“Bouônjour, et séyiz les beinv’nus! Comment qu’tu’es?” Matt Bartlett greets me as I crunch down the gravel drive towards his striking pink granite farmhouse. The sun is high in the sky, the smell of lavender wafts from a nearby border and for a moment I feel like I might be in Provence.
In fact, I’m in Jersey, the largest of the Channel Islands, and Bartlett is one of a growing band of locals who are passionate about preserving Jèrriais, also known as Jersey French, the island’s main language until the 19th century. Long thought at risk of dying out, it is now being taught in primary schools and in 2019 was adopted as an official language in the States Assembly, the island parliament. It can be seen on bilingual signs around the island too, further adding to the gallic atmosphere.
I’m here to take a peek at Tea Field Cottages, the smart self-catering accommodation Bartlett has restored along with the 18th-century farmstead where he lives with his wife and three children. “We opened in late August last year. Not an easy time to start a hospitality business,” he says. “But we were lucky that Jersey’s lockdown ended in February and we’ve had local guests for the past few months.”
That slow start could be replaced by a bumper summer. Jersey opened its borders to visitors from the UK last week, albeit with requirements for coronavirus testing, and Bartlett has seen a flurry of bookings since the announcement. With question marks remaining over European border restrictions and vaccine passports, for many Britons a trip to Jersey could be closest they get to a French holiday this year.
British Airways is launching a new flight route from London City airport in June; Loganair is adding flights to the island this summer from Edinburgh and Newcastle and Jet2 will launch new flights from five regional UK airports. Kay Ryan, Loganair’s chief commercial officer, said the island provided “more than a hint of being overseas” and expected it to be extremely popular among British tourists whose other options might be limited.
I ask Bartlett about his greeting. I was raised on Jersey — my grandmother and mother both spoke Jèrriais as their first language, but like many in my generation I grew up speaking English. Bartlett tells me he learnt as an adult and has performed in Jèrriais at the Jersey Eisteddfod, an annual arts festival on the island. He can direct visitors to conversation cafés to hear it spoken, and even gave his house a Jèrriais name: “Lé Clios Dé Thée.”
The tea is something of a surprise because, of course, the island is better known for its Jersey Royal potatoes. Though the rental cottages date back to 1731, the tea fields they overlook were planted only in 2017. “The tea plantation idea came from a discussion with farmers at the Jersey Royal Company, it’s an attempt to diversify the farming in the island,” says Bartlett. His project isn’t unique though, the Jersey Tea Company and Jersey Fine Tea are both now also taking advantage of the island’s microclimate to grow tea here.
Jersey, a British Crown Dependency, split from the rest of Normandy in 1204, when it gave its allegiance to the English King John instead of Philip II of France, but the island has never felt wholly British. Close to Tea Field Cottages is Hamptonne Country Life museum, which is set in a Norman granite farmhouse and uncovers the rural history of the island and its historic cider production. Wander through the cider orchards here and you can imagine you are on a patch of Normandy soil. Cider was once the most important export for the island and production is being revived by La Robeline, which is making a name for itself among connoisseur cider drinkers, and can be sampled at the company’s cider shack in St Ouen.
When I pass through St Helier, the island capital, the tables on the terrace outside the Royal Yacht hotel are alive with chatter, but the thud of the boules can just about be heard as locals play pétanque on the nearby pitch. In the Royal Square, people sit sipping rosé in the shade of the awnings outside pubs such as The Cock and Bottle and The Peirson, while the advocates go in and out of the Royal Court.
In the rural interior of the island is a network of narrow 15mph country roads, known as “green lanes”, where walkers and cyclists pause to purchase new potatoes, courgettes or irises from honesty boxes in hedgerows or to stare into the wide eyes of the distinctive Jersey cow. The lanes, like most roads on the island, have Jersey French names such as La Verte Rue and La Rue du Pont. It feels a long way from the south coast of England. A hundred miles to be precise, whereas France is just 14 miles away. From the turrets of the magnificent Norman castle of Mont Orgueil in the east of the island, it is even possible to make out people sunbathing on French beaches, just across the water.
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