Alderney is the Channel island no one’s ever heard of. Within the archipelago, Jersey, the largest, is famed for cult ’80s TV show Bergerac, and Guernsey has the cows that give us delicious dairy products famously high in butterfat. But Alderney is the secret sister – the Cinderella island that packs the prettiest white-sand beaches, an extraordinary military history, and diverse wildlife species into three square miles, just a 40-minute flight from Southampton.
That it has so far remained successfully on the down-low is largely because the island’s population of just 2,000 (including 100 second-home owners) has wanted it that way. But also because of the accommodation – or, more precisely, the lack of; until now, if you didn’t stay with a chum or rent a house, the only option was a room at one of the island’s clutch of Fawlty-esque, diced-grapefruit-and-a-maraschino-cherry-for-breakfast calibre hotels. However, this month Alderney is getting a contemporary shot in the arm, thanks to first-time hotelier Julie-Anne Uggla and The Blonde Hedgehog. “Don’t put your seat belt on!” says Uggla with a laugh as we speed away from Alderney’s tiny airport (which somehow doubles as a fire station) in her Jeep Wrangler. “There’s no law about wearing seat belts – or motorbike helmets, or getting an MOT for your car. It’s like a time warp, it’s so safe – kids can roam free and there’s no crime. There’s just one policeman.”
Born in Zimbabwe and brought up in Canada and Ireland, Uggla is a peripatetic entrepreneur and philanthropist who recently executive-produced her first film, The Flood, a drama about the refugee crisis starring Lena Headey. She’d been looking for a country home on the English coast to create a haven for her four children and two grandchildren, and happened upon Alderney by chance. “I was going to fly to Cornwall and go property hunting. My pilot said it was pouring with rain there, but there was blazing sunshine over a tiny island called Alderney just 30 minutes away. I’d never heard of it,” she says. Half an hour later she was wandering down the cobbled streets of the main town, St Anne: “I felt like I’d come home”.
Uggla doesn’t mess around. She flew back a week later and bought a house, thinking it needed a lick of paint and a new bathroom; turns out it was stuffed with asbestos and needed a total overhaul. And when she periodically returned to oversee the renovation project, there was nowhere decent to stay. Clearly there was a gap in the market. “So I decided to fill it.”
Eighteen months later, and The Blonde Hedgehog is open for business. Nine handsome rooms and suites are spread across two houses – one Victorian, the other Georgian – that sit side by side on a pretty street in St Anne. The spaces are cosy and familiar, with plenty of references borrowed from Soho House and The Pig hotels: a palette of country greens offset by jewel-coloured velvets, midcentury-style chairs, crittall showers and roll-top bathtubs. On the ground floor a marble-topped bar spills over into a 40-seat restaurant with raw-wood-topped tables, which itself opens out onto a pretty terraced garden. Across the main hall, a sofa-filled snug with a wood-burning stove is tailormade for curling up on a winter’s afternoon with a book and a cuppa. In the basement, a stone cellar unearthed during construction is now a cinema and games room. And over the road is a charming three-bedroom cottage, ideal for families.
The Blonde Hedgehog’s restaurant is also a game-changer. Until now, dining options on the island were limited, albeit delicious – fish and chips at Braye Chippy and local crab sandwiches at The Georgian House. But the arrival of Uggla’s chef, Matt Clarke, signals a new era. Trained at The Ritz, The Lanesborough and Atelier de Joël Robuchon, he’s elevating the island’s local produce with menus full of refined interpretations. Keen on a farm-to-fork concept, Uggla employed Sam Pycroft, a former chef for Robbie Williams and Bruce Springsteen, as head gardener, and within a year Pycroft has created an organic kitchen garden from scratch. The Blonde Hedgehog is also fully composting and plastic free, with the exception of the very covetable staff uniform of slim black trousers and white sweatshirt, made from recycled plastic by Riley Studio, Uggla’s daughter’s fashion brand. It’s been a family affair in other departments too; her other daughter Cassidy, a film producer, is overseeing marketing, while Cassidy’s sister-in-law, Charlie Horner, designed the hotel – “She’s been to my home, she knows what I like, so I wanted to give her this chance,” says Uggla.
Uggla is keen for her guests to fall for this hourglass-shaped island, so the hotel offers dialled-up access to a wealth of local experiences. The night I arrive, I meet local historian and author Trevor Davenport who promptly takes me to Fort Tourgis, one of 18 forts built during the reign of Queen Victoria in response to the French beefing up their military might at Cherbourg, just nine miles away. Because of its strategic position, Victoria decided Alderney needed both fortification and a protected harbour to defend the British coast. She and Prince Albert visited Alderney three times and were the first passengers on the island’s steam train in 1854 (it was pulled by horses, to ensure the Queen and Prince Consort weren’t left covered in soot).
We arrived at the deserted fort just as the sun was setting over the sea. There were cocktails on the gun battery followed by a fire-pit dinner of oxtail stew and garden greens, enjoyed under the shelter of the fort’s walls. As darkness fell, the near-total lack of light pollution afforded the stars a Vegas-worthy showcase. I was then handed over to Roland Gauvain, resident naturalist and head of the Alderney Wildlife Trust, and we charged off on a midnight safari in search of the hotel’s namesake: the rare blonde hedgehog. The story goes that in the 1960s, four hedgehogs (apparently bought at Harrods) were shipped to the island as pets, and then escaped; at least two of them had the blonde leucistic gene. Some 60 years and much prickly copulation later, there are around 1,000 of the animals roaming free on the island, of which 60 per cent are blonde; it’s the only place in the world to boast this genetic anomaly.
Head torches at the ready, we venture into the island’s prime spotting area: its nine-hole golf course – a safari like no other! Almost immediately, eagle-eyed Gauvain spots a hoglet beside the seventh hole. Up close, the little tiggywinkle has the requisite tiny blonde spines and a perfect pink nose. But it quickly decides it’s not keen on being stared at and legs it off towards the green.
The next day, I’m due to abseil down a cliff to a secret beach, get picked up in a rib and zoom to a rocky outcrop for a lobster barbecue lunch. But Alderney’s weather can turn on a sixpence; the previous day’s deep-blue skies have filled with bilberry bruised clouds and gusty winds. Abseiling’s off. Instead I tog up in waterproofs and head to Platolein Beach with head gardener Pycroft to forage for lunch. We gather sea kale, sea holly, some of the island’s 160 different types of seaweed and rock samphire, which tastes pleasingly like caviar.
Thankfully, the following day the sun is back to blazing, and I’m able to zip around the island by boat. We pass Burhou, which during the summer months is home to nearly 200 breeding pairs of puffins; the females produce just one egg that’s kept warm on a little patch of feather-free skin beneath their wing. Further round we come upon the rocky outcrop of Les Etacs, home to one per cent of the world’s gannet population. Getting up close to more than 9,000 pairs of Britain’s largest sea bird is impressive, if a little whiffy. They circle, dive and soar fish-in-beak to feed eagerly flapping chicks almost ready to take their first flight. Whales, dolphins and basking sharks are all regularly spotted in these gulfstream-warmed waters. As we return to the harbour, a seal pops its head above the surface with a grin, before diving back down.
But it’s not all Disney. In 1940, Alderney was evacuated and the Channel Islands became the only British soil to be occupied by the Nazis (Alderney had Britain’s only Nazi concentration camp); their bunkers – some nondescript, others, including the naval lookout named The Odeon, possessing a brutalist architectural interest – still dot the landscape. There are hundreds of documented prisoner-of-war graves on the island, which recent investigations suggest could number far higher; the same research posits that Alderney was the site for V1 nerve gas launchers aimed at the south coast of Britain. But broach the topic with care – it’s a divisive one among the locals, some of whom, it seems, prefer to look the other way and keep smiling.
And wandering down the high street (on which Alderney has refused to allow any restaurant chains or branded shops a presence), past the farm shop that serves bring-your-own-bottle milk, and the tiny cinema recently converted from old film reels, it is difficult not to smile. Alderney is like rolling the clock back 30 years. And The Blonde Hedgehog, elegant and light‑footed, is its perfect glass slipper.