By Stephen Neale
IF you’re reading with a distracted squint, here’s some advice. Promise yourself a summer visit to Herm – the smallest Channel Island. No clocks. No phones. No cars or bikes. No TVs. But forget the gimmicks. The essence of this 300 acre isle – garnered with wild flowers, towering cliffs and woodland – is a community of staff who have perfected the art of ‘living in the moment’.
It’s a philosophy Hermites want to share (hence the ban on clocks). And their guests seem to like it. More than 100,000 visited in 2010. They came to relax on sandy beaches, bathe in the turquoise sea and ramble across the unique terrain while watching the sun set over northern France. But quite a lot has been written about Herm, so I thought I’d tell you about Jonathan Watson instead. Because Herm is about the ‘local’ as well as the location.
Jonathan is living the dream. Not so much his own. More the dream of Herm’s founding fathers, who took the island over when the German invaders left at the end of World War II. Their vision was to create a self contained community where children could roam safe and free, while being involved in day-to-day island life.
Jonathan arrived in 2002 as hotel manager with his wife and two young children, aged two and five. “I don’t know that we’ve ever lived the dream,” he says. “Its just our way of life, although certainly its the only way our youngest has known.”
The ‘Herm way’ is based around community. Of the island families, most parents work. The children study in Herm’s school until they are 11, then they travel to Guernsey for studies. About 50 people live here permanently, most of them working in tourism, although the island does have its own shops, post office, GP, firefighters and an ambulance service. The workforce rises to 90 in the summer to cater for the invasion of visitors.
Jonathan ran the hotel and managed the other holiday related businesses until his employers decided to sell the 40 year lease in 2008, to The Starboard Settlement, a trust managed by businessman John Singer, 63. It was an important moment for Jonathan because he was made a director when Mr Singer moved to the island with his wife Julia.
“The timing was good,” he says. “I had been here about six or seven years and I was ready for something more. It was very exciting, you know, one day you walk into a meeting as a hotel manager and then you come out as a company director.”
Promotion didn’t dent his island philosophy. Jonathan still takes the 30-minute church service, every Sunday, at 10am, in the 10th century chapel. He finds time to occasionally walk the island’s six mile parameter too. It takes about two hours. Shell Beach is his favourite place. Conchologists have celebrated its uniqueness for centuries, although the cowrie shells are now long gone. Belvoir Bay and Puffin Bay are among the most popular tourist attractions, surrounded by rocky cliffs on either side.
Visitors describe Herm’s southern beaches as the nearest thing to a Caribbean isle. Although the island is one of the sunniest places in northern Europe, the tropics it isn’t. So what do tourists do when it rains? “You go back to good ol’, family, entertainment,” says Jonathan. “People revert back to books, play board games, interact with their family. But rarely does it rain all day.”
There’s plenty more to do when the sun goes in. Fishing boat trips are available by the half or full day and angling from the shore is popular. Kayaking tours are a great opportunity to see seals and puffins. Most visitors know what to expect. More than 75 per cent of visitors come back year after year. The island’s annual ball tournament is held on the first Saturday, in August, and was created by visitors 30 years ago.
The 2010 event was played in pouring rain, with Jonathan and his staff joining in. The 2011 season will open from April until October, with only staff allowed all year. Under the terms of the lease no one other than workers can live on Herm. It’s one of the few places in the world no one can retire to, although when asked, Jonathan says it’s not something he has ever considered.
“To live here, you have to work,” he says. “Retirement is out, unless of course you own the lease. I’m not sure where we will retire too, I really don’t. It’s not something I ever think about.” Spoken like a true Hermite. Still living in the moment – not one eye on the future, one in the past, and cross eyed in the present. Herm’s timeless appeal.
Go buy a ticket now.
• Visitors to Herm can camp, rent one of 20 self catering cottages or stay in the 40-bed, hotel. Prices start from £7.50 (PP) for a pitch to £98-a-night half board (PP), in the White House Hotel, during August. For availability and bookings visit www.herm.com
1) Flights to Guernsey from £34.99 with Flybe.
2) Car ferry (13 hrs) to Guernsey from Portsmouth approx £195 return with Condor Ferries.
3) All access to Herm is via the 20-minute ferry boat journey from Guernsey (no cars – foot passengers only) approx £10 return
HERM ISLAND FACT BOX
• The island is about 1.5 miles long – less than half a mile wide.
• Locals and visitors share the island with puffins, seals and a herd of 50 cows.
• Although tourism is Herm’s main trade, some income is generated by growing vegetables, livestock and occasionally issuing stamps.
• Monks originally inhabited by in the 6th Century.
• Guests’ luggage is transported to and from the harbour in a tractor.
• The island is part of the Bailiwick of Guernsey and has been a British Crown Dependency since 1204.
• The gardens won the 2002 and 2008 Britain in Bloom competition in the ‘Small Coastal Resort’ category, despite not being part of the UK.
• Five years after the German occupying force left, the States of Guernsey bought Herm Island from the Crown.
• The lease issued by the States stipulate the owners must maintain the island for the benefit of its visitors.
• Herm’s most influential tenant was Major Peter Wood, who looked after the island from 1949 to 1980.
• When the last leaseholders, Adrian and Penny Wood Heyworth, announced they were selling their rights to the island, Guernsey residents feared for its future.
• Herm is managed by four directors, who include new lease holder John Singer
Jonathan Watson is responsible for hospitality on Herm Island. He explains here how he arrived and what it’s like to live on the smallest Channel Island.
When did you arrive on Herm?
Nine years ago.
Why did you come?
My wife and I had a young family. Corporate hotel life in the UK didn’t blend particularly well with that.
How did you start in the hotel trade?
Aged 15 washing up dishes in a hotel close to our family home in Sussex. I passed my O levels, but failed all of my A levels. I was much more interested in working than in my studies.
I worked in the same hotel as a waiter, barman, in housekeeping and as a chef until I was 18. Then I was offered a position as trainee general assistant manager.
What was the name of the company?
Embassy Hotels. It was later bought by John Jarvis, former chairman and chief executive of Hilton International, as he wished to have his own company, Jarvis Hotels Ltd.
How long did you stay with the company?
I worked my way up to general manager at the Jarvis Springfield Hotel in Gateshead, and then at the Ramada Jarvis Hotel, Leeds. I thoroughly enjoyed it, but after 17 years I wanted something different when the family came along.
We had a two year old and a five year old, when we arrived. They are now eleven and fourteen, so growing up is very much a part of this community.
What’s unique about Herm?
Very few places in the world can offer this peace and tranquility. Even when it is very busy with day visitors, and guests staying with us, there is always somewhere to find a quiet spot to relax and feel the value of this stunning Island.
It can’t always be a pleasure?
It’s pretty good most of the time.
Everybody has a day when they think, “Oh gosh, what the heck I am doing here?”
But, to be honest, you only have to take a good look at the world news or the front page of the Daily Mail. It brings it home why we’re here.
Children remain innocent a lot longer. We have great family values, and we are able to exercise those family values.
Your happiest season?
I am happy for different reasons in different seasons.
January through to March we are really looking forward to the challenges that lay ahead. It’s really a planning and development stage.
April through to September is just brilliant. I am an hotelier by trade, and so have always loved operating and working with the public. Being in front and basically selling people their dreams. You know you give them their gorgeous holidays by the sea and making their family memories for them. That’s great.
So summer is the highlight?
There is no greater pleasure then seeing somebody off from the Island after they have had a terrific day or a couple of days or a week, two weeks. Nothing gives us greater pleasure then when they say, “We’ll see you next year.”
But do you look forward to the end of season too?
Yeah. The high season is highly intensive, just because of the nature of the Island.
By the time you have had six months operating it’s about time to say, “Phew, that was great fun. Let’s pick up the pieces, clear the decks and think about some holidays and write a financial plan for the next year.”
It’s a chance to spend more time with the family?
Winter is a great time, you get a lot of time with the family. A hotelier in the real world is operating 12 months of the year.
Do you get many visitors at Christmas?
Our holiday cottages are open at Christmas and New Year and they are usually full.
Do all visitors arrive by boat?
Yes. We had about 81,000 on the ferry. On top of that we’ve got those people who visit on their own boat. That could quite easily see us top 100,000.
How many do you expect in 2011
Numbers are fairly static at the moment. They have been for the last few years.
A lot of people come back, which is highly encouraging. But we fully understand that our standards are something that we must keep up. Otherwise we could quite easily loose that market.
Imagine you are staying as a tourist. Where would you like to stay and why?
I would have one of the self catering holiday cottage. Then you have a choice of venues for eating, breakfast, lunch and dinner.
Are there any improvements being made to the accommodation?
We’ve done plenty this winter. We are refurbishing 23 of our bedrooms in the hotel. And we’ve done a lot in the holiday cottages in terms of replacing bathrooms and kitchens.
Is there still much work to do?
I think it is true to say that the previous owners were possibly winding down their expenditure on the Island over the last couple of years they were here.
John and Julia Singer have stated that they will put every penny of profit the island makes back into whatever projects we as a group of directors decide we are going to spend the money on that winter.
Have they been true to their word?
Absolutely, every penny. That’s how we were able to refurbish the 23 bedrooms this winter. We will do the balance of our bedrooms next winter.
Mr Singer has stated previously there isn’t any profit in the business. Do you actually make money?
Well, what he means is there won’t be any profits after we’ve spent them on renewals.
Everything needs to be perpetually renewed, that’s basically what he meant. Profit is not necessarily why John is here. He and Julia are here because they love the Island, and they love the lifestyle.
What’s the weather like?
We are a more temperate climate than the UK – about four or five degrees higher. We rarely get a frost, so we can grow a wider range of plants outside.
We can grow fruits and plants you would find in the likes of South African and New Zealand.
Are you still recruiting staff for the new season?
What are you looking for in a great new team member?
Exceptional customer service – and that is internal as well as external customers.
By that I mean a chef wouldn’t exactly see any customers, but interacts with a waitress.
If chef interacts with waitress, and the waitress is upset, that’s a problem when she is out in front.
Our staff need good social skills. We have 90 seasonal staff in close proximity to each other. They need a desire to learn to do things the way we want, although we value people who bring us new ideas and new skills.
Do the same staff come back year after year?
About 75 percent of staff are new. Most are travelling for a year, so they are not going to spend more than one season.
Where do they come from?
South Africa, Canada and Eastern Europe. We like a good mix of international staff
What are your goals for this year?
All our goals are based around not changing very much. We want the Island to retain its nature.
Our focus is on quality and encouraging people to come back.
You don’t have any resident visitors other than staff?
Are you using social media to attract more new visitors.
Yes. We have approaching 5,000 friends on Facebook. In the first week we hit a thousand, and the second week we were over two thousand, and it just went on and on and on. Now we can talk to 5,000 just by sending a brief message on Facebook.
Do you communicate on Facebook everyday?
Do you offer special themed weekends?
Yes. Murder mystery, yoga and ghost hunting weekends. They start in the Spring. We also have a large number of literary events this year, with authors talking about their work. A meal is included.
Are phones and clocks really banned?
Well no, guests are able to bring a mobile phone.
So you can use mobile phones?
And can guests wear a watch?
Yes. But the idea is that you are here to turn off from all of the realities of the outside world. So we don’t provide television, clocks or telephones.
How strict is that rule?
If guests want to bring and order a newspaper we will do that for them, no problem at all. We like to give people the ability to make the choice.
Is there Wi-Fi?
Yes, they can keep up with what’s happening in the world as well and watch last night’s East Enders.
Would you have a problem if somebody was watching a TV program on a laptop
I would rather that they didn’t do it in the lounge, but in their bedroom, no problem at all.
At the end of the day we all have to accept that it is people’s holiday and they want to choose what they can do.
Do guests enjoy having no TV?
Yes, it actually gets people talking to one another. They sometimes make life-long friendships, just by coming to the same hotel at the same period of time each year.
Do you get many celebrities?
Cliff Richard. The newsreader Kenneth Baker was here a couple of years ago. They get treated exactly the same as anybody else, and generally, they like it like that.
When did you last have a good summer?
I think every year we have elements of a good summer. June and July can be absolutely awesome.
So June and July are they the best months to come?
Well last year June was astounding. It was just gorgeous. August wasn’t quite so good.
I don’t think anywhere in the British Isles you are going to get four months of pure sunshine. But most years we get a pretty good summer.
What accommodation can you offer?
Hotel, cottages and camping. Three very different types of accommodation means we can appeal to three very different kinds of market.
Have you ever camped out on the Island?
No, never been in a tent in my life.
Which is quite amazing as I am responsible for two campsites.
I do prefer the comforts of a hotel room. But that is only me personally we have a huge amount of people who love camping. Our campsites are gorgeous.
What are the views like from the campsite?
Get up at 6am and the sun is rising over France. You just see this long shadow of sun straight across the water. I have been there for sunrise to see it.
Do you have any all season pitches?
Yes, we have 51. They will set up in April and take their tents down in September.
Do they stay for the whole season?
Not, usually they are residents in Guernsey. They will come at weekends and holidays throughout the season. There is nobody that stays for the whole season. But their tents do, obviously.
Do you make use of the overflow field very much in the peak, July to August?
Yes July and August, it’s pretty much full.
What’s your total amount of pitches including the overflow?
And that’s across the two isn’t it?
Across the two campsites yeah.
How do you deal with noise?
Quite easy. Radios are banned.
It’s peaceful on the campsite…unless the guy in the tent is snoring really. There is not a lot we can do about that.
What’s it like living with your boss?
It’s fine. I can give him a quick call and I can be round at his house and I will see him for five minutes have a cup of coffee, discuss the thing and getting the business done. Where else can you do that?
So no problems?
I think it is of tremendous benefit. We are all heading in the same direction. If there is anything that you want to talk about you can do it really quickly by having the chairman just around the corner.
How often do you meet?
We have a board meeting each month. As a board we also get together and have breakfast every Tuesday, just keeping in direct communication about how we are doing.
Fry up or cornflakes?
Ranges from a cup of coffee to whatever you want.
Where do you go on holiday?
We have recently been cruising. I quite liked Las Vegas, which I went to in November. A variety of different styles of holiday and a variety of different experiences really.
© Hotels on Water