Great Britain: The Island of Sark | Terra Incognita | DW | 19.06.2007
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Terra Incognita

Great Britain: The Island of Sark

Sark is the smallest of the four main Channel Islands off the coast of England. With its dramatic cliffs, romantic forest paths, secluded beaches and not a car in sight, a visit to the isle is a step back in time.

This small island boasts 40 miles of picturesque coastline

This small island boasts 40 miles of picturesque coastline

"A little bit of France, dropped into the ocean and adopted by the English." This is how the French writer Victor Hugo described the Channel Islands, where he spent 18 years in exile.

The smallest island Sark is just five kilometers long and two kilometers wide. Cars are banned here, as are motorbikes. There is no airport. Tractors are allowed -- but only for agricultural purposes.

"This doesn't mean that we're backward, though," says Fred, a carriage driver. Many people have mobile phones, Internet connections and television sets. But modern technology does not seem to dominate their lives. The islanders do not think much of progress for progress' sake.

The Sarkese share a strong sense of community

Sark has about 600 inhabitants and two unpaid policemen. They're elected by the island's parliament Chief Pleas for a two-year period. That way, many Sarkese get their turn at being policemen.

Insel Sark, Avenue Sark

There isn't much traffic on Sark's main avenue

But the cells in the small prison, with space for only two prisoners, are empty most of the time. Serious criminals get sent to the nearby island of Guernsey.

"On Sark, you have very little crime because you know everybody," says Penny Prevell, a coachwoman, botanist and clerk at the local visitor center. "You're not inclined to steal from your neighbor because you might have to ask for help."

According to Prevell, a real sense of community exists on the island.

"In England, you've lost that sense of identity," she says. "That's probably why there is so much trouble with youth there, because they don't identify with anything. There's no town or small village where they can say: this is where my ancestors came from, this is who I am and I belong here."

Some political structures date back to feudal times

On Sark, things are done differently that in the rest of the United Kingdom. The Sarkese have British passports, but determine their own domestic policies. The island is only loosely associated with the European Union and is not a full member.

Taxes are extremely low. Yet, there is no National Health Service and no Social Service, either.

Insel Sark, La Coupée Sark

A narrow isthmus connects Sark's two parts

"Although it looks like a tax haven on the face of it, everybody has to look after their own well being," Prevell says. "Many people have more than one job. There is a very strong work ethic on Sark."

Some political structures date back to feudal times. In the 16th century, Queen Elizabeth I asked Seigneur Helier de Carteret, a nobleman from the neighboring island of Jersey, to settle Sark and protect it from pirates and the French. In return, the Seigneur was granted the island as a fiefdom directly responsible to the crown.

De Carteret divided the land into 40 holdings, which he passed on to the settlers. Each holding or tenement came with one vote in the island parliament, to be passed on from generation to generation.

The rent for the island hasn't increased since it was settled in 1565. The current Seigneur of Sark, Michael Beaumont, pays 1.79 pounds (2.65 euros or $3.50) a year.

Beaumont spends his time making models in his ancient manor house or working in his exotic gardens. He has lost most privileges, but that does not seem to worry him.

"We are not human rights compliant, so change we must," Beaumont says. "It has got to come down to having a fully elected Chief Pleas, and from my point of view, the sooner the better."

Tourism is suffering in Sark

In the past, the Sarkese could make a living from fishing and agriculture. Today, they depend on visitors. But many tourists prefer Spain, says George Guille, a man of the sea from one of the oldest Sark Families. Guille organizes boat trips around Sark.

Karte Großbritannien Isle of Sark

Sark is the smallest of the four main Channel Islands

"It's been a bad season," Guille says. "Not many tourists, lots of bad weather and too much wind."

Guille wished the island could go back in time rather than advance so quickly.

"But change is coming in," Guille says. "There are more people trying to live on the island to make money and exploiting the tax haven out of it."

Guille's daughter lives on the island; she has four young children. His sons are still in college, on Guernsey. After they've finished, they want to travel the world, he says. But he believes they'll come back.

"You travel around the world and you get back, see this little rock here and think, it's not such a bad place to live," Guille says. "There are some other lovely places, but Sark has got something."

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  • Author Ruth Rach (July 2007)
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  • Author Ruth Rach (July 2007)
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