Visiting Sark for the Opera Festival.
What brings a group of strangers to spend a weekend on Sark, the smallest of the four main Channel Islands…
One with no cars, with a claim to fame of being the most recently abolished feudal system in Europe and with their very own Seigneur. An intimate Opera Festival with stars like Mark Llewellyn Evens from Welsh National Opera, Yvonne Howard from ENO and Christopher Diffey from the National Theatre Mannheim isn’t a bad start. Those voices I didn’t know already, were equally inspiring – the stunningly beautiful Victoria Joyce, the charming and mellifluous voice of Jassy Husk and the two talented young performers still studying at the Guildhall – Manon Ogwen Parry and Archie Buchanan.
I couldn’t help but happily put my opera aficionado hat on, though I suspect for many of the visitors to Sark, the Opera Festival was more of an excuse to come and explore, the Opera and surrounding programme of events a hook on which to hang their curiosity. The tiny island ‘ A World Apart’ is really very special – and not in the way I’d imagined at all.
Fly to Guernsey from Gatwick or a number of regional airports on the mainland, then take a cab to the harbour to catch the Sark Ferry. There are two or three ferry crossings a day – foot passengers only since the island has no cars – and you’ll be back on dry land in around an hour. If you are staying on the island, as I was, ask in the Ferry Booking Office for luggage tags and the tractors of Sark will miraculously whisk your bags to whichever hotel or guest house you are staying in. Then it’s up to you – tractor bus, horse and cart or shank’s pony up the steep hill from the harbour. I opted for the tractor bus, known as the ‘toast rack’ which is a kind of covered cart with bench seating. At £1.10 for an adult, it takes you from the quay to the main village.
Now, I’d already visited Jersey, Guernsey and Herm – and my preconception was that Sark would have a lot in common with Herm – another car-free island. This tiny island though is really quite different, partly because of the feudal heritage and partly because of the geography. Unlike Herm which is rich with accessible sandy beaches, Sark has a rugged quality that sets it apart but perhaps is a less conventional family holiday destination.
As we toured around the island by boat, our guides, George Guille and his son Morgan pointed out some of the island’s sea caves, beaches that could only be accessed by scrambling down the cliffs and places to go coasteering or kayaking. Growing up on the island, as described by Morgan, was a daily adventure where the kids quickly became young explorers. We cruised from one beach to another watching the seabirds and enjoying the sunshine. We didn’t see the dolphins – though the same trip in the afternoon got lucky. But, honestly, the stunning landscape was enough.
Back on land at Creux Harbour, we happened on another of Sark’s annual events. The Build a Boat race is a competition held over 2 days. The first day is construction your vessel, the second is racing it. We watched as some pretty impressive boats were being constructed, though sadly my schedule stopped me from returning the next day to watch the race.
And, not connected in any way at all with Build a Boat, we bumped into the island’s tractor-ambulance service too. There’s a similar fire-engine somewhere on Sark – though I’m not sure a blue light would help either vehicle to make better speed across the tracks and pathways and through the traffic…
Perhaps it’s an island trait – repurposing is popular – I loved the bright green telephone box now holding a defibrillator for example.
And, I was charmed by the permaculture fruit and vegetable gardens at Stocks Hotel where I stayed. A relatively recent project, along with a major refurbishment, the permaculture garden was started at the initiative of the new owners who had been based in St Georges Hill Weybridge until they took over the oldest hotel on Sark. It turns out their daughter (and her husband) had both trained in agriculture at Cirencester – with the express intention of moving to Sark.
I was fascinated by the concepts – each raised bed had been carefully prepared with a base of old cardboard topped with compost to minimise weeds for example. Then, the land was never walked across to ensure the soil didn’t become compacted. I learnt about the careful programme of companion planting, with marigolds planted in old chimney pots at the edge of each bed to facilitate watering and discourage slugs. I was shown the water tanks and filtration system, the composter and wood chipper.
And, I met the chickens and got to see them in their very own ‘tractors’ working their way over the fallow beds to fertilise and weed while they enjoyed what looked rather more like alpine ski chalets than John Deere tractors…
Permaculture is based on three strong ethics; earth care, people care and fair shares. Perfect for island life, the gardens produce fresh vegetables and herbs (everything except root veg like potatoes) for the hotel itself, flowers and eggs. They blend beautifully with the manicured lawns and flowerbeds of the main hotel. Apparently, young visitors to the hotel are invited to visit the hens to choose their own eggs for breakfast. And, of course, what is served in the restaurant is wonderfully fresh with zero air, sea or land miles.
Island produce is clearly very important on Sark – look for local fish, lobster, lamb and beef to complement a range of island-grown vegetables and fruit.
Barbecued local lamb at Time and Tide to taste the first of the Island’s sparkling wine was utterly delicious and I loved the local seabass served for the pescatarians too. The tale of Sark sparkling wine, produced by the Barclay Brothers isn’t entirely a smooth one thanks in part to the terroir and I understand that the vines have been removed and the land will gradually revert to more traditional agricultural use. In the meanwhile, it was fascinating to taste a moment in the history of Sark, in the form of the pre-release wine. Apparently, there are 28,000 or so bottles ready for disgorgement once the French winemakers come across to the island.
We enjoyed more local produce at the gala dinner at Stocks, part of Sark Opera Festival. A splendid evening with a champagne reception to start followed by a three-course dinner with a whole medley of opera and musical classics throughout the meal.
I was particularly impressed by the seafood soup with fresh crab and the roast loin of lamb.
It’s a tough call to produce and serve this type of quality food for a large event, but the Stocks kitchen rose to the challenge and we dined like Kings. It was lovely to find a good mixture of local people and visitors to the island at the dinner and concert.
How does opera really fit though? Well, in my experience remarkably well – repurposing various spaces to accommodate a stellar line-up of singers. I’m still trying to work out just why this Opera Festival feels so intuitively right and I suspect that the heart of the matter is in many ways the heart of the island. Christopher Beaumont, the current Seigneur. He’s clearly something of a classical music and opera fan.
At the final event of Sark Opera, 2019, a Gala Concert at the Seigneurie, he was called on to accompany Mark Llewellyn Evans who is a personal friend and godfather to Hugh, heir to the Seigneurie. He did so seamlessly. And, he talked with enthusiasm about building the festival in the future. It was clear from the moment he stood to speak that he’s loved and respected by the islanders. Whether it was at Time and Tide for the launch of the Barclay Brothers’ sparkling wine or at his own home at the final gala concert.
On Sark, the phrase ‘Il faut cultiver nôtre jardin’ has a particular significance. I’ll be watching to see how Opera Sark develops and I hope it continues to provide a platform that unites the various people of this idyllic island and inspires to the mainland and beyond.
I was a guest of Opera Sark
I stayed at the four-star Stocks Hotel, the oldest hotel on the island and very much enjoyed dining in their restaurant during my visit.
My boat-trip was a private tour for Sark Opera guests but similar trips run daily through the summer months. To book contact Sark Boat Trips
I travelled to Guernsey from Gatwick with Aurigny Air Services
I transferred to Sark with the Isle of Sark Shipping Company. The ferry journey took just under an hour and an adult return is £30
Montessori supports the Sark Opera Festival.