Coast: Plemont

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Coast:

Plemont


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Visitors to a Plemont cave in 1902


This article by Doug Ford, a respected authority on Jersey's maritime history, was part of his Coast series for the Jersey Evening Post, and was first published in 2016


Cliffs, caves and rocks

From Grève de Lecq westward the coast continues to be dominated by cliffs, punctuated by clefts, caves and fantastical rocks whose names either reflect their nature or are romanticised to attract the Victorian tourist – Dolphin Rock, Grande and Petit Becquet (from the Jèrriais word betchet meaning a piece of land on the cliffs), La Cave ès Fraudeurs (Smugglers Cave).

CoastMapPlemont.png

One of the few stretches of sand along this part of the coast can be found in the cave called Le Creux Gabourel, which provides evidence from when the sea level was much higher, for wedged into the roof are sea-rounded rocks.

The last safe anchorage on the north coast lies just beyond the next headland Plémont – the flat hill. The bay known as Grève au Lançon was where small boats would anchor to wait for the tide to carry them around Grosnez, or eastwards along the north coast. The anchorage is on the fine sand in the middle of the bay in between 6 and 9 fathoms of water. This avoids the reef which runs out from Plémont Point on the east and the rock, about 180m offshore on the west of the bay, which uncovers at low water.

Like all potential landing points, Plémont had its military installations. As early as 1680 Colonel Legge’s report shows that there was a guardhouse here on the narrowest part of the headland. This was repaired in 1742, and by the end of the century it had an associated battery, housing two six-pounder cannon. It was probably at its peak in the late 1830s, when it was described as a one-gun battery housing an 18-pounder, with a loop-holed blockhouse and guardhouse for an officer and 24 men, projecting into the ditch separating the headland and a magazine, set back a distance, large enough to store 90 barrels of powder.

The bay takes its name - Grève au Lançon - from the sand eels that were caught there in nocturnal fishing expeditions. For the 19th century visitor this was the main attraction on this stretch of the coast. As one of the popular guide books put it :

"The Point runs out far into the sea and the land forms a peninsula with perpendicular walls of rock.’

Petit Plemont

Petit Plémont is almost cut off from the rest of the headland by a deep fissure, and the narrow land link was defended by a single bank and ditch in the Iron Age to create a promontory fort. In order to create a more romantic buzz around the place, the tip of the peninsula, La Tête de Plémont was dubbed the Devil’s Chair in the 1880 tourist guide.

The fine sandy beach is covered before high tide and the sea rolls into the numerous caves in the cliffs around the bay. It was these caves, easily accessible at low tide, that attracted the intrepid Victorian tourists. A series of steps and bridges were built to enable them (for a fee) to clamber down the cliffs, dressed in their Sunday best. Once on the sands the ladies would be carried on the men's backs through the pools to visit the caves.

Plémont has also seen its fair share of tragedies. In November 1895 Mr G S Farnell, the principal of Victoria College, a keen geologist, fell to his death from the cliffs while collecting specimens. Pn September 1921 the Western Daily Press reported that Arthur W Burge of Richmond, Surrey was badly injured when he fell over 10m while climbing the cliffs. Over the years the national newspapers have carried stories of a fair number of visitors who were drowned in the caves when trapped by the rising tide.

Plemont Hotel

It was in one of these caves that in July 1939 the notorious safebreaker, Eddie Chapman, was recaptured following his escape from prison in St Helier. Chapman later found fame during World War 2 as the British double agent Zigzag. Chapman was not the first criminal to be taken in the bay. In October 1849 Revenue Officers arrested Philip Le Marquand’s 5-ton cutter Lion on suspicion of smuggling, although the crew had deserted the vessel and had been unable to unload their cargo of four hogsheads and seven quarter casks of brandy. The Lion affair has its own place in history for it was the first time a steam-powered vessel had been involved in the arrest of a smuggler. The Revenue men from St Helier were unable to use their cutter to sail against the headwind so they requisitioned the paddle-steamer Polka to take them.

Telegraph cable

It was in Grève au Lançon that it could be said that Jersey joined the technological revolution. It was here in August 1858 that the first telegraph line to link the Island with the outside world came ashore. Now, news could be received from England in a matter of seconds, no matter what the weather was, rather than the minimum eight or ten hours when it was brought by steamship. What was also impressive was the fact that Newell and Sons managed to cut a trench for the wire from St Helier to Plémont in 16 days, using only shovels.

A second line was brought in from Dartmouth in November 1870. In 1914 the Royal Navy cut the German telegraph line to the Azores and diverted it to Plémont for use as a dedicated military telegraph line; it was this cable that in 1931 was converted to become the Island’s first telephone link with the mainland, which meant that news which had previously taken seconds to transmit could be passed on instantly.

In March 1952 thieves stole about 30m of this cable for the lead and copper sheathing, said to be worth about £4. It cost over £1,000 to repair the damage.

Archaeologists at Cotte a la Chevre

Historically speaking, probably the most important of the many caves looking out from Grève au Lançon is Cotte à la Chèvre – the goat’s cave. Sitting on the tip of the headland on the western side of the bay, it is often overshadowed by its more famous cousin on the south coast, Cotte de St Brelade. Early archaeological excavations carried out here have resulted in a number of Palaeolithic finds associated with Neanderthal hunters, but inconsistent recording makes the site difficult to understand. Happily the situation is now being addressed as part of the Ice Age Island Project.

Today Plémont is synonymous with tourism. The first tourist residential property to be built on the site appeared on the headland in 1874, when John and Caroline Steen opened the Plémont Hotel. As well as taking guests, it had a dining room for 100 diners and catered for the daily influx of picnic parties brought from Town by a fleet of ‘tourist cars’.

It was in 1935 that the first holiday camp was built. This was the Jubilee Holiday Camp, which could accommodate 350 guests in bungalow bedrooms, and provided tennis and indoor amusements at no extra costs, as well as dancing each evening in its own ballroom to its resident London orchestra. During the Occupation the camp was taken over by the German authorities and much of the equipment and furnishings were scattered around the island.

Following the Liberation the site was acquired by Stanley Parkin, who quickly started rebuilding it as a ‘luxury’ holiday camp to take 500 guests in accommodation blocks set around a swimming pool. The old hotel building was used as a store and accommodation for the camp staff. In 1946 the States took the decision not to allow further holiday camps to be established in the island.

It is easy to look down on the holiday camp experience now, but in the late 1940s and 1950s the British public, regimented and organized for the six years of the war, re-embarked upon their love affair with the seaside holiday, and in 1948 one in 20 British holidaymakers spent their holidays at a Butlin’s holiday camp.

In 1961 the camp became of part of a national brand when it was sold to Pontin’s. They ran the camp until October 2000, when the site finally closed due to falling demand and the lure of guaranteed sun and cheaper destinations in the Mediterranean. [1]

Further reading

Notes and references

  1. The National Trust have since acquired the site, with States financial support, and all buildings have been demolished and the area returned to nature – Editor


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