Dear fellow travellers
As always at this time of year, the calm of winter isolation has settled on the Iles Chausey. Most of the population have shuttered up their houses and left Chausey for the mainland. Only the real chausias remain, less than a dozen in number. The ferry from Granville on the coast of Normandy that brings in so many summer visitors has dropped back to its winter schedule with just two crossings a week.
It is extraordinary that this archipelago of some fifty islands and rocky islets is not better known outside France. Mention the Channel Islands to someone from England, and they will immediately think of the British Crown Dependencies of Jersey and Guernsey - the last remnants of the mediaeval Dukedom of Normandy to have any surviving political connection to the United Kingdom. But south of Jersey in the Golfe de St Malo is the Chausey archipelago, of which only the largest, Grande Ile, has any permanent population. And Grande Ile, like the rest of the Iles Chausey, is unequivocally French. At high tide, the entire island group runs to little more than a hundred hectares, a diminutive territory that quadruples in size at low tide when great sandbanks and rocky tidal foreshores are exposed.
On Grande Ile there is a network of sandy paths that criss-cross the hummocky landscape to give access to the island's limited facilities, which include a bakery and a summer only pension, the Hôtel du Fort et des Iles. There are no cars nor bicycles. Grande Ile is the only island served by the ferry from Granville. During the summer months, day trips from the Normandy mainland to Grande Ile are possible. It is an extraordinary place, especially during the winter when the wind drives the sand up against the walls of the old cottages at Blainvallais and the spartan citadel at the south end of Grande Ile stands sentinel against the sea. For those who think they know the Channel Islands well, think again.... for the Iles Chausey are well deserving of a visit.
the Barents Sea
Last month's confused affair with the Russian trawler Electron, in which two Norwegian fisheries control officers were allegedly 'kidnapped' by Russians accused of illegal fishing, thrust the Barents Sea into the news. It is a region that has little public visibility and, for most Europeans, the seas, islands and coastlines first mapped by Dutch explorer Willem Barents are as obscurely remote today as they were when Barents made his exploratory voyages four hundred years ago. But it was not always so. Along the Umba valley, near Murmansk on Russia's northwest coast, archaeologists are only just beginning to unravel the story of the remarkable cave paintings found there. Three millennia of continuous settlement recorded in a series of outstanding subterranean drawings, the earliest dating from about 2000 BC, and the most recent from the mediaeval period. Offshore, on Vaigach island south of Novaya Zemlya, there are the remains of ancient shrines of the indigenous Nenets population, though nowadays there are real concerns that oil explorations could jeopardise some of this fragile heritage. Willem Barents may have been the first to map the area in any systematic way, but this is a region with an impressive settlement history. Happily, Barents is still remembered in the region, and a new memorial to Barents will be unveiled next spring. It is at the very spot on the Russian Arctic island of Novaya Zemlya where Barents spent his last winter in the region.