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Alderney: Fascinating history off the beaten track

20 January 2022

You’d be forgiven for thinking that Alderney, at just three miles long, would be too small to have had much influence on history.

Although a Channel Island like Guernsey and Jersey, it’s an island that seems to get forgotten – it’s not the biggest, nor the smallest, nor “the one without cars” – and many have never heard of it.

But for such a tiny place, it has some serious credentials as an island of historic importance.

It boasts both a well-preserved Roman fort and the only concentration camp to have been built on British soil.

So, whether you’re fascinated by World War II, or your interests lie earlier in the Bronze Age, Alderney has a little something for anybody who wants to explore the past.

We’ve put together an itinerary of some of the historical attractions this little island has to offer.

Try them over a long weekend or combine with cliff walks and fantastic food in local restaurants for a week away from it all.

The Nunnery Roman Fort

No one really remembers how “The Nunnery” got its name. Despite having had many uses since Roman times, a nunnery was never one of them.

But whatever you call it, there’s no doubt that this strange old site on Longis Bay has many other mysteries still to reveal.

Recent archaeological work has identified the original fort as being Roman in origin, which makes it the first and oldest military building in Alderney.

It’s not clear what it was used for, but it’s very similar to some signal stations in Yorkshire.

The Romans clearly thought this was an area of strategic importance, and this is a point not missed by later forces. In the 14th-century, a blockhouse was added.

Next, a Georgian addition of cannons. Over the centuries, it’s been a barracks, and then a hospital, before becoming married quarters in the Victorian era.

The Germans then fortified it further, joining their anti-tank wall to the older buildings and adding a new bunker.

But it remains a very well-preserved Roman fort – it’s open every day for visits after a major makeover, and admission is free.

If exploring has made you peckish, the Old Barn restaurant is a two-minute walk and serves delicious sandwiches!

The Odeon

Look North from the Nunnery and you’ll spot The Odeon.

This brooding concrete structure sits high up on the East edge of the island and was built by slave labour during the Nazi occupation in 1943.

It’s named jokingly after the 1930s cinema it resembles, but inside, there’s a harsh atmosphere that will send shivers down your spine.

Like most German structures on the island, it’s made of huge quantities of concrete and steel, and forms part of Hitler’s ‘Atlantic Wall’.

In this case, it was designed as an observation point and artillery tower.

Again, it’s recently been renovated and now provides interpretation boards, a documentary, and a telescope with views to France.

It’s open daily, with free admission.

Bibette Head

If you walk a little further anticlockwise around the coast, past several of Alderney’s best beaches, you’ll come to the interlinked bunkers of Bibette Head.

Without a map, it’s hard to know they’re there.

Despite being a major German fortification, these defensive bunkers are built into the hillside, leaving little to see unless you know where to look.

As children, we often explored the main bunker at Bibette, but the recent clearing of the site revealed tunnels, trenches, and gun positions that we had no idea existed.

Although there are interpretation boards for the adults, exploring the rabbit warren of Bibette is still one for the kids.

Best of all, it’s free and always open – although it’s a good idea to take a torch!

Fort Doyle

Fort Doyle is the island’s smallest fort.

It’s Victorian in origin and was completed in the 1850s, providing barracks for 20 men as well as four guns and the associated artillery stores.

Of course, like most forts from the Victorian era, the Germans built on top of what was there, adding two anti-tank gun bunkers and a network of trenches.

Fort Doyle has been recently renovated, so there’s plenty to explore even for seasoned Alderney visitors.

Again, clearing away overgrown brambles has revealed large areas of the fort that even locals didn’t know existed.

Tourgis

The imposing Fort Tourgis sits on a hill on the West end of the island and is just a short walk along a shingle beach from Doyle.

Another Victorian fort, this is one of the biggest on the island, and the main fort is completely derelict.

Exploring the main part of the fort is not advised due to the crumbling floors and rusting remnants but peeking through the windows is fascinating.

The surrounding area was once again used by German troops – the addition of gun emplacements to the north-side of the fort were designed to protect against English invasion.

These have now been cleared and opened for visitors, along with information boards.

One of the bunkers even has a picnic table if you’re looking to take a break from all the adventures!

Getting there and getting around

There are two main routes to reach Alderney.

One is direct from Southampton with airline Aurigny – just a 35-minute flight in a small plane and you’ll land on Alderney’s beautiful southern cliffs.

For those that fancy island-hopping, the larger island of Guernsey has regular ferries and flights to Alderney.

Being a British island, you won’t need a passport or visa.

A driving license is enough to fly with, and there are no tests or paperwork needed if you want to bring your fur family to explore with you!

Once you’re here, a great way to travel around Alderney is by bicycle, although car hire is also a good option.

If you’re a keen walker, it’s certainly possible to do it on foot, but our itinerary does stretch across the island, so be sure to pack some comfy boots!

Places to Stay

Visit Alderney lists plenty of options for places to stay, whether you’re after a self-catered house for a crowd or a romantic room for two.

If you fancy being looked after, try the Georgian House and Victoria, which have a small number of rooms alongside a fantastic restaurant serving local produce.

The Blonde Hedgehog and Braye Beach Hotel will also look after you so well you won’t want to leave!

Also, the Saye Beach Campsite is spacious and right next to the beach if roughing it is more your style.

For a crowd, you can’t beat staying at Fort Clonque. Now owned by the Landmark Trust, this old Victorian fort sleeps 13 across several buildings.

A word of warning, though: the fort sits out on the Western point of the island and can be reached only by a causeway that is cut off at high tide.

A Must-Visit

Alderney boasts something for everyone, but the military heritage of the island is one of its highlights.

Whether you’re a seasoned history buff, or just like to take in some heritage as part of your next beach holiday, we thoroughly recommend this tiny island in the English Channel.