Summer News 2012

Though spring and early summer were wet and cool, and visitor numbers have been down, there has been much fine weather in July and August. In all weathers the Society has been active – read on.

Visitor Centre
The Toilet block (the old School pump house) has been attractively refurbished and the boiler replaced. Loss of storage space for our chairs will be made good by a new shed at the back, where a good deal of tidying up has been done and a fence round the paved area is planned. We are grateful to the Island Trustees and the Douzaine for these continuing improvements to the shared facilities. Tourism Officer Karen Adams has begun to put some of our news on the Island website, where there is now a link to ours.

Heritage Room
Jane Norwich’s gift of two portable, light-weight screens has enhanced our display space. These boards have been in constant use – when not borrowed for Jubilee celebrations or the Royal Visit. The Wi-fi provision has been improved and we have acquired a power protection unit. Recent donations include a microscope, a dozen books, old postcards, a comfortable chair for the Room minder. Two Sark paintings by naive painter Molly McCann have been re-framed by Lorraine Nicolle.

Sark RoocksFollowing publication of Felicity Belfield’s Sark Rocks, Dr Elizabeth Petrie arranged for us to receive a polarizing microscope from Dr Marian Holness at the Earth Sciences Department of Cambridge University. Four samples of Sark rock were sent off for thin-sectioning as a start to build a collection. Viewing these sections under polarized light is sometimes spectacular and we hope it will stimulate more interest in the study of Sark’s geology. Interpretation of the sections is highly technical and, fortunately, Marian Holness is helping us. On a family visit to Sark in August she also donated a number of student textbooks to our library. She took away our thin sections to take microscope photos and annotate them for exhibition. Currently we have a small Geology display that uses photos from Sark Rocks  and focuses on Sark’s dark dolerite and grey-green serpentine – the stones used to make the prehistoric tools and ornaments found in our recent excavations and displayed alongside.

The Jubilee Project
Some results of the Jubilee Project are on display and local interest has been growing steadily. Thanks to Sark Electricity we have a computer-generated map of tenements and other land holdings, keyed to the Cadastre (used by the Douzaine) in a new database of historical land usage. Other maps show agriculture and pasturage in 1945 and 2012. Maps from 1813, 1816 and 1845 show the location and sometimes the exact shape of the houses. Accompanying analysis of the Census of 1841 shows how many large families crowded into the buildings, and also the diversity of occupations (e.g. four shoemakers and an apprentice) on the island at the time Sark Mining Company operated.
Jane Norwich and Jenny Baker have combined material from the 20th-century censuses with old photographs, many from Richard Dewe’s collection, to illustrate the changing face of Rue du Moulin and its occupants from the Manoir to the Mill. Jane has made rapid progress transcribing the remaining Sark Censuses.
Susan Synnott has made maps of plant diversity in each kilometre square, using the work started by Roger and Psyche Veall. She has also prepared an exhibition of photographs of the wildflowers that have rapidly and colourfully colonised the new  path to Grande Grève in the year since the brush and brambles were cleared. Siân Bache and Richard Axton have started measuring the girths of Sark’s biggest trees; calculation of the likely year of their planting can sometimes be verified from historical evidence.

Your Council met on 24 August and set a date of 5 October for an open meeting to review the Jubilee Project and discuss what aspects to pursue next.
It was thought that an integrated study of the Eperquerie would be an excellent next step and would raise the profile of this unique place, where there are archaeological and conservation projects to be done. It was suggested that the Society might work with Chief Pleas and the Douzaine and that the Eperquerie is the most suitable part of Sark to be treated as a ‘conservation area’.
 Additionally, we considered a proposal by Jeremy LaTrobe-Bateman, outlining essential conservation of the stone tower (‘La Mer’) on the Eperquerie as part of Sark’s militia fortifications in the Napoleonic War. We thought the project should be under the aegis of the Douzaine, with joint public and private funding. We agreed that La Société would support the proposal by a donation and by offering practical assistance where needed.

Sark’s historic houses
18-20 May was one of the wettest of weekends but John McCormack was undaunted and indefatigable in driving forward our understanding and appreciation of Sark’s historic houses.  On all three days John led tours and, additionally, on Friday evening addressed a full Room. His well-illustrated talk on ‘The Sark House’ was characteristically lively and questioning. Friday’s route took in the Arsenal, the Manoir, St Peter’s, and after lunch the Mill and Petit Beauregard, to examine interior joists and fireplaces. Saturday took us from La Heche via La Forge tenement house and La Peigneurie to  Petit Dixcart, where Wendy and Christopher Harris showed us their sympathetic restoration work and the remains of the old pressoir. Finally to Grand Dixcart, historically one of Sark’s most prestigious houses, where the Woolfords and Magell families made the party most welcome. Sunday was wettest of all, but had the largest group, meeting at the Moinerie and sheltering from the rain to view the magnificent pre-Reformation stone fireplace in the dining room. We crossed the old mill dam to the snugness of l’Ecluse, and ended at La Seigneurie. After giving a full tour of the recent restoration of this interesting and puzzling house, Susan  Synnott treated us all to a splendid tea.
Later in the summer John made a further visit to check details of the houses in Little Sark and at La Ville Roussel.

Sir Barry Sir Barry Cunliffe and his Oxford team returned on 10th June for a fortnight’s excavation (their eighth in Sark). They resumed exploration of the Iron Age site in Edric Baker’s field north of the mill (where William Tanquerel found the Sark Hoard in 1719).  Conditions were ideal for digging, with frequent showers softening the ground and showing up stratigraphy. It was dry and bright on 20th June when more than fifty gathered round an impressive 15-metre trench to hear Barry talk about the excavation and its historical context.  Cumulative evidence of these digs, which have unearthed a huge quantity of stone tools and pottery, show that Sark has been inhabited for at least 8000 years. Barry sees the island as a ‘special place’ in the prehistoric world, at the centre of the Channel Island archipelago, a place renowned for its dolerite axes and grey-green serpentine whorls, an international attraction to visitors. The bronze for our Breton-style axes (c.1100 BC) was probably mined in the Alps, many of our coins are from eastern France, and the silver plaques of the lost Sark Hoard were beaten out in what is now Bulgaria. Much of the pottery is local but some is continental, as Sark lay on a trade route between Brittany and the south coast of England.
    This year’s trench revealed a part of the site occupied c.800-400 BC and marked by postholes, waste- and clay-pits, and hearths. Some stone hammers and axes were found, showing that their use lasted well into the Iron Age. There was a dense scattering of various pottery types and some perforated serpentine discs. Samples of charcoal have been taken back to Oxford for radio-carbon dating.
   Barry was full of praise for the warm welcome and local help he has had from diggers and pot scrubbers, and for the facilities at the Heritage Room. But it is we who should be grateful to have his eminent archaeology team doing such ground-breaking work in Sark.  
Generous donors have come forward to fund another summer’s excavation. It is planned to include a couple of pilot excavations at La Seigneurie to help determine the relation of the present buildings to the early monastic settlement.

Late summer has been a good time for raptors. There have been recent sightings of Honey Buzzard and Red-tailed Kite, in addition to the ‘usual’ Peregrines, Kestrels and Buzzards.

Richard Axton
6 September 2012