St Helier, Jersey

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St. Helier, Jersey

The capital of Jersey, St. Helier is a charming town with a vibrant foodie and shopping scene, and an ideal location from which to base your tour of Jersey and the Channel Islands.

The town was named after Hellerius, or St. Helier, a 6th century ascetic hermit. Hellerius’s pagan parents sought out St. Cunibert because they had struggled to conceive a child. Cunibert advised them to pray to God, and when they had a child, to hand him over to God, so he (Cunibert) could raise them in the Christian faith. However, after Hellerius’s birth, his father, the Saxon governor, came to resent the influence that Cunibert had over his son and killed Cunibert. Hellerius fled his parents, wandering what is now Normandy, joining monastic orders, but found nowhere that could provide the quiet he wanted for Christian contemplation.

Finally, he answered a call from the few inhabitants of Jersey (then known as Gersut or Agna) to protect them from – depending on who tells the tale – Vikings or Saxons, and bring them the gospel. In Jersey, Hellerius settled on a tidal island – now known as the Hermitage Rock – near today’s St. Helier, where he watched for invaders and (according to legend) starved himself for 13 years. Helier was eventually martyred by pirates, who beheaded him with an axe. Today, believers make a pilgrimage to the island every 16 July, while St. Helier is recognised as the patron saint of Jersey.

Elizabeth Castle, Saint Helier, Jersey, Channel Islands, UK.
Elizabeth Castle in low tide, St. Helier.

An Abbey of St Helier was founded on a tidal island adjacent to the Hermitage in 1155. Closed during the English Reformation, the site of the abbey became the island’s major fortress, Elizabeth Castle, established by the then-Governor of Jersey, Sir Walter Raleigh.

Elizabeth Castle remained in use as a fortress until 1923, when it was opened to the public as a museum. It was soon put into military use once again when Jersey was occupied by Germany during World War Two. The Nazis modernised the castle, and used Eastern European slave labour to rebuild its fortifications. Today the castle is again open to the public as a museum, accessible by foot at low tide and by boat at high water.

Until the end of the 18th century, St. Helier was only a small village. King George II gave 200 pounds to build a new harbour, bringing greater prosperity and population growth to the town, while St. Helier grew further in the 19th century with an influx of English residents. Reflecting its rapid growth during this period, the town today has a mostly Regency and Victorian Old Town, easily explored on foot. To explore this history head to the Georgian house at 16 New Street, now renovated and open to the public as a museum.

Today, over 33,500 people live in St. Helier, making it the biggest settlement in the Channel Islands. Though the port and city can get busy, the charming historic centre is easy to walk around and always full of life. Sights of interest in St. Helier include the Jersey Museum and Art Gallery, located in a restored 19th century merchant’s house, and the Jersey Maritime Museum and Occupation Tapestry Gallery. The Maritime Museum brings to life Jersey’s long connection to the sea, while the occupation tapestries are a moving reminder of the island’s sacrifice under Nazi occupation from 1940 to 1945.

St Helier
St Helier today

In recent years, St. Helier has emerged as something of a foodie hub. The city is home to two Michelin-starred restaurants as well as plenty of more affordable locations that offer menus based on local and seasonal produce.

Most of all, St. Helier is an ideal launching point from which to experience the beautiful coastal scenery of Jersey. As Jersey is only 8 km (5 miles) long and 14.5 km (9 miles) wide, it’s easy to drive from St. Helier to whatever hidden cove takes your fancy. A regular ferry service makes it easy to make a day tour of Guernsey from St. Helier.

Articles about the Channel Islands published by Odyssey Traveller:

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