A Fort on a Rock is Perfect for an English Adventure

Interior of Fort Clonque in Guernsey Steve Wheelen/The Landmark Trust

We're flying low over the English Channel, looking down at a fortress almost camouflaged on the rocky shore of a tiny island. Conversation is impossible above the din of the engine, so the 10 other passengers and I sit in silence throughout the descent, watching the waves get closer as the plane approaches the cliff upon which our pilot apparently intends to land. Propeller blades whirring, the plane lands bumpily onto a landing strip beside the tiniest tin-shack of an airport I have ever seen.

Within minutes of stepping off the plane, I climb into a taxi which will take me across Alderney, an island of three and a half square miles, to the fortress I spotted from the air. I notice the taxi's short license plate, reflecting a car-owning population of just 2,013 on an island that inhabitants affectionately describe as "2,000 alcoholics clinging to a rock." Alderney, a self-governing island owned by the British Crown, is the nearest of the Channel Islands to both the British and French coasts, lying just a few miles from each.

Fort Clonque on its rock in Guernsey The Landmark Trust

My friends have hired the fortress for the weekend, and in a few minutes, the taxi has driven me down a green hill populated by lazy cattle, and up the tidal causeway, a concrete isthmus that connects the fortress to the rest of the island. We pass through the drawbridge, and I open the heavy front gate onto a view of the sea and 19th century stone ramparts built by Queen Victoria's government to protect the island from the French. Beyond the ramparts, a solitary lighthouse and two smaller islands break the horizon. The nearer one is home to a pelican sanctuary and the other to 2 percent of the world's gannet population, the air above it thick with birds.

The craggy view conjures images from the Agatha Christie novel, And Then There Were None, in which 10 guests of a mysterious, absent host are murdered on a remote island. Watching the waves crash and the wind whip the British flag fluttering above the ramparts, it feels like the most adventurous location any of us have ever stayed. We can't help but revert to childhood—marching around the walls, playing a bugle that emerges from somewhere in the fort and hoisting the flag up in a mock-pompous ceremony, less Agatha Christie, more Captain Pugwash, hero of a 1950s British pirate comic strip.

Staying in Fort Clonque inevitably draws you into the troubling political history of the island. During World War II, the Nazis occupied Alderney and built bunkers into the rocks looking out to sea; the fort's guests now sleep there. One bunker has no windows and is said to be haunted. One friend, who has a taste for the macabre, chooses to sleep there, while the rest of us choose cozier rooms—though our windows still rattle in the wind.

Since 1966, the fort has been run by the Landmark Trust, a charity that has renovated 200 historical properties and converted them to rentable accommodation. The fort is so popular that we struggled to nab an available weekend. The rooms are furnished with dark wooden bookcases, striped curtains and large, pillowy armchairs. Rainfall showers are built into the stone walls, and soft linen has replaced the rough military bedding used by British forces 150 years ago.

Alderney has zero razzmatazz, but it doesn't need it. Our expedition to buy provisions is like an adventure in an Enid Blyton children's story. After minutes of walking down the tidal causeway from Fort Clonque, we reach St. Anne, a collection of shops and restaurants comprising the island's social life, which the locals simply call "town." We encounter French tourists enjoying day trips, and many of the place names are French, such as the street Route de Crabby leading up to a one of the beaches.

To buy our rations, we deal in the unusual local currency, the Guernsey pound, and accustom ourselves with the locals' sardonic humor: A hat shop proprietor warns us we will burn in the autumnal Alderney sun unless we buy one of her hats. In a pub that is busy but not as full as one might expect on an island of 2,000 alcoholics, a man tells us with regret that we have missed the main delights of the weekend—an air show, a bird-counting competition and the bell-ringing during the annual celebration of Alderney's twinning with the French town of Beaumont-Hague, with which it operates a cultural exchange of somewhat niche activities, competitively organized by the French and Channel Islander municipalities. There is a quaint eccentricity and orderliness to the island, exemplified by the one police car patrolling the High Street every 30 minutes or so.

We eventually make our way back to the fort via the one-roomed station of the Alderney steam train that pulls tourists in disused 1950s London tube carriages from Braye Harbour, to the lighthouse past the Mannez Quarry, taking a leisurely half hour for the 2-mile journey. The steam train represents the best of Alderney's charm; it's for those of us who are happy to spend a weekend going nowhere in a hurry.

Click here for more information about Fort Clonque and other Landmark Trust properties.

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