THE very best time to walk around Town, any town in fact, and to absorb the feeling and measure of a place is in the early morning.
If you find yourself with time on your side once lockdown is over, around 6.30 or 7am or thereabouts, you will not find Town quiet. Not exactly buzzing either, but it is usually busy with people making their way to work, pausing to pick up a cup of coffee from one of the umpteen places open at this time for caffeine-deprived souls, or walking their little dogs, dodging the spray from the States workers as they clean the streets. These heroic men picking up our detritus with their long-handled pickers, some with ear buds in, listening to what I wonder? Others whistling as they work – some more in tune than others, it has to be said.
(Incidentally, where have all the whistlers gone? You used to hear them all the time, from posties to milk men, but there seems to be far less whistling in public nowadays. I know men – and women – have to be careful about what and who they whistle at, but still…)
There are other people scurrying around too, carrying buckets with mops and spray and wearing T-shirts bearing the logo of their respective office cleaning companies. This invisible army does what we don’t want to – clearing away the paper cups, sandwich wrappers and crisp packets from under and around the desks of office workers. These are the groups of people far too important to take time to acknowledge the cleaning staff, until they inadvertently move a keyboard too far right of the screen by accident. Then they notice them…
There are always a few hardy souls congregating outside their respective places of work risking pneumonia in our misty weather to have a cigarette. The people always look quite miserable, despite maintaining that they are really ‘enjoying’ a fag. Perhaps working up to a difficult day in the office, they puff away, having a chat with their colleagues.
Pesky gulls pick at stray bags of rubbish, which are put out on the wrong night as usual. They are stronger than they look, these gulls. Pulling at the plastic bags, they are quite happy to drag the entire thing across a road – often discharging the contents as they go, which is then picked up by the poor old States Works people who have only just done their first sweep of Town and are wishing it was time to go home.
Above me flutters some ripped and rather sad-looking bunting, left over from one summer which was never quite put away properly. When once it looked jolly and inviting, it now seems a little forlorn, forgotten and a bit grim. This could be the story of our island really – we are all feeling a bit forlorn, forgotten and grim. This is after all winter in Guernsey. A somewhat subdued place, far from the excitement of Christmas and New Year, and an island in waiting for the better days of spring.
And so it is that I wander the streets looking in some darkened windows of shops and cafes not yet open, wishing the place would erupt with life again, or worse still into those retail outlets which are now permanently closed down and which appear to be stuck in some sort of weird time warp.
Old faded posters on doors long since shut implore people to ‘visit the Circus at L’Eree in 2009’ or some sort of deal from the late 1980s advertised as ‘£2 off your next purchase at the Strawberry Farm’. Peeling paint from window sills and weeds growing up through the chipped masonry or the plastic guttering bear witness to the passage of time and the disinterest of some owners, perhaps hoping for better times to come.
But not all is grim in St Peter Port. My first stop as I wander through my home town is at the top of Clifton Steps, or just before the old Salvation Army building. There is a space between the old building and an apartment block which gives anyone interested a truly panoramic view over the harbour and Castle Cornet. From this vantage spot and on a good day you can see little fishing boats heading out into the Russel and beyond, the milk boat on its first sweep to Herm.
Around the time I loiter here, the bells of the Town Church ring out – reminding us all that perhaps we are late for whatever appointment we need to get to. But not for me today.
I make my way rather gingerly down Clifton Steps, that steep slippery way leading into Market Street. I am not known for my mountain goat abilities, so find the 100-plus steps rather precarious, especially in my chosen footwear, flipflops! There are others who run up and down this stone staircase, fleet of foot, and keen to better their personal best. Slurping on a sip of their water from the precious supply bottle attached to their little belts, off they rush again. It is all I can do to get to the top of any flight of stairs without losing consciousness due to lack of oxygen, frankly.
There is a certain hubbub when you step out into Market Street, of course. Delivery drivers back up the road with the incessant ‘beep beep beep’ of their reversing alarms sounding. The window cleaner with his curious contraption attached to his van, able to aim higher than most at the tall panes of glass.
Long gone are the good old days, of course, where fresh produce was sold and Patois rang out from flower sellers and fishmongers alike. Those days are no more, but if I stand stock still in the middle of the Co-op and listen very carefully, I can still hear those old voices, maybe in my imagination. I remember, as a small child, being led by the hand to a certain stall to ask for a slice or two of Pommier’s ham to pop into a Guernsey biscuit bought from Le Noury’s bakery.
Although it is a while now since the old Guernsey Markets closed, there are still signs it was there if you look up. The cow on the wall, the pig face, the chicken. You just need to look – and remember.
Out of the Co-op and down a few steps into Fountain Street, a lot of us will remember the bygone days of the Gabriel’s empire. Mr Gabriel sitting in his wooden chair before deftly getting boxes down from the tall display shelves. He was a legend and very dear to a lot of us locals – he employed the politest of staff who, in all weathers, ran up and down the street ready to get whatever sir or madam wanted to see. Nothing was too much, and his style of retailing is much missed.
But I am rabbiting on. I will pick up on my thoughts about traipsing around the streets of Guernsey soon.
Thank you and a la perchoine, my friends.