I arrive and they say: here is the story of Douglas Le Marchand. His identity papers reveal that he had brown hair, brown eyes and a scar on his forehead and his picture shows a neat young man in collar and tie. The story of Douglas stopped, suddenly and violently, in a little place called Anne Port Bay when he was 19 years old.

They hand me the information about Douglas at reception and direct me to the place where I’ll find out more about him. The entrance is extraordinary: a great door blasted into the side of a hill and painted white. Above the big double gates is a single red cross. It suggests that this is a hospital, or used to be, but the reality is darker, grimmer, and bleakly fascinating.

Beyond the doors, big red numbers on the walls reveal the story I’m about to hear. 01: 07: 1940 – the first day of the occupation. And 09: 05: 1945 – the day of liberation. For five years during the Second World War, Jersey was occupied by the Germans and it was a terrible time: many of the islanders fled and those who stayed lived under the strict and violent rules of occupation. By 1941, there was one German soldier for every four islanders.

The tunnels I’m visiting today tell the story of that occupation and they do it in the most vivid way. The long, dark entry corridor takes you deep into the underground structure which the Germans started building in 1941, using slave labour. Originally, the plan was to construct tunnels that could be used to withstand Allied air raids, but by 1943 it had been converted into an emergency hospital for German soldiers.

The Herald:

Many of the rooms are preserved exactly as they were at the end of the war, including an operating theatre and telephone exchange, and the atmosphere is sobering. Some of the rooms tell the stories of the people who lived and died under the occupation, including Douglas Le Marchand. Douglas tried to escape from the island on a boat in 1944 with three others, but after being forced to turn back because of the weather, they were spotted by German soldiers and Douglas was shot and killed.

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There are many other tales like Douglas’s in the museum, including the stories of the prisoners who were forced to build the tunnels – mostly Polish, French and Russians – and it’s an essential place to visit if you want to understand what life was like in Jersey during the occupation. The stats (11,500 soldiers, 1000m of tunnels, five long years) are still going round in my head when I head back out into the light.

One of the best places to enjoy the island’s light, and the sun, is the beautiful little community I’m staying in: St Brelade’s Bay on the south-west corner of the island. My home for two nights is the St Brelade’s Bay Hotel, a large building made of great white layers of icing that face the beach. My room is at the top and I sit on the terrace watching the buzzy life below: a horsewoman, sea swimmers, dog walkers, a dad with his kids. Their laughter reaches me on the top floor.

The hotel itself is grand but chummy: the restaurant has a large sweep of a window that looks out on the bay and dozens of perfect white tables, but the staff are friendly and there are clearly lots of regulars who the waiters greet by name and chat to over dinner. The food is wonderful too: I go for a vivid, delicious beetroot salad, and a mound of risotto made with locally sourced asparagus. My side dish is the beautiful view of the beach.

The Herald:

One of the big things to do here, if it’s your bag, is water sports and there are plenty of businesses in the bay that can help you kayak, paddleboard, surf, whatever; the hotel also an outdoor pool, tennis courts, spa, and an elaborate back garden that’s a joy for children. Slightly more laid-back is the café where you can have a superb afternoon tea: sandwiches, scones and cakes on an elegant skyscraper of little plates, and proper strong tea that, if you were in any doubt, proves Jersey’s status as a British Crown Dependency.

Once I’ve polished off the tea, I head for Jersey Zoo on the other side of the island, partly because I’ve heard it’s brilliant and partly because its founder, the late Gerald Durrell, has been a hero of mine since I was a boy. Anyone who remembers Durrell as a big TV star will recall the large, bearded, ebullient personality but what was really impressive about him was how ahead of his time he was: as far as he was concerned, the only proper purpose of a zoo is to protect and restore endangered species and it’s this that gives his place a very special atmosphere.

The Herald:

It’s mainly about the animals of course. The macaque that sorts through the grass with his fingers, like a weaver organising wool. The orangutan that sits on a stone like an old man on a bench. And the flamingos that practise their ballet moves down by the lake. But there are other joys to Jersey Zoo too: the museum dedicated to Durrell, the café selling rock cakes as big as Arthur’s Seat, and the huge second-hand shop dedicated to recycling. I pick up a little model of a ploughshare tortoise. It is one of Durrell’s greatest conservation successes, but the danger goes on, and so the work must too.

Once I’m done – and you could spend all day at the zoo – I head down the east coast of the island towards Mont Orgueil Castle, which is the star of almost every postcard, poster and tea towel on Jersey and rightly so. The fortress sits high on an outcrop above the Bay of Grouville and from the top you can see France 14 miles to the east. I lean on the battlements and try. Yes, there it is.

Not only is a visit to the castle dramatic, it’s one of the best ways to learn and understand Jersey’s history. How, in the 13th century, the islanders had a choice: swear fealty to the French king or stay loyal to the English (we know what their decision was and they’ve stuck to it ever since).

The decision didn’t go down well with the French of course, which is why the castle was built in the first place and remained at the centre of the struggle between the old enemies for hundreds of years. It was also taken out of retirement and used as a fortress once more by the Germans during the Second World War. It has more than done its bit.

All of this ancient, and modern, history is explained to visitors to Mont Orgueil as they take the great stone steps to the top of the castle and wander round the maze of rooms, large and small. I enjoy every bit of it and linger for the while on the roof to take it all in. There’s a breeze coming in from Normandy, and draughts blowing in from the past. Then the rest of the day calls, and I head back down again, into the light and the sun.


Travel Facts:

Mark Smith was a guest of St Brelade’s Bay Hotel, Jersey. 

Bed and breakfast starts from £158 per room per night, valid now until March 31 based on two people sharing.

Spa packages are available until the end of March with prices starting from £83 per person.

For availability and to book call 01534 746 141 or email info@stbreladesbayhotel.com. Visit stbreladesbayhotel.com