Jersey is a sporty island and lays on challenges of its own every year - and none comes tougher than its unique circular double marathon, the 48-mile Itex Around Island Walk.
I can’t be certain – after all, it was 2am on a wet and windy mid-June morning and I was still barely awake and may well have been hallucinating. But I swear I saw a man-sized White Rabbit in the throng of over 1,000 people milling around St Helier’s Elizabeth Quay Ferry Terminal at the start of the 21st Itex Around the Island Walk.
Most people appeared to be dressed in sensible walking shoes, shorts and the purple tee-shirt which advertised the fact that they were setting out on the 48-mile marathon. And unlike the anxious, watch-tapping character from Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, they didn’t appear to be too worried about being late: after all, the walk didn’t start until 3am.
The Itex Walk was described to me as ‘an island institution’ by Paul Marett, MD of the Jersey-based information technology management company that organises and sponsors the walk in association with Rotary de la Manche. Each year it gets bigger and better, attracting not just islanders but visitors keen to take up the Itex challenge.
As I set out on the first leg along the south-east coast I had Jersey’s Lieutenant General Sir Andrew Ridgway, no less, for company. ‘If David Cameron wants to see how the Big Society works, he should come to Jersey,’ announced Sir Andrew as we marched along the harbour wall. ‘There’s a wonderful community spirit here, reflected in the turnout, the army of supporters at the checkpoints, and in the money raised.’ The figures are indeed impressive: by last year (2011), the total raised for nearly 120 local charities had topped £1.5 million.
‘I’m absolutely in awe of these people who turn out for the walk,’ he told me as I manfully tried to keep up with him. ‘I can tell you, 48 miles in 24 hours would be tough enough for any serviceman, let alone ordinary people.’
At the start I had bumped into the incredible ex-postman Don Smith, now in his 82nd year, who had been the oldest finisher for a record four years. ‘Being a postman was good training,’ he admitted, ‘but it’s all good fun and raises a lot of money.’ He then set off with a cheery ‘See you later, folks!’
The first stage of the walk took us along Jersey’s strange tidal ‘moonscape’ (unusually, the tide here goes out for miles) to La Rocque on the south-eastern tip of the island. Next came Grouville Bay and the breakfast stop in the village of Gorey, where the legendary Itex bacon butty breakfasts were served.
Out on the road again, the route skirted the wide, open waters of St Catherine’s Bay before reaching the place where it all began in 1991, when 15 brave souls met up at the local pub tucked away on Rozel Bay. The crazy idea was aired here by Paul Owen, then MD of Itex. Paul, a keen walker, suggested the idea of a round the island charity walk to some friends. ‘My bluff was called,’ he admitted. ‘But we raised £1,500 on the first walk, which meant that for every walker, £100 came in.’
From Rozel the walk really gets into its stride. Jersey’s north coast is wild and rugged – the only way to get up close to the scenery is on the coast path that climbs and dips between granite cliffs and sheltered bays. Just after Bouley Bay the sun made a welcome appearance, and it was there to greet us – along with a five-star welcome – at Les Fontaines Tavern, the halfway point of the walk. At the checkpoint in the large marquee opposite the pub I met Andrew de Groucy, pastor of the Freedom Church of St Helier, who explained that his 400-strong church has always been a keen supporter of the walk. ‘But we’ve pulled out all the stops this year, with live music, a masseur and footbaths for the walkers, in addition to the traditional homemade cakes and drinks.’
When I arrived, professional masseur Frances O’Connor from the Hotel de France in St Helier was working on a hamstring problem in Carl Appleton’s right thigh. ‘I’m a keen cyclist, but this is the first time I’ve done the walk and the leg is seizing up a bit,’ said Carl. ‘But I’ve never had to walk 24 miles for a massage before!’
Frances was assisted by junior doctor Arun Sriskantharazah from the Jersey General, while his colleague Anthony Mak, complete with shades and microphone, was belting out a Billy Ocean number to the assembled walkers. ‘I guess I’m just not cool enough for that,’ grinned Arun.
The next ‘patient’ was St Helier-based HSBC worker Hannah Eriksson from Gothenburg in Sweden, who was doing the walk with her brother and nephew who had flown over specially. Hannah was suffering from enormous blisters on her feet, but Frances and Arun soon had her patched up.
By general consensus, the next section of the walk between Les Fontaines and Grève de Lecq along Jersey’s fabulous north-west coast is the most spectacular, and we saw it at its best in glorious sunshine. The route headed towards the granite headland of Ronez, Jersey’s northernmost point, then towards the black-and-white lighthouse on the rocky promontory of Sorel Point. From here, the path plunged through slopes of purple foxgloves and heather to the deep La Mourier Valley.
Then came more high points, quite literally: three miles of thrilling cliff walking, passing through the National Trust property of Le Col de la Roc. Soon, I was at the top of the steep, hairpin-cornered lane of Le Chemin du Catel looking down into the perfectly formed sandy cove of Grève de Lecq with its 18th-century barracks and fortifications.
Here I was astonished by the extraordinary sight of people walking backwards, both up and down the steep lane. Those walking backwards downhill were easily explained by the acquired relief for crushed toes in ill-fitting shoes. The lady who was walking backwards uphill remains a mystery…
After the island’s north-west extremity at Grosnez, marked by a mysterious ruined castle (and more sensational views, this time towards Guernsey) came the toughest part of the walk. St Ouen’s Bay takes a huge bite out of Jersey’s windy west coast. And, believe me, it also takes a lot out of Itex walkers. The seven-mile trudge along its thigh-sapping sands became a blur as each walker escaped into a private hell.
At least we had a goal on which to focus: the south-western headland and lighthouse of La Corbière, an iconic island landmark that heralded the start of our last lap, albeit another gruelling nine miles around St Brelade’s Bay and St Aubin’s Bay back to St Helier.
‘Why do people put themselves through this torture every year?’ I asked Paul Marett. ‘There’s a lot of giving in Jersey,’ he explained, ‘People put a lot of heart and a lot of time into the walk, and it’s important they know that every penny raised goes purely to local charities.’
They are local heroes, one and all.