What a funny little island this is. What a curious, luminous, blusteringly beautiful speck of a place. Alderney is the Channel Island that no one has heard of. It is not the biggest one, or the smallest, or the one with famous cows or without any cars. Alderney is the beguiling one. The one you lose your heart to. It is like joining a secret society, flying here in a tinpot 12-seater, buffeted by every breeze. Three square miles, just off France – yet so much space, so much drama in its coastline, heart-skippingly beautiful beaches around every corner. The light! The colour! The sea is kingfisher blue. They say the waters flow all the way from the Caribbean on the Gulf Stream, accounting for the exotic shells along the shore, the dolphins and basking sharks who come for the sunny microclimate (islanders take a dip on New Year's Day). Summer lasts forever here, or seems to. It is not like Britain at all. (It is not, actually, Britain at all.)
My mother came here in the 1960s on family holidays. How my grandparents heard of it, nobody knows. It took them a full day at sea on an old tramp steamer, all their summer stuff wrapped up in a five-pound note. They stayed in a wooden shack, ramshackle with paper-thin walls, which is exactly the kind of detail a teenage girl with a 10-year-old brother – my uncle, now the island's doctor – would remember. They fell in love with Alderney. The wildness of it, the emptiness. The white-gold beaches: Arch and Saye, Corblets and Braye, not a soul on them.
Alderney remains remarkably unchanged. A land out of time. There is a refreshing guilelessness about the place, a harking back to smashing hols of beach cricket, Enid Blyton adventuring and sand-in-cheese sandwiches. The gentle town of Saint Anne has everything it needs and nothing more. No chain stores; not even a Boots. A butcher, a baker, a fishing-net-maker. A charming and eccentric French-English mix: a grocer called Arkwright et Fils ('Ne pas ouvrir toutes heures'). Breton stripes and buckets and spades. Fish and chips – and Champagne.
It's not that the islanders wouldn't welcome hipsters and single-origin coffee, just that a sockless brogue wouldn't work on the sand and cobblestones. If a man has a big beard on Alderney, he's a fisherman. You know where you are with this kind of man.
Kids with sea-tangled hair ride barefoot in the back of weathered wooden pick-ups. There are few road rules, fewer seat belts. My uncle's banger grows lichen inside and out, its one remaining wing mirror stuck on with Polyfilla. We bounce over potholes, the car filled with sandy children, the baby on my lap in the front. On my lap! In the front! No seat belts!
'I'm not actually sure this is safe,' says my cousin Beckie, as she steers us across a high narrow bridge into Fort Albert. Like a dozen other forts on Alderney it was built by Victorians, reinforced by Germans, and is now derelict. Hidden tunnels and wartime relics are everywhere – with a dark history, for those interested in knowing those kinds of things. Sometimes to not know is better.
We trip, we skip, we run carefree and unknowing, to the sea. To the Dougie, the quay where braver souls do backflips at high tide, to launch ourselves one-two-three into the air, suspended in time for a moment before plunging into cold, deep blue. To the lighthouse, through sun-cream-scented gorse and blackberry bushes, our fingers stained purple from picking; following the railway track, making our sandalled way over wildflowers growing up between the sleepers, knowing the next train is not for days. And to Arch Beach, pale and perfect as a fingernail, where even in August ours are the only footprints in the sand, as empty today as when my mother turned cartwheels along its shore.