Sand, gravel, clay and bogs - the Braye du Valle literally split the island in two and reclaiming the land was a massive engineering feat. Two hundred years later, the island is poised to recognise the achievement, as Shaun Shackleton reports THE year was 1803 and it was the fear of the French landing on the undefended and isolated Clos du Valle that gave Guernsey's Lt-Governor most cause for concern.
Although Channel Island privateers were revered by the British as one of the naval powers of the world, Napoleon regarded them as a major threat to his navy.
Sir John Doyle believed that if the French did invade the north, he wouldn't know whether to fight them as an admiral or a general, because it would depend on the state of the tide - so he decided that the only solution was to reclaim the Braye du Valle.
The States opposed his plans, wanting instead the Braye to be deepened and straightened so that ships could sail up and collect quarried rock from that part of the island.
But being a forceful military man, Sir John got his own way.
At that time, during low tide the Braye du Valle consisted of about 350 acres of sand, gravel, clay and bogs, with channels of water one or two feet deep running along its entire length.
There were also areas called salterns, marshy meadows flooded at high tide, and the salt content of the grass made good grazing for cattle.
On the southern shore were saltpans, where sea salt was collected and transported by boat to St Sampson's.
The only way to cross was via two small bridges by the Vale Church - Pont St Michel and Pont Allaire - three causeways and the main bridge at St Sampson's - the Pont du Valle.
At high tide, the area of sea was about one mile long by just less than half-a-mile wide. Different accounts put its depth from 10 to 30ft but it was believed that there was enough water for the greatest ships in England to sail.
Before any work could start, however, the British Government had to buy the Braye from the descendants of the original owners.
After settling with these and also the owners of the saltpans for loss of earnings, the total paid for the Braye du Valle was £3,250.
On 1 March 1806, Doyle placed a notice in the Gazette de Guernesey inviting tenders for the construction of dams at either end of the Braye. It stated that work could be done in any manner but that it had to be solid and permanent. It also said that the contractor would be responsible for all repairs for seven years following completion.
Thomas Henry, from Les Mielles in the Clos du Valle, was awarded the contract and he began work on the Grand Havre embankment, at the Vale Church end, on 12 July.
And this is where the misconception occurs. Contrary to popular belief, the Braye du Valle was not filled in.
To supplement the civilian labourers, Sir John sent Mr Henry soldiers to help with the work. This cost the latter 10d per day for each man and a shilling for each sergeant.
The embankment at Grand Havre was built from large boulders, a brick wall to keep the sea out and gravel piled up against the wall. At the St Sampson's end, a stone wall was built parallel to the bridge and this was then reinforced with clay.
Sluices were created at both ends to allow surface water to drain.
After this great feat of strength, with nothing more than the power of man, horse and cart, the land was simply left to drain and to be leached by the weather.
On 27 March 1811, most of the Braye du Valle was bought for £5,000 and part of it was kept by the British Government for training troops.
With the cost of buying the Braye du Valle, £3,250, and the sale price of £5,000, there would seem to be a profit of £1,750. But that doesn't take into account the cost of the reclamation and there is no mention in the Henry family records how much Thomas was paid for his work.
The six buyers were Pierre Yves Bardel, Henry Giffard, Daniel Mollet, Pierre Mollet, Isaac Carre and Jean Allez and they along with Mr Henry were responsible for the maintenance of the embankments, sluices and douits.
Nowadays, on the surface, there is no sign that Guernsey was once split in two. But look a little closer.
The most obvious is the survival of the name Saltpans. This is where Daniel Hardy and Abraham Le Mesurier made their living capturing sea salt and they were paid £1,750 for the loss of their livelihood caused by the reclamation.A little less obvious is a small parcel of land by the Vale Pond which remains in its natural state, with the pond itself a land-locked ghost of the tidal river it once was.
One hidden reminder is the sea wall that bordered part of the north side of the Braye. Made up of large boulders, it is overgrown with ivy and briar bushes and it is now a listed ancient monument.
To celebrate the 200th anniversary of the reclamation of the Braye du Valle, the Vale Douzaine had the old sea wall cleared and with the cooperation of the landowners made the path running alongside it into a green lane. This area is known to locals as the Cache and runs from Braye Road to Folie Lane.
And it is on this wall that a plaque, to be unveiled by the Bailiff, Geoffrey Rowland, will commemorate not only the reclamation of the Braye du Valle but also the vision of Sir John Doyle, the engineering skills of Thomas Henry and the strength and determination of Guernsey muscle.
Labour of love is family business
YOU CAN TELL that Rosemary Henry loves recounting tales about her great-great-great-grandfather just as much as she is proud of his involvement in one of the Channel Islands' greatest engineering feats.
She tells me, in an almost mischievous way, about the night Thomas Henry came back home after a night of revelry.
'He was married to Martha Henry (nee Martin) and they had 11 children. She had a temper and was a disciplinarian and this appeared to have extended to her husband.
'He came back drunk from a party - it may have been the one where he received the sword - and instead of going into the house, he slept in the stables. In the morning he was still wobbly and he fell and broke his hip. He never sought medical advice, probably too afraid that Martha might find out, and spent the rest of his life on crutches.'
This simple, amusing story illustrates many different facets of the Braye du Valle legend.The sword (which has been handed down the generations to Rosemary) was a gift to Thomas from Sir John Doyle, who was then the island's commander-in-chief and Lt-Governor, for his work on the reclamation.
Apparently, despite being paid well for his work, Thomas was expecting a more substantial monetary reward.
'Perhaps that was why he was so drunk,' said Rosemary.
But perhaps the most salient point about the anecdote is that Mr Henry's great-great-great-granddaughter has a great aptitude to discover, record and remember such things - and that she has written a book about it.
Called The Reclamation of the Braye du Valle 1800 to 2006, the book is the culmination of more than 30 years of painstaking research, translation and gathering of information.
It's surprising to learn that throughout her in-depth detective work, Rosemary never used the Internet. 'I don't want the computer contaminated while I'm working,' she said.
Instead she trawled meticulously through papers from the Greffe, States archives, private papers and legal documents written in French that were in a treasure chest she discovered 30 years ago in the family stables.
'I asked my dad, who was also called Thomas Henry, about them and he said, "Chuck them on a bonfire". He wasn't really interested. He was the same about the sword.'
Some of the legal documents, which Rosemary translated in what she called her 'schoolgirl French', were on parchment and some on pigskin. The pigskin ones survive but the others have perished. They all went through the courts but were never registered, hence she couldn't find copies at the Greffe.
'The copiers often got the year wrong,' she said. '1700 instead of 1800.'
An obvious love for her part of the island, coupled with a fascination for history, runs throughout Rosemary's work and she is already well into her next project.
'It's the history of the commons of the Clos du Valle. I have 100 pages of A4 already.'
Although now regarded as something of an expert on the Braye du Valle and having given a talk in May at a Workers' Education Association event, Rosemary is modest about her achievements and happiest when she's in the middle of a project.
'It sucks you in,' she said. 'It's fascinating and there's no interruption until it's sorted.'