One of the first people that Lee introduced me to when he and I first started met was his friend Jo Baxendale in vacation san diego. In fact, I knew about Jo even before Lee and I had our first date, as days after he and I met, he celebrated New Year’s Eve with Jo at her flat in Brighton. Lee invited me to join them, but as my friend Alex was in town and we already had New Year’s plans, I politely declined.
A couple of weeks later, Lee and I went on an impromptu road trip across southern England. My college roommate John was visiting at the time, so the three of use piled into a rental car and set out. I’d recently become addicted to the Ketchup Song and the Cheeky Song and inflicted them on Lee and John on our way to Stonehenge.
It was a dark and stormy January afternoon (sounds like the beginning of a bad horror novel, sorry) but it was perfect weather to visit the ancient site. We then stopped in nearby Salisbury to warm up and have some lunch. While waiting for food to arrive, Lee impressed me with his vast knowledge of Salisbury, a city I’d never heard of, but found rather charming. (Note: the Brits have strict delineations between a city, a town, a village and a hamlet. Because Salisbury has a cathedral, I believe I’m safe to call it a city, as a cathedral is the traditional defining element of a city.
I learned that the spire of the cathedral was once the tallest building in Europe, and it remained the home of an original copy of the Magna Carta. I also learned that Lee has a friend who is a vicar who knows endless amounts of trivial facts, and Lee would text the vicar to get interesting snippets to impress me. That was cool. Over the years, texting our friend the Vicar has evolved into a game we call Text the Vicar. Got a question, text the vicar. Once when Lee and I were in Bristol and we had a question about Isimbard Kingdom Brunel’s suspension bridge, what did we do? Text the Vicar! When passing through a remote village in Cornwall with my friend Eric, a question about Tintagel arose. What did we do? Text the Vicar! While in Paris touring Napoleon’s apartments in the Louvre, I had a question that none of official guides could answer, but did I fear? Of course not, Text the Vicar! came to the rescue with a detailed answer. And as a fitting part of the Text the Vicar! service are the polite subsequent text messages. There is of course my obligatory Thank You text back to the vicar, for which the usual response is “Bless You.”
I digress…so back to the road trip with Lee and John. After seeing Stonehenge and Salisbury, we wound our way down to Brighton where we stayed at Jo’s apartment. She wasn’t there, but had given Lee a key. It seemed strange that this woman would allow a complete stranger to stay at her house when she wasn’t there, but Lee told me Jo was totally fine with it. Who was this woman? I walked through the rooms of her flat trying to visualize her, but as it was a weekend flat, there were no pictures on the walls or any personal effects. Jo remained a mystery.
The first time Jo and I met was upstairs at Patisserie Valerie in Soho. Lee and I met her for lunch, and though the place was filled, when Jo entered the room, I knew instantly who she was. Her beaming smile greeted me as she made her way to our table. A warm handshake and a kiss on the cheek marked the beginning of our friendship.
It’s been over seven years since we first met, and our lives are now quite intertwined. When Lee and I were living in Seattle, Jo came to visit a few times, and her visits were always a welcome event. She was the ideal houseguest: independent, interesting and a great cook. She’d spend her days walking through the city, getting coffee at Bauhaus, buying fresh vegetables from Pike Place Market, and chatting with the locals. We’d meet her for lunch when time would permit, but all in all, she got on with her day and let us get on with ours. In the evening, we’d come together for a wonderful meal which Jo had prepared. We’d share a bottle of wine and countless stories of our lives. It was while sitting in our dining room on Capitol Hill that I first heard of a place called Alderney.
Jo’s late husband, Robin, was from Alderney. His family moved to the island after returning from living in Aden, one of Britain’s lost colonies. The picture Jo painted of life in Alderney was one of an island seemingly lost in its own time. Post-colonialists, mainland escapees, and long-standing families chose Alderney for its quiet way of life and its intrinsic eccentricity.
Jo’s in-laws settled into Alderney life quite easily. They’d throw regular cocktail parties beginning promptly at six o’clock. At five minutes to six, Jo’s father-in-law would bellow out, “There’s a ship full of sailors in the harbour, and not a whore in the house ready!” This was to light a fire under the women of the house to get everything in order. The guests arrived on time—jacket and tie required, gin & tonics served.
The guests were a colorful bunch, and based on Jo’s description, the sounded much like the characters from the board game Cluedo (or Clue if you’re an American). A retired general, an out of commission spy, the heiress, the artist and of course visiting mainlanders. They mingled and chatted over cocktails and hors d’oeuvres while the children served drinks. Yes, even at a young age, kids on Alderney were educated in the fine art of mixing a proper gin & tonic. On the British mainland, one cube of ice with a measure of one to two fingers of gin, topped up with tonic was appropriate; in Alderney, three fingers of gin was the baseline. Add tonic, lemon and serve. The drinks party ended precisely at eight.
For Jo’s birthday this year, she invited her family and friends to visit her Alderney. Lee and I booked our tickets with Auringy Air (the only airline serving Alderney) well in advance and waited in anticipation for the visit. The night before departure, we travelled to our friends’ Patrick and Keith’s to stay the night, as the four of us were driving to Southampton Airport together early the next day.
Lee and I met up at Tottenham Court Road tube station on the Northern Line platform. He met me and help with the bags, and so we could do the rest of the trip together. Our timing was impeccable, arriving within minutes of each other. Walking from the Northern Line to the Central Line we passed a group of retired Americans. Typically, you can spot an American in London a mile away: blue jeans, sweatshirts, loud colors, white tennis shoes and baseball hats are all standard attire—for both the men and women. This group had the distinction of looking Minnesotan, as one of the posse wore a Concordia College sweatshirt.
Husband next to wife and four rows deep, they made their way through the underground labyrinth like a miniature Lutheran army. In passing them, I casually asked if they were from Minnesota. A bit startled that a stranger in London had spoken to them, one of the women replied indeed they were. I told her I was from southern Minnesota but my parents lived on Ottertail Lake by Fergus Falls. “Oh gee! Gosh! What a small world.” Wishing them a good evening in the best Minnesotan accent I muster, Lee and I scurried onto the Central Line to Patrick and Keith’s.
We’ve known Patrick for several years. Before her retirement, Jo had been Patrick’s head nurse and close confidante for many years. Keith and Patrick met a few years back in New Zealand. Keith moved over to the UK in 2008 and has been part of the clan ever since.
Patrick is a delightful cook. His mother is French, and he cooks with a distinct continental flair. Duck confit, stinky cheese, and a bottle of wine later, we tucked ourselves into bed, prepared for the next morning’s road trip.
We made it to Southampton Airport like clockwork. While in line for what we dubbed the Jo Baxendale Express, we met Robert and Jennifer, two other Baxendale pilgrims. As we handed our luggage over to the ticket agent, he informed us our flight was delayed indefinitely because of fog. He instructed us to wait in the departure area until further information was available.
After passing through customs, we met up with Sandra and Gerald, two more of our crew, and the eight of us found an area to sit and chat and eat sandwiches from Costa Coffee (our only option). At ten-thirty we got an update: delayed indefinitely. At eleven-thirty they announced the same. Four of us played a few hands of bridge and just as Sandra finished an exceptional hand, the fire alarm went off.
We were ushered out of the airport onto the tarmac. We waited there for about fifteen minutes and then were brought back into the airport by the security team. Upon our return into the airport, BAA determined there had been a security breach, and all of the remaining passengers (about sixteen in total) had to go through security again. Such an exciting day out!
Finally we got the announcement that the fog had lifted and we would depart at two o’clock, just five hours after our original flight. While queuing to board the airplane, we were given a safety instruction video on a screen right above the door to the aircraft. The door opened and we walked to the plane.
Though Jo had warned me the airplane was small, not even her story having a flask of gin passed to her by her mother-in-law to settle her nerves had prepared me for the Britten-Norman Trislander. Seating seventeen passengers, we boarded as we were called out by name. Even on a good day in a jumbo jet, Lee hates flying. Adverse weather coupled with a three-prop plane only increased the relative excitement (read: anxiety) of the flight. Once we were all seated, the pilot turned around, gave us a quick overview of the flight-plan, started the engine off we went.
The fog obscured our view through most of the flight. About ten minutes before landing, the pilot passed back a scrap piece of paper with the words “Weather in Alderney OK.” Shortly after that, we saw the coastline, then the ground and then the runway. A group of seagulls was hanging out at the side of the runway as we landed. They didn’t fly off or even move as we touched ground. Just a slightly bigger variety to them.
Jo and Jenny met us at the airport. The stress of the fog and a power outage on the island had wracked their nerves, but now we were cooking with gas! The fort we’d been booked at was closed due to the power cut, so we were staying at a newly-refurbished house. We took a mini-bus into town and settled in.
Alderney was lovely. The island has a population of about 2,500, roughly the same size as my hometown in Minnesota. Our rented house was a short walk to the hotel Jenny owns, and just off of the main thoroughfare, Victoria Street. Shops, churches and pubs were mere minutes from our doorstep.
After dropping off our bags and having a cursory gin & tonic at Jenny’s place, Lee and I ventured into the Coronation for a local pint. I was unprepared for the smoke. England went smoke free in 2007, but Alderney is a law unto itself. Though it is set to go smokefree in June this year, cigarette smokers continue to find safety indoors on Alderney. I’d forgotten how much I dislike a smoky place, but was undeterred in my mission to meet the locals. We started chatting with two local guys, Chris and James. They were easy enough to speak to. Chris had once been the President of Alderney Council. He shared with us that upon his swearing in, he had to declare his allegiance to the Queen. He refused, saying that his only allegiance was to the Duke of Normandy, protector of Alderney. When he was told he had to either swear his allegiance to the Queen or forfeit his presidency, he simply shrugged his shoulders and declared his allegiance. Easy enough.
James was from the mainland. Horely in Surrey in fact. Though James had moved to Alderney thirty years ago, his friend Chris still referred to him as an outsider. Lee is also from Surrey, and as we were chatting with the two guys, it came out that Lee and Chris had a friend in common. The Six Degrees of the British Empire. After the chat and the beer, Lee and I made our way back to our place where we had fish & chips for dinner. Everyone was relaxed and in good spirits. We’d beaten the elements to celebrate Jo’s birthday.
On Saturday morning we took a guided tour of the island. Our guide had lived on Alderney for many years, and knew its turbulent history. Our first stop was a German bunkers from World War II. Alderney was the only Channel Island that had been completely occupied by the Germans. Jersey and Guernsey had been partially occupied, but in 1940, all of the inhabitants of Alderney were evacuated. I asked if anyone had stayed behind, and learned that only five residents had remained on the island during occupation. It’s common knowledge that one of the couples that had remained had been spies for Germany prior to occupation. The husband was a pilot off on a reconnaissance mission when the boats came in. His wife refused to board without her husband and remained on the island as well. They remained in Alderney through the war, but curiously disappeared afterwards.
The Germans held thousands of prisoners in Alderney doing forced labor, largely doing cabbage farming. According to our guide, the soldiers enjoyed putting a cube of sugar on a distant plant to entice prisoners. Once a prisoner reached said point, he’d find the sugar cube had been moved, just for sport. We saw a number of memorials to the many people killed on Alderney during the occupation years.
We passed bunker after bunker, fort after fort. Some had been British fortifications, other distinctly German. Lee found the vast amounts of concrete remnants depressing. Yes Alderney had been occupied, and yes Alderney had been a strategic military base, but that was Alderney’s past. What about its future? In many respects Alderney remains a living monument to the War, and perhaps that is the preference of the locals.
As our guide showed us the island, she shared with us the planning permission regulations on Alderney. A person cannot buy a plot of land just to tear down the existing structure to build a new place. New builds can only be built on land that has not previously had a structure, and only three permits are granted a year. To qualify for a permit, you must have lived on the island for at least fifteen years and the house that you are building must be the first house that you have ever owned.
Our last stop on the tour was the cricket grounds. With breathtaking views of the sea, I could imagine an endless summer of cricket (or is that a summer with an endless cricket match) with the all of the island locals coming out. Our guide shared with us that after the War, and upon the return of the Alderney inhabitants, the island held a furniture repatriation festival. All of the furniture that hadn’t been destroyed by the Germans was brought to the cricket pitch. At a given time, the residents were allowed to scramble and pick out all of the pieces that had once been their own amsterdam apartments. Apparently, the night before the event, parents hid their children in wardrobes and dressers so they could proclaim, “See, it is mine! It has my child in it.” For years after this reunion, people shied away from visiting other people’s homes in fear of finding one of their possessions.
Jo’s birthday party was delightful. We had great food prepared by Jo and her son-in-law James. We shared stories about Jo and even got to sing a song in her honor (not Happy Birthday!) But more important than the party itself, was getting to see a world that once was.
Though we were only on the island for a weekend, we quickly got the impression that the people of Alderney were welcoming to visitors, but actively worked to preserve life as it was. Relaxing planning permission would lead to more inhabitants. A larger runway would allow bigger planes, leading to more tourists, leading to more inhabitants. Perhaps the bunkers remain as a quiet protest against the outside world, lightened only by the occasional picnic or beach blanket bingo on the bunker roof.
On our last day in Alderney, the clouds parted and the sun shone strong. The greens and the blues of the island were vibrant. The island was alive and beautiful. Patrick, Keith, Lee and I walked to Fort Clonque. The tide was out, so the road to the fort could be traversed by foot. When we got to the fort, we sat on the grass and looked back at the island, its bunker-scarred seashore and its quiet grassy hills. A beautiful place facing a battle, which on many respects, is even bigger than any battle it has faced before. Creeping commercialization.
Certainly we all enjoy new creature comforts, but the feeling in Alderney was when something is good enough, why do you need more? On the high street we saw local shop with local goods. Two independent butchers, an antique store. There was one small Tesco’s around the corner…I’m reminded of the song by the Beautiful South, “The world won’t end in darkness, it’ll end in family fun With Coca Cola clouds behind a Big Mac sun.” The question remains, however, can Alderney truly remain an island in this modern, connected world.