Scrabbling around in a bush at 11pm wearing wellies and a head torch is not how I thought I’d be spending my Saturday evening, but since arriving in Alderney nothing had been as expected.
I’m just about to call it a day and go back to the hotel when I find what I came here for. Spikey, small and unmistakably fair-haired; the renowned blonde hedgehog of Alderney.
Thanks to a lack of badgers, foxes and stoats, the tiny mammal has no natural predators on the island and so has been able to thrive. With cream-coloured spines – a product of recessive genes – and pink noses, they really are odd to behold, and very cute.
“Many locals leave out food and water for the little visitors. We’re incredibly fond of them,” adds Gauvain.
The blonde hedgehog is just as peculiar as the island it inhabits. At just one and a half miles wide and three miles long, you could be mistaken for thinking Alderney – perhaps lesser known than its Channel Island neighbours, Jersey and Guernsey – has little to offer. But you’d be wrong.
It has a lot of character and history for its stature, from glorious white-gold beaches and stunning cliff paths to the quaint shops and restaurants in the centre of “the town”, that being St Anne.
I’m immediately struck by the lack of traffic lights. Surely, without this basic infrastructure – there are also no roundabouts – there’s chaos on the roads?
“Time runs a little slower here,” says Tracey Farquhar-Beck, group director at The Blonde Hedgehog hotel and one of the island’s 2,000 inhabitants. “Its very safe. The speed limit is 35mph and everyone adheres to it.
“Kids play outside and there’s no crime. I think the longest traffic jam I’ve been in was 10 minutes and that was because I was stuck behind a horse rider.”
The island also has its own heritage railway. The Alderney Railway is 150 years old, its first passengers Queen Victoria and Prince Albert. Diesel locomotives pulling two former London Underground carriages run from the harbour up the scenic north coast and back again.
But it’s bird-spotters rather than train-spotters who are most intrigued by Alderney. With more than 300 British and European species recorded on the island, as well as unparalleled views of seabird colonies, this is one of the best places to bird-watch in the British Isles.
Binoculars in hand, I head out to make use of the many bird hides dotted across the island – including the Longis and Mannez hides on the Longis Nature Reserve, as well as the restored bunker in Val du Saou, where swallows nest in spring.
Given the weather (wet and windy) I don’t see much, but on kinder spring and autumn days you might be lucky enough to spot honey buzzards and black kites, while summer and winter still offer the opportunity to spot breeding birds and some uncommon passers-by, including streaked fantail warblers and golden oriole.
Between March and July, boats ferry visitors out to the uninhabited island of Burhou to view puffins. I am impressed by the enormous gannet colony off the south-west coast, as much by their powerful smell as by their numbers.
Though small, Alderney lays claim to enough gorgeous beaches to fill a week-long visit. The main strand, Braye, is just a few minutes from the harbour, where Braye Beach Hotel’s seafront terrace is ideal for sundowners and local favourite Braye Chippy dishes out superlative fish and chips.
Saye, at the north-east end of the island, is more remote and incredibly tranquil, although the island’s one ice-cream van visits in high season. White Arch in the north may be the smallest beach but it’s sheltered and calm – and I’m fairly sure I can see a seal enjoying its secluded waters in the early morning.
Though part of the Bailiwick of Guernsey, Alderney – the northernmost Channel Island – is in fact closer to Normandy, which is just eight miles away. As with the other islands, it was the only part of the British Isles to be occupied by German forces between 1940 and 1945.
“Most of the families here have stories passed down through generations about the evacuation, while others have fascinating anecdotes about staying behind on an island filled suddenly with Germans,” explains Gauvain.
“Many of the Nazi military zones and inland sites are still visible, including the newly reopened Odeon, which offers visitors a glimpse at what life would have been like during that period – as well as amazing views across the water to France,” he adds.
Another fascinating historic site is the neolithic burial chamber, Roc à l’Epine near Fort Tourgis that dates as far back as 4,000BC, as well as a 4th-century Roman mini-fort.
After a long day exploring, I wander down the high street in St Anne which is refreshingly lacking a single restaurant chain or a luminous supermarket sign. Instead, there are farm shops with milk bottle refill stations, pubs that could have jumped straight out of a Dickens novel, old-fashioned sweet shops and a tiny cinema.
I can’t help but think back to Farquhar-Beck’s first words to me. Time does run a little slower in Alderney.
Aurigny operates 15-minute flights from Guernsey, or 25-minute flights from Southampton, aurigny.com
In summer it’s also possible to catch the ferry from Poole to Guernsey, and then another 60-minute ferry on to Alderney, channelislandferry.com
The Blonde Hedgehog is a recently restored public house in St Anne. It has cosy rooms and a standalone cottage, beautiful gardens, cinema room and an excellent restaurant. Double rooms start at £190, blondehedgehog.com