Tiny Island Off France Clings to Feudal Ways
Lashed by storms in winter and flooded with tourists in summer, this tiny, craggy island still survives as a relic of feudalism with a lord of the manor, strange customs and no cars or income taxes.
“It’s the ultimate civilization,” said one man who moved here from London 15 years ago.
Sark, just three miles long and 1.5 miles wide, rises spectacularly out of the English Channel off the French Normandy coast and near the larger tax-haven islands of Guernsey and Jersey.
The 300-foot cliffs look impregnable from the sea, and the island looks uninhabited. But two tunnels lead from the tiny harbor through the rock to the fertile interior.
Like the other Channel Islands, Sark owes allegiance to Britain’s Queen Elizabeth II but is not a part of the United Kingdom and has wide powers to conduct its own home affairs.
Sark’s 500 people are governed by the Seigneur, a feudal baron with privileges dating back to 1565, when Queen Elizabeth I let Jerseyman Helier de Carteret and 40 men settle here.
Since then, some of the Seigneur’s more obscure rights have lapsed, but the current incumbent, Michael Beaumont, retains several. He is still the only person allowed to keep a female dog, pigeons or doves and can deport undesirables.
Beaumont also collects a nominal tax on chimneys, once payable in live chickens. He now accepts cash.
What’s more significant, he can veto requests to buy any of the 40 original holdings or tenements. He also pockets one-thirteenth of property purchase prices on Sark, idyllic home to an increasing number of expatriate Britons seeking tax-free retirement and milder climes.
House prices have risen beyond the reach of most native islanders. Three houses sold together recently brought $411,000.
The islanders have largely abandoned farming and fishing in the clear but unpredictable waters in favor of the booming tourist trade.
During the summer season, which runs from May to early October, they brace themselves daily for up to 1,000 visitors who swarm over from Jersey, Guernsey and France to explore rock pools, caves and flower-lined tracks free of all motorized traffic but tractors. They also savor beer and cigarettes at nearly half the mainland price.
“We’re reliant on tourism, so you cram in as much as you can in the season,” John Hamon, the island’s greffier, or clerk, said in his small, whitewashed office.
Disappearing Down Lanes
“It’s an invasion, but it’s not so bad because they (the tourists) all seem to disappear down the lanes within minutes of arriving,” joked his son, Trevor, who was transferring Sark records onto his home computer.
Vacationers soon find the sights, including the awesome Coupee--a narrow causeway that runs along a knife-edge ridge linking the main island with Little Sark. On either side, waves crash onto rocks 260 feet below.
Before railings were fitted at the turn of the century, children crawled across in blustery weather to get to school.
Last year, 59,760 adult visitors came to Sark, each paying 66 cents landing tax. This year, it will be 73 cents. Add to this a tax collected on alcohol and tobacco--and it is easy to see why the island’s bank balance stays in the black.
Last year, the island raised $96,886 through the alcohol-and-tobacco tax, Treasurer Michael Terry said.
Terry, who manages one of the two banks, estimated 1986 income at $201,194.
Islanders have no official social security or free medical care. In winter, locals live off summer earnings or tighten their belts, making occasional forays to Guernsey when sea conditions permit.
Setting for TV Series
Tourism, which took off after the Channel Islands were liberated from the Germans at the end of World War II, has clearly brought prosperity to many. And a recent British television series set in Sark, “Mr. Pye,” has prompted even more vacation inquiries than usual, one hotelier said.
But as the message spreads, old Sark ways are gradually undermined. For instance, only a few older islanders speak the Norman-French patois, the main language until the 1920s.
“I doubt you’ll find anyone under 30 who can speak it fluently,” lamented one middle-age resident. Intermarriage with non-Sarkese will eventually kill the unwritten language.
Old songs and dances are remembered but seldom performed.
Feudal Fabric Remains
For all the changes, the fabric of feudal society remains. The 40 original holdings still exist, and each tenant has a place in the island parliament, the Chief Pleas, which meets in a school. Nowadays, 12 elected deputies join the tenants to represent other islanders.
There are no plans to introduce cars or an airport.
Local officials play on the anachronisms and say the mainland--Britain--could learn from Sark’s method of dispensing justice. A bleak, windowless two-cell jail built in 1856 awaits offenders.
Tale of a Burglar
One man who arrived for a job at one of the seven hotels last year and embarked upon a burglary spree soon wound up in the jail. He lived on bread and water for two days until he appeared before the Seneschal, the parliament president and magistrate.
“He went a funny color when he was given a month (in prison). He thought he’d be back in that little cell,” recalled the greffier’s son. Luckily for the thief, terms of more than two days are spent across the water in the relative comfort of Guernsey’s large prison.