CAR visits a world without cars (CAR magazine, April 2010)

Published: 05 July 2012

The rules are simple: staying in the company of your car, just how far can you travel in one 24-hour period? Cape Wrath? Oslo? Bantry Bay? Sarajevo? It’s an adventure I’ve been itching to talk the entire staff of CAR into having a stab at.

Then again, forget it. I’ve already won. Because in the last 24 hours I’ve travelled all the way back to… the Middle Ages.

Welcome, then, to the feudal landscape of Sark, a diminutive dog-end of a Channel Island just three miles long and one-and-a-half wide on which, over 100 years since the invention of the internal combustion engine, cars are still banned.

Actually, let’s shoot that one in the foot from the off. It isn’t illegal, perversely, to own a car on Sark, merely to drive it on the roads. So, as a resident, there’d be nothing untoward in me fulfilling my personal ambition of using a Ferrari 365 GTB/4 as a dining room table, but driving it home from the harbour would instantly land me in the island’s solitary prison cell.

But what about small electric cars? Could we take one second-generation electric drive Smart Fortwo and, for the first time since a lone van trundled hither and thither during the German occupation, talk the good burghers who govern Sark into allowing a car ashore?

‘But it’s completely silent and eco-friendly and really small and you’d barely notice,’ I grovel to anyone who’ll listen. Fat chance. Truth is, standing disconsolately on the jetty at St Peter Port in Guernsey, it becomes rapidly apparent that the Sark ferry caters strictly for foot passengers, and that our toy Porsche photo prop is the only four-wheeled transport we’ll get onboard.

Moreover, even if we could somehow shackle the Smart to the good ship Sea Chunder and splosh it across the 45 minutes of choppy oggin that separates Sark from its senior sibling, there’s no discernible way of getting it ashore.
Jammed into the foot of the 300ft cliffs that almost entirely encircle the island, the harbour jetty’s no longer than a hitch-hiker’s thumb and the tidal range is so massive that it’s a surprise not to find a hospital crash-trolley installed halfway up the vertiginous, algae-slick, octogenarian-decimating stairway.

Now, I can’t remember who once described the game of golf as ‘a good walk ruined’, but – tumbling out of the tractor-drawn carriage which mercifully spares visitors the luggage-laden lather of the longest, steepest hill in Christendom – one glimpse of a ramshackle, more-tired-than-quaint village centre teeming with endless shoals of orienteering aficionados calls to mind, rather, a good ruin walked.

‘There are many ways to experience this island of infinite variety,’ schmoozes the tourist brochure. Bollocks. Like it or not, those that run Sark remain stolidly determined to get medieval on your arse. So you have the choice of exploring on foot, bicycle, horse-drawn carriage or, er, that’s it. The latter aside, the only other way to get around Sark without expending energy is to die and have six chums carry you in your coffin.

In the land of the blind the one-eyed man is king, so, surely, one horsepower is better than none at all? Wrong. I’ve always considered horses to be dangerous at both ends and uncomfortable in the middle, but carriage driver Ann Rive’s horse, Hugo, takes the biscuit. Ordered to ‘walk on’ he does rocket to cruising speed with admirable alacrity. Trouble is – with bouts of flatulence accompanying every footfall in the manner of the elderly tackling stairs – that corresponds to 2.5mph.

For the next two hours – chatting about island history with Rives whilst peering over precipices at beaches you’ll only ever reach by accident and return from in a rescue helicopter – we suffer the indignity of watching professional walkers boasting legs like a pair of tights stuffed with melons smearing gaily past in the outside lane.

As I may have mentioned, Sark has a feudal history, and, until very recently, that’s how things remained. Presiding over the island’s equivalent of parliament, Chief Pleas, the seigneur, ruled the roost. Lording it very much like a medieval baron, he was the only person on the island allowed to keep pigeons or female dogs (even today, other islanders must have their bitches spayed), and was entitled to take possession of, for instance, your 13th chicken, 13th bag of grain and a 13th of the value of any property sold on the island. Nor did he have to wait to take possession of your 13th daughter; he still has, in theory, droit de seigneur, with which jus primae noctis is traditionally synonymous – the right to take the virginity of your bride.

With the mechanised hum of another world in absentia, Sark should be remarkably quiet. However, it turns out to be much the same deal for the ears as the pub is for the nose since the smoking ban: one, all pervasive pong being replaced by a deeply unsavoury blend of stale beer, BO and wind. Here, we’re talking mithering children, café music, the constant thrum of the island’s electricity generator, building site power tools and, predominantly, the island’s dirty little secret: 92 ancient tractors, each of which is noisier than a tin dustbin beaten with cricket bats and about as eco-friendly as a Top Fuel dragster.

Yet, despite the fact that Sark became a democracy in 2008, any contemplation of the introduction of electric vehicles has been vigorously shunned, and you may only use an electric bicycle or invalid carriage with a chit from the doctor, until you’re mended. Even the island medic has been refused a Land Rover, and must make do with a tractor sporting a small platform astern that houses one plastic patio chair for the transportation of the infirm. There’s room for two chairs, but the law forbids more than one person hitching a ride.

And it gets even dafter than that. Both the island fire engine and ambulance are tractor drawn, the latter a perfectly serviceable vehicle with the bonnet sawn off and engine removed. Furthermore, the law is so strict on the use of tractors solely for the purpose for which they were specifically licensed that Ann Rives got a bollocking the other day from one of the island’s two constables for having the temerity to pull over and lob aboard a hundredweight bag of dog food.

What interests me about Sark, however, is not the alleged tranquillity it offers tourists and a small population of 600, but the very real possibility that it provides a terrifying glimpse of a post-fossil fuel future wherein pricey, powered mobility is awarded only to those deemed in absolute need, long-haul travel is all but done and dusted, and communities automatically shrink to a self-serving, self-sufficient size with increasingly less contact with the outside world.

The reality is that Sark presents itself as a swan, gliding serenely along with little hint of the furious activity down below. Under the surface, meanwhile – much as we all undoubtedly will when finally denied personal transport – everyone on the island seems to be doing everything in their power to avoid walking, whilst the law does everything in its power to ensure they do.

At this point, as a procession of yoof-bearing, end-of-day tractors blasts by blatantly homing in on The Mermaid pub, my understanding of what, exactly, they’re trying to achieve on Sark hits a brick wall. With even the locals complaining about traffic (make that tractor) noise, the island has all but lost its car-free USP and tourism is very much in decline. Rives bemoans the demise of her trade, the 100-odd horse-drawn carriages that once supplemented the island’s 1500 bicycles having dwindled to just 18. Having forked out £50 to spend two hours being overhauled by gastropods, this is not, frankly, too much of a surprise.

Yet everyone I talk to automatically opines that the arrival of any car, even an electric Smart, constitutes the thin end of the wedge. Logic and practicality seem instinctively suppressed by a thoroughly ingrained belief system of a power to rival the church in medieval Europe. Chris Bateman, chairman of the Sark Road Traffic Committee and local store manager (it seems everyone on Sark must have at least three jobs and dabble in politics), struggles to shed any light. He, like everyone else, is happy to discuss the ‘problem of tractor regulation’ at length, whilst simultaneously letting on that he considers a John Deere to be ‘rubbish’ when stacked up against a good old Massey Ferguson.

He doesn’t, however, seem entirely closed to a future in which the electric car holds sway on Sark, worrying only that his children won’t hear them coming. And indeed, it appears that, under the increasing influence of the reclusive Barclay brothers, this is one possible future.

Tax-haven snug in a vast mansion on the tiny island of Brecqhou a stone’s throw to the west, the brothers are taking an ever increasing interest in both business and politics on Sark. Much of the recent increase in tractor traffic may be attributed to the building projects they’re funding, including the newly completed hotel in which we are to kip tonight. And, following a rejection of all their representatives in the 2008 elections, a subsequent, carefully crafted charm offensive has awarded them an ever burgeoning influence in local government.

Chris believes the Barclays foresee a future for Sark that does drag the island, kicking and screaming, at least some way into the 21st century; think Portmeirion with cobbled streets, electric cars and, of course, some 600 prisoners. Though this prospect has deeply divided the island’s population, it’s hard to see what would be so wrong with it. If nothing else, it wouldat least shut the ruddy tractors up and return Sark to the tranquillity for which it’s famous.

And as I discover, pottering enthusiastically round Guernsey the next morning, Sark could do a deal worse than open its shores to the electric Smart. Denied mobility via anything other than now gently aching muscle-power for 24 hours, I suddenly find the Smart to be something of a grin. Stop thinking of it in the context of a car to provide driving enjoyment and consider it merely as a lithium-ion battery-powered comfy chair, and it’s great – air conditioning, sat-nav, a stereo, a lid to keep the rain off. It’s also considerably quicker than Hugo, more than holding its own amidst Guernsey’s 35mph traffic for a quoted range of about 60 miles.

Relatively small communities such as Sark could, then, provide the ideal proving ground for experiments in future mobility, island status neatly reflecting the increasing isolation of each pocket of civilisation from the next that – once we’ve wrung the last drops of oil from the feathers of Louisiana pelicans – must, surely, be inevitable.

And until we come up with an alternative boasting genuine long-range credentials, that future looks to feature the electric car. Big time. Driving in itself may not prove so much fun anymore, but gliding silently past the stricken 2CV with the ‘Nuclear Power – Nein Danke’ sticker on the bumper and refusing the stranded occupants a lift should, at least, raise a smile.


By Anthony ffrench-Constant

Contributing editor, architect, sentence constructor, amuse bouche