Sark -- a tiny 'kingdom' in the English Channel
Isle of Sark
I knocked on the heavy oak door of the seigneury and waited. Butterflies drifted lazily from blossom to blossom in the warm morning air, and on the closely cut lawns still glistening with dew, a dozen white doves breakfasted elegantly on plump grain. Was it only an hour ago that I was weaving my way through the confusion of traffic and din in St. Peter Port on the island of Guernsey?
The seigneur opened the door himself, unassuming in open-necked shirt and jeans, not the usual image for a head of state at all. But then Michael Beaumont is no ordinary head of state. His ''kingdom'' is the tiny Isle of Sark, lying 100 miles out in the English Channel and extending to a mere 1,300 acres. His ''subjects'' are 500 islanders who live under his benign influence, following a system of life almost unchanged since medieval times.
Mr. Beaumont's title of Lord of Sark has a lot of history to back it up. It originates from a decision made in 1565 by Queen Elizabeth I of England to lease the island in perpetuity to Helier de Carteret as a mark of recognition for his good work in colonizing the island. Apart from the annual payment of a nominal sum of 50 sols, the only proviso in the agreement was for the island to be occupied by 40 men loyal to the English crown. The island was consequently divided into 40 sections, each containing a stretch of cliff face to be defended if necessary by its tenant.
The original agreement still largely holds true. The island remains divided into 40 sections, though its defense is no longer the responsibility of the tenants; and Mr. Beaumont still sends the Queen an annual rent -- around (STR)l. 70.
Sark's independence is virtually complete. She has her own parliament, makes her own laws, imposes her own taxes when necessary, and runs her own economy -- and it seems to work.
The system is basically feudal, with the seigneur the sole proprietor, but the administration is run democratically, the passage of time having modified the total dictatorship possible under feudal law. The island's parliament is called the Chief Pleas and meets a minimum of three times a year in the island schoolhouse. Each of the 40 landholders on the island automatically has a seat in the Chief Pleas, a right that is hereditary. Another 12 members are elected by the populace, and presiding over them all is the seneschal, the island's major official. He is appointed by the seigneur for an initial three-year period , which may be extended indefinitely.
Without party politics dictating decisions, the welfare of the community becomes the sole criterion, and the uncomplicated structure of the administration dispenses with the usual red tape that bogs down the processes of larger countries. Of course the island's harmony does depend largely on the caring attitude of the seigneur and the wisdom of his choice of seneschal, but with one out of every 10 inhabitants a member of Parliament, few decisions can go against the popular will.
The whole system is refreshingly simple, the judicature perhaps too simple for many tastes. The seneschal has total control. He acts as judge and jury, with complete discretion of sentence, although there is a right of appeal to the Royal Court in Guernsey. Any offences that could result in jail sentences of more than 48 hours are automatically referred to the Royal Court -- a practical idea when your prison has only two small cells.
There is a two-man police force on the island, appointed by Chief Pleas. They have no uniform or special training, and carry on with their normal work, be it farming or fishing, until a crisis occurs.
In any case there are fewer laws to break on Sark than most places. Speeding offenses or careless driving are unheard of. The reason is not hard to find -- there are no cars on the island. There is no need, the islanders say, on an island the size of Sark.
The only modes of transport other than bicycle are horse and carriage and a restricted number of agricultural tractors. The result is an old-world charm without the pseudo feel of a tourist gimmick. Worthwhile bonuses are low road-maintenance costs and an unpolluted atmosphere.
Michael Beaumont is cognizant of the island's attractions. He is aware too of the difficult path the island is following. Tourism is Sark's bread and butter, but too many tourists would destroy the very facets that attract them in the first place -- the peace and beauty of a remote island.
To date, the island's constitution has managed to maintain a stable population with numbers virtually unchanged since 1821, and the economy is still afloat even if its tenets are less than orthodox. No unemployment benefits. No National Health Service. No minimum guaranteed wage. But no income tax either, no property tax, no purchase tax -- in fact, no significant taxes at all, other than a tiny tax four times a year imposed to help the island's elderly poor.
Nobody gets inordinately rich from working on Sark. Even the seigneur, who in title is monarch of all he surveys and the envied host to visiting dignitaries from kings and queens down, took a big drop in income when he left his job on the mainland. His remuneration today is a mere 1/13 part of any sale of property on the island, first claim on any flotsam or jetsam found along the coast, and a tax on every chimney in Sark, valued in pence today though once paid in chickens! Another strange perk of the job is right to keep an unspayed bitch and own a dovecote. The reasons for these prerogatives are more practical than doctrinaire.
To the visitor the island is cloaked in romance, and Mr. Beaumont is accustomed to overhearing idyllic eulogies spilling from enamored tourists who wander past him, as he sprays the roses incognito in the beautiful gardens of the seigneurie on a sunlit day. But his job is to see below the green blessed surface of the island, to watch the delicate balances and mechanisms that keep the machinery of the island in equilibrium. With watchful eye he adds a drop of oil here and there -- a word in the seneschal's ear, perhaps, or an unexpected appearance at a informal occasion -- diplomatic maneuvers that have the significance here of great decisions in the governments of world powers.
''We have our problems,'' he told me with a sigh, and for a moment I almost felt sorry for him. But as I left him with his attractive wife, wandering down through the lupins to feed the chickens, I had an impression that the burden of state affairs would not be so onerous as to necessitate a request to Her Majesty to be relieved of his inheritance as Lord of Sark. Practical information
Sark is not for those seeking the ''bright lights.'' Evening entertainment is almost nonexistent or on a very parochial level. But for those looking for a trip back in time in the most beautiful surroundings, it has a lot to offer. Book early. People tend to come back year after year, and often book their next holiday during their current stay. There are only five hotels and 12 boarding houses with a total of 250 beds between them. Full-board rates per day range from (STR)13.50-(STR)22.50 ($25-$41). For a different night out, have a meal at La Sablonerie, which offers excellent food, with the pleasure of a late carriage drive home through the narrow island lanes afterward.
There are also a handful of self-catering cottages. We stayed at Bel Air, clean and comfortable, costing around (STR)90-(STR)100 ($165-$183) a week for four.
There is no airport on Sark. Access from Great Britain is via the Channel Islands of Guernsey or Jersey, generally Guernsey. Air U.K. operates frequent flights from Gatwick and Southampton. Flight time is about 45 minutes. British Rail Sea Link runs car-ferry services from Weymouth and Portsmouth. However you travel, there is no direct route to Sark. You must change to a smaller boat for the final leg from Guernsey, either taking the launch (half-hour journey) or the slower, once-daily cargo boat (one hour, but more fun). Day-return fare, (STR)5 ($9).
The address of the Sark Tourist Office is easy to remember: Sark Tourist Office, Sark, Channel Islands. The tourist office will send a list of accommodations and any other information you need.