Occasionally you read a novel populated by such delightfully vivid characters, you forget they aren’t your actual friends. You turn the last page and look up, dazed and confused, wondering why you’re alone with nothing but a stone cold cup of tea and a onesie for company. How can you possibly go back to real life after this book, you wonder? How can you leave them all behind? And thus begins the bittersweet book hangover.
Mary Ann Shaffer’s The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society is one of those novels. Written with warmth and humor as a series of letters, it is a celebration of the written word in all its guises, and of finding connection in the most surprising ways.
Laugh out loud funny and heartbreakingly moving in equal measure, the book actually came about when its American author found herself stranded on Guernsey as a heavy fog descended during her spontaneous trip to the island in 1976. Although the novel is fiction, the places mentioned – and the wartime German occupation of Guernsey – is very real.
Ever the roving literary adventurers, join us as we journey across the English Channel to explore the same locations that inspired Mary Ann Shaffer to write this lovely book.
We’ll have you back before your tea break is over, okay?
In the book, we know that Dawsey Adams, Juliet Ashton’s first contact with the island, works at the bustling St Peter Port Harbour unloading ships. In between loads, he reads books and writes letters over a cup of tea. In January of 1946, Juliet receives such a letter from Dawsey, a founding member of The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel society.
And so begins the story. Stand in the harbour for a moment or two and image Dawsey – back to a shipping crate and pen and paper in hand – scribbling the very first letter that would eventually pique Juliet’s interest enough to bring her to Guernsey.
If you travel from England, Jersey or France, you’ll share the same first glimpse of the island Juliet had, with its gently bobbing fishing boats and orderly rows of houses stacked along hills.
St Peter Port
Next, head to the town centre – Fountain Street, High Street and Guernsey Market. Mentioned often in the novel, this is where the likes of Will Thisbee, creator of the first potato peel pie, and Isola Pribby, vegetable and herb vendor, lived much of their daily lives.
The pretty capital town of St Peter Port is a lovely place to spend an afternoon. So lovely, in fact, it’s almost impossible to imagine uniformed German soldiers striding around during the Second World War. But that’s exactly what happened. From 1940 - 1945, the Channel Islands were the only British territory to be occupied by Germany.
“Oh, there were hundreds of German soldiers – and they were SHOPPING! Arm in arm they went strolling along Fountain Street.”
Swastikas were painted on the houses, a strict curfew was imposed, cars were requisitioned, food produced by local farmers or fishermen was confiscated and any British born islanders were sent to concentration camps in Germany. Of course, in the book, while the German authorities strangled every aspect of life in this charming little town, The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Society were quietly fighting back.
“The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society came into being because of a roast pig we had to keep secret from the German soldiers...”
The Old Town Hospital
Just off the High Street, you’ll come to the old hospital – now a police station – where Elizabeth volunteered in the book. You can easily imagine her rushing through the arched, iron gates in her starched, 1940s nurse’s uniform to treat the ailments of her fellow islanders during the occupation.
“There wasn’t enough soap in Guernsey to keep clean,” Sally Ann Frobisher tells Juliet. “Everyone had a skin disease of some sort. Eventually, Dr Ormond said I must go to Town Hospital and have my head shaved.”
Once you’ve explored the historic nooks and crannies of the town centre, visit the Little Chapel, the tiny church beautifully decorated with seashells, pebbles and coloured broken china that Dawsey takes Juliet to see.
The German Underground Hospital
Nearby, the German Underground hospital is a fascinatingly eerie remnant of the German occupation of Guernsey. At 7,000 square metres, the underground hospital was hewn out of solid rock by slave workers who had been captured by the German forces during the occupation of the island. Some of the Society’s characters make heartbreaking attempts to hide such slaves in the book and, entering the haunting and grim maze of underground tunnels, you can see why they risked their lives to do so.
“I know you have heard of Germany’s slave workers in camps on the Continent, but did you know that Hitler sent over sixteen thousand of them here, to the Channel Islands?” writes Amelia to Juliet.
St Martin’s Farm
It’s unusual to be able to visit a fictional character’s home, but thanks to the letters flying back and forth between Dawsey and Juliet, we know he lives at Les Vaux Laurens, La Bouvée, St Martin’s. It’s a beautiful walk amidst the rolling green hills and brisk sea air from Dawsey’s farmland to Eben Ramsey’s home, a fellow Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Society member, at Les Pommiers, Calais Lane, St Martin’s.
Walk until you reach the majestic south coast cliffs above Petit Port, where Elizabeth met Christian, the German soldier she would eventually fall in love with. It’s a beautiful setting; the kind of place that could wash away any fears of war, if only for an hour or two. Juliet enjoyed walking here in the book, describing the route as a "beautiful, a rugged path that wanders up and around the headland."
A journey by car to the West Coast will give you an idea of the lengths German soldiers went to when it came to fortifying their newly occupied territory. Forts, bunkers and numerous towering structures dominate the landscape and it’s an altogether different Guernsey to the one you’ve seen at St Peter Port. But, as the sun breaks beneath the clouds and sets the cliffs shimmering into silver, the cold, grey leftovers of the war are a stark reminder that sometimes ordinary people can do very extraordinary things.
Since the book’s publication in 2008, tourists have flocked to the island hoping to catch a glimpse of those people while feasting on a slice of Mary Anne Shaffer’s potato peel pie. And you do in a way.
Dawsey Adams, Amelia Maugery, Eben Ramsey, Will Thisbee, Isola Pribby and Elizabeth McKenna – and memories of people like them – are everywhere on Guernsey.
To set foot on their homeland is a literary journey you'll remember for a long, long time.