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How the de Saumarez family shaped the island

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A man-made lake in the middle of La Mare playing fields? A Japanese house in Saumarez Park? Just two examples of the island's long-gone landmarks. Rob Batiste reports on these and the remarkable legacy left by the de Saumarez family

A man-made lake in the middle of La Mare playing fields? A Japanese house in Saumarez Park? Just two examples of the island's long-gone landmarks. Rob Batiste reports on these and the remarkable legacy left by the de Saumarez family LONG ago, before the modern media had premiership footballing stars or world motor-racing champions to bow to, Guernsey had another hero.

His sport was defending the realm, sinking battleships and he was very, very good at it, so much so that he was ultimately ennobled.

Tomorrow marks 250 years since Lord James de Saumarez's birth. He died 79 years later in 1836, but his legacy lives on with much of what we see at Saumarez Park, Le Guet and St James.

Some say he was as good as Nelson, with whom he served. Some say that Nelson hogged as much of the limelight as he could, conveniently forgetting to tell the 18th-century world just what a fine and crucial job the Guernsey admiral had done.

Some say that our Lord Jim was never too impressed by the self-publicist whose column now stands proudly in Trafalgar Square.

Other argue that de Saumarez was the greatest ever Guernseyman.

Tales of his sea heroism have been frequently documented. What has not are the decisions he made with his feet very much on terra firma, most notably when choosing to marry one Martha Le Marchant.

Money married money when, in 1788, the couple tied the knot. In doing so, the impressive building at the heart of the Le Marchant country estate became known as Saumarez Park and all these years later, islanders can revel in the continued splendour of an area best known to many for staging North Shows, Le Viaer Marchi and Summer Wave.

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Which brings us to the question:

What would have happened had de Saumarez not fallen for Martha and married instead a Le Page, a Le Tocq or Le anyone else without a blooming great mansion house in the middle of Castel?

Well, for a start, the Battle of Flowers might never have happened.

Secondly, Le Guet estate might have been quarried out and be an ugly bare wasteland looking down over Cobo.

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Across the way, at Grandes Rocques, we might have had no eyesore extension to the old hotel built out of Cobo granite and we would not have had a boarding school or golf course to rival the turn-of-the-century L'Ancresse one.

By virtue of his marriage to Martha, de Saumarez held the key to all these things. In truth, he never spent much time at the park, being too busy keeping Napoleon and other foreign nasties at bay and all that.

It was not until very late in his life that he took things relatively easy and when in the island probably spent much more time at his Town house - the Square House - which stood in the grounds known today as the sunken garden.

However, Admiral de Saumarez's lasting legacy in the Castel parish owes much to his great grandson, the fourth baron, James St Vincent.

The second and third barons did little or nothing for the development of the estate.The second baron was a clergyman who had no children and following his death, brother John St Vincent took over and, in next to no time, decided to sell up.

Fortunately for the people of Guernsey and the de Saumarez legacy, a sharp-eyed Mr Rhodes, an uncle to John de Saumarez's son (who was holding a diplomatic post in Japan), held up the sale by exercising the droit de retraite, which stopped the transaction and enabled the heir to have the opportunity to buy it himself.

For this, young James was extremely grateful and the park became his on 30 December 1869, 22 years before he officially took the title of fourth baron de Saumarez.

His uncle's intervention saved the day.

From the early 1870s until 1937, the year he died, de Saumarez's great grandson kept adding to and improving the estate, which ultimately took in 400 vergees.

Without the fourth baron committing himself so whole-heartedly to expanding and augmenting his land, the story of the Castel parish would be so different.

It was he who expanded what, for many years, stood as Grandes Rocques Hotel, just so his asthmatic son could be schooled as close to the sea as possible.

He tagged on a golf course to where today Rovers kick footballs, shoot arrows and smash cricket balls.

And it was he who carved a canal, approximately 1,000 metres long, through the heart of the La Mare playing fields of today, just so his children and friends could enjoy a spot of rowing or, as it is suggested, a gondola could slide through the still waterway which had its origin close to Les Genats and ended a few yards before the coast road.

The fourth baron also had built the bridge that crosses Route de Carteret, so that he and his family would not have to step on property not owned by himself. The bridge was renovated in 1978 and still stands proudly today.

It's a shame the same cannot be said of the fantastic Japanese house and temple which stood in the park until after the Occupation.

The fourth baron had a complete Japanese house transported and placed in a garden close to the area now used as a car park on the Home Farm side.

When, in 1929, the Japanese butler of the island's then Lt-Governor, Lord Ruthven, saw it, he was heard to say: 'This was the house of a very rich man'.

A stream ran through the garden and past the bath house with its wooden bath. The rooms were divided by sliding panels and rice paper and were furnished with Japanese objects such as matting, wooden neck-rest pillows and scroll pictures.

The de Saumarez family sometimes slept there.

Preceding this building, an old and unwanted temple had been dismantled in Japan and transported to Guernsey in numbered pieces before being rebuilt on a raised piece of ground close to the stable yard.

During the Occupation, the Germans all but wrecked both visions of the orient and local vandalism finally accounted for their demise.

In his time, the fourth baron also oversaw major redevelopment of the park house and much of the granite used in the build came from the Cobo quarries, which he owned.

But one large slice of precious granite was sacrosanct in the baron's eyes: the tall column known locally as the 'chimney' which lies under the watchtower at Le Guet. In the 1920s he introduced various pines to cover the then gorse-dominated slopes.

His wish to see the 'chimney' remain standing proud above Cobo was such that he insisted it should be left untouched when, in 1875 and serving in Athens, he was written to by his cousin, General George de Sausmarez, who requested the use of pink granite in the building of a memorial obelisk to the baron's great-grandfather, Admiral the first Lord de Saumarez.

The fourth baron agreed with one condition, that only half the quarry could be worked and that the chimney was not to be interfered with.

Eventually none of the pink granite was used but metal memorial plaques were put on the monument. After it was destroyed by the Germans, they were placed in Castle Cornet and are still on display today.

The foresting of Le Guet was his idea also. It was the fourth baron who arranged for trees to be planted in blocks of different pines, some of them very rare and obtained through Kew Gardens.

The object of the exercise was to see which species were best suited to the salty Cobo climate, but sadly, due to fires and the Occupation, the results of the experiment were never conclusive.

The common Monterey pine was used to plug the gaps and they, in the main, are what you see today.

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