haro, Haro! A mon aide mon Prince, on me fait tort!" .' The dog law, though is nothing to do with feudalism. Purely practical, it relates to keeping the number of dogs down, because of the many sheep raised on the island.
With a cave-indented coastline of around 65 kilometres, Sark measures approximately five kilometres by 2.5 kilometres. The wharf, flanked by cruelly sharp rocks, is the only commercial connection to the rest of the world, and the often heavy seas add to its isolation.
Sark's size makes cars redundant, so I boarded a carriage driven by Claire, who introduced me to Hutch the black ten-year-old draught horse who was our patient escort around the island sights. Locals are quick to point out that these are limited, and those looking for bright lights and entertainment would be better to go elsewhere. With a population under 600 (only around 100 of these are native-born) there is one postbox, two police officers, some hotels and restaurants, a school and a church, so a two-hour ride through gently rolling countryside takes in most points of interest, and includes a foot crossing of La Coupee, the high razor thin link between Sark proper (or Great Sark) and Little Sark.
The story goes that years ago, before German prisoners-of-war after the Occupation of World War II built the safety railing here, a local person from Little Sark would sometimes return from the pub at night, a little worse for wear, shall we say. Near La Coupee is an old cannon and he made a practice of walking along the barrel of it as a sobriety test of his ability to cross the narrow isthmus. If he failed he prudently chose to sleep beside the cannon.
Both the Seigneur of Sark and his wife are avid gardeners and their home, La Seigneurie, built around 1675, and its gardens including a seriously complex maze, are worth a visit, so of course I stopped there and yes, succumbed to the intricacies of that maze.
After my orientation with Claire and Hutch, I wandered the lanes, stopping to chat occasionally. A couple of locals at one of the souvenir shops told me they had come, lured by the spell of this quiet place. "We love it here," they volunteered, "It's a simple life, very quiet, but there's plenty to do." They regaled me with the joys of 'village life' but when I asked how tourists were liked here, they laughed. "More pennies!" they said as one.
Down that quiet side road I saw my life flash in front of me as the man raised the gun and aimed. I considered shouting ‘Haro, Haro, Haro!’ but it was too late.
He fired into the bushes at the side of the road. So! Just a bird or a rabbit was his intended victim. Then, oblivious to my perceived near-death experience, he simply hopped back onto the tractor and trundled away down the dusty road.
As I released my breath, I reminded myself this was Sark, after all. There would be no bullet wounds to show for my visit here, of course – but the memory of this tiny chip of land from another age had definitely marked me for life – it had burned in deep an incurable desire to return.
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