Massive upright stones which form the walls of the passage within La Houge Bie chambered cairn

The medieval chapel built on top of La Houge Bie chambered cairn. Below can be seen the entrance to the prehistoric chambered cairn


Mention Jersey and many people's minds turn to rich tax exiles with large yachts, duty-free merchandise, and even the popular TV series 'Bergerac', with John Nettles in his notorious burgundy red Triumph Roadster open top vintage sports car.

However, like most islands of any size, Jersey has been occupied for many thousands of years. According to the Societe Jersiaise, the main historical and archaeological society of the island, it was first inhabited 125,000 years ago!. It is home to a number of prehistoric sites such as the dolmens of Couperon, Mont Grantez, Mont Ube and Faldouet. Also the menhirs (large standing stones similar to those found in Brittany) of Blanches Banques, close to St Ouen's Bay. Probably the finest prehistoric site on the island is the chambered cairn at La Houge Bie.

Chambered cairns were constructed around 6000 years ago, and can be found from the western coast of Spain right up to the Orkney Isles. They were built by a sophisticated culture familiar with fishing, hunting, and basic agriculture, whose belief system was directly connected with the Goddess, and also the seasons and the passage of the sun throughout the year. Some of the more familiar chambered cairns are at Bryn Celli Dhu on Anglesey, Newgrange, in County Meath, Ireland (possibly the best-known of all), and Maes Howe on The Orkney Isles. A number of these massive constructions were built so that the long passage leading to the interior chamber wes exactly in line with the rising sun on the Winter Solstice. The belief was that the sun's rays symbolically fertilised the Earth Mother on this day, ensuring an abundant season for the coming year. There may well have been other symbolic rituals involved in this Winter Solstice orientation of the cairn, including rites of passage to the Otherworld for the deceased. At Newgrange chambered cairn there is a separate aperture above and in line with the entrance, which allows the rays of the rising sun on the Winter Solstice to shine down the passage and illuminate the innermost chamber.

It should be noted that the earliest historic evidence for Celtic tribes dates from c.750 BC in Eastern Europe. Chambered cairns exist in most of the Celtic countries but the constructions themselves pre-date the Celts by at least 3000 years. Though they were, and still are, a feature in the Celtic lands it is not known whether the Celts themselves continued to use them. Being in their immediate vicinity it would seem highly likely that they did. Jersey also has Celtic sites from the Iron Age and early Christian era, the latter being mainly remains of small chapels built by the seafaring Irish monks or their descendants.

La Houge Bie was built almost 6000 years ago, and the location is spectacular. The origins of the name are uncertain, but the 'Houge' may well have come from the old Norse word 'Haugr', meaning mound or eminence. It is situated on the East side of the island, not far from the prehistoric dolmen of Faldouet. The entrance passage is 33 ft in length, constructed of large upright stones roofed with massive cover stones (see picture). This passage leads to the Great Chamber, from which there are three smaller side chambers. The whole structure is covered with a massive mound of earth and rubble, which even today is 40 ft high, so would originally, before weather erosion, have been considerably higher. On the summit is a chapel which at first sight seems to be a single building, but actually consists of two buildings of considerably different ages, one attached to the other.

The two chapels are known as the chapel of Notre Dame de la Clarte, and the Jerusalem chapel. The former, by its basic architectural style is probaly late 12th century, while the latter was bult in the early 1500's by one Dean Mabon, after his return from a pilgrimage to the Holy Land.. Dean Mabon, it is said, attracted meny pilgrims to La Houge Bie by performing phoney miracles in this chapel.

La Houge Bie has a strange twist to its history, and must rate as a chambered cairn with one of the longest time-spans of ocupation. In 1949 Jersey surrendered to the German army, and one place that the Germans chose to construct a hidden concrete shelter was actually on the edge of the mound of La Houge Bie. Whether through superstition, impracticality, or respect, the actual entrance passage and central chamber were never touched or used by them, the shelter being dug out of the earth fairly close by. Likewise an observation tower was constructed on a wooden platform against the chapels on the summit, yet the chapels were left undisturbed. In 1945 the German army surrendered, and tens of thousands of tons of warfaring equipment were removed from the site. Who knows, maybe the energies of La Houge Bie gave a hand in the protection of the island...?

Immediately after the German occupation the site was again opened to the public, and many thousands of visitors have once again returned to the ancient site. The only slightly odd thing is that the concrete bunker has been turned into a museum displaying relics of the occupation, which presumably still attracts tourists but certainly isn't an integral part of the atmosphere of the original site, which is what many folk come to see and experience.

The new ferry service from Wemmouth to Jersey is reasonably rapid, and on the island, as well as the chambered cairn of La houge Bie, there are the dolmens and menhirs mentioned previlously for enthusiasts of ancient sites to visit and pay their respects to. Jersey - an island with perhaps a rather superficial veneer beneath which is a fascinating and very tangible ancient history to explore and experience.

- © David James