Guernsey, in the Channel Islands between England and France, is a popular tourist destination, with a warm climate, beautiful countryside, and peaceful lanes. It also has a rich history, much of it dating back to prehistoric times. The island is dotted with megalithic sites: dolmens, menhirs, and a mysterious carved figure.
The Long History of Guernsey
Guernsey is better known for its recent history. The island’s occupation by the Germans during the Second World War has been the subject of recent novels such as The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society. However it has a very long history, going right back to the neolithic era.
Until the end of the Ice Age, around 6500 BCE, the Channel Islands were part of the mainland of France (they are still closer to France than to England). The earliest people arrived – possibly from Spain – during the New Stone Age, around 5000 BCE. Numerous traces of their existence have been discovered, including earthworks, passage graves and standing stones.
All of the sites mentioned here are readily accessible and can be visited free of charge.
Dolmens and Passage Graves
The most impressive sites are the dolmens, or burial chambers. On Guernsey many of the dolmens are passage graves: one or more chambers with a narrow access passage.
Probably the most impressive passage grave on the island is the Dehus Dolmen (also known as Le Déhus), around half a kilometre north of Bordeaux Harbour. This is a large multi-chambered tomb beneath a grassy mound with standing stones around the edge (some of the edge stones are replacements, but others are original). Artefacts from around 3500-2000 BCE have been found here.
You can walk inside the Dehus Dolmen – there is a light beside the door – but you have to mind your head as the ceiling is very low. The most remarkable feature is towards the back of the tomb – the so-called “Gardien du Tombeau”. This is the faint image of a bearded face carved onto one of the ceiling stones. The significance of the image is unknown, but similar carvings have been found in Brittany and Spain, suggesting cultural links with those areas.
La Varde, on L’Ancresse Common, is the largest megalithic site in Guernsey. It was built during the New Stone Age but remained in use until around 1000 BCE. The site was discovered in 1811, and bones, pottery and stone tools were found inside.
The tomb is 10m long and you can walk inside (again the ceiling is low and you have to watch your head).
Other Passage Graves on L’Ancresse Common
Elsewhere on L’Ancresse Common (which is now a golf course) there is plenty of evidence of Stone Age activity, including isolated stones that might have been part of larger structures. There are remnants of graves at Mare-ès-Mauves (near the 13th hole of the golf course) and at Les Fouillages (which can be found in a field near L’Ancresse Road). Les Fouaillages is noteworthy for its age: at around 6,000 years old it is one of the oldest monuments in Europe.
Le Creux ès Faïes
Le Creux ès Faïes, close to L’Eree headland, is the third largest dolmen in Guernsey. Again, it is a neolithic tomb that continued to be used during the Bronze Age. The name reflects a legend that it was (or is) an entrance to the fairy world.
Le Trepied is on La Rocques headland. It is a classic passage grave that was in use during both the Stone Age and the Bronze Age. However, it is now more famous as a witches’ meeting place: during the 17th century it was said that witches met here on a Friday night to consort with the Devil.
Other Megalithic Sites in Guernsey
Although the burial sites are most prominent, there is evidence of other megalithic sites on the island. It is likely that there were once several stone circles on the island, but these have been destroyed over time. Don’t be fooled by the Table des Pions (Fairy Ring) near Fort Pezeries: this is thought to date from the 18th or 19th century!
La Gran’mère du Chimquière
The most famous standing stone is La Gran’mère du Chimquière, outside St Martin’s churchyard. Around 4,000 years old, the stone has been carved with a female face and figure. Its origins and significance are unknown, but similar figures have been found in Brittainy.
It is thought that La Gran’mère once stood inside the churchyard, but was removed because of its pagan associations. However, it has always been popular with local people, and is reputed to be a source of fertility and good luck.
Neolithic Settlements in Guernsey
With all of these burial sites, there must have been a substantial neolithic population in Guernsey. So it is surprising that we know very little about where those people lived. A few years ago some traces of a small settlement were discovered (now beneath a runway at the airport). But the life of these people is still a mystery and it is likely that there is still more to be found.