You don’t have to travel far from home, it seems, to have a Boy’s Own style adventure. After flying to the tiny Channel island of Alderney, we find ourselves out in Longis Bay in transparent canoes courtesy of the Alderney Wildlife Trust, peering through the water at what is believed to be the remains of a Roman breakwater before paddling past the Victorian fort of Raz and ruined Essex Castle, built on Henry VIII’s orders in the mid-1500s.
There are history lessons to be had all over this 3.5-mile-long island, which we explore by rented bikes – it seems ridiculous to hire a car. Winding coastal tracks and inland trails take us past other forts as well as an array of World War II German bunkers and the remnants of anti-tank walls.
We even stay in a slice of history: the Landmark Trust’s Fort Clonque, perched on an isthmus off the islands’s north-west tip, complete with its very own drawbridge and causeway – the latter meaning those who come at high tide get cut off at certain times of day.
Built in mid-Victorian times to protect the Channel Islands from the French, the fort includes the old officers’ quarters and a former gun turret turned Nazi casement dating from Hitler’s refortification of the site in the 1940s. Steep steps, vertiginous drops and the scattered nature of the sleeping quarters (six twin bedrooms and a triple) over this outcrop of rock mean this is better suited to older children than tots. It’s also more than a little spooky…
My kids run riot, raising the union flag to signal that they are in residence and playing the bugle and the piano in the old soldiers’ quarters. As in all Landmark Trust properties, TVs and computers are no-nos, yet my sons don’t once ask for a hand-held device. Instead, we watch seagulls ride the currents and spy on the gannet colony on the nearby island of Les Etacs, pick the samphire growing wild on Clonque to eat with our dinner, and forage in the rock-pools beside the causeway. Inside are books about the sea and about Alderney history, plus a selection of board games, to keep us amused.
Further afield, we spend afternoons on Alderney’s main beach, Braye, with its powdery white sand and fantastic fish and chip shop, and at the more remote Saye Beach at the northern end of the island, a short walk from Mannez lighthouse with its views of the French coast.
Our trip to Saye is the only time in our stay we don’t use our bikes – two old London Underground carriages pulled by a vintage diesel locomotive provide a quirky means of getting to Mannez from Braye at weekends in summer. In a similar vein, the island has just one ice-cream van, which does a continual loop of all the beaches in high season.
We leave, as we arrived, in a 15-seater Trislander plane that plies the quarter-hour route between Alderney and Guernsey. It banks over Fort Clonque after take-off, and as it does so we all wave the place a fond goodbye but not a farewell. Having fallen for the charms of Alderney, you’ll promise yourself you’ll go back again one day.
See more on family holidays and breaks in the Channel Islands, including hand-picked places to stay.