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A feudal outpost in transition

The World | COLUMN ONE

Sark island, a speck in the English Channel, has been a noble fiefdom for 442 years. Now the 21st century is calling, with a battering ram.

March 08, 2007|Kim Murphy | Times Staff Writer

The Barclay brothers weren't successful in challenging Sark's jurisdiction over Brecqhou, but they did succeed in forcing scrutiny of the island's compliance with the human rights convention.

In pushing the island to democratize, officials in London have warned that failure to modernize on Sark's own terms could result in Sark losing some of its independence and being governed more directly by the larger island of Guernsey, an option no one here seems to want.

Moreover, many residents have become impatient with the domination of the landowners in decision making.

"The situation we have at the moment is we have about 40 people -- perhaps 27 or 28 of them turn up for meetings -- who have a seat in government simply because they own land," said Jan Guy, a former head teacher at the island's school who has lived here 19 years.

"Now, in some cases, their family has owned that land for many years, and several generations. But in many cases, that land has been bought quite recently. So if you came over and you bought a nice tenement, the next meeting of government, you'd be there, governing for the people of Sark. I ask you, do you think that's right?"

But other long-term residents fear that easing the feudal landowners out of the government will be the beginning of the end.

"We must remember, it's worked wonderfully for 450 years. Unfortunately, it's a lot of the outsiders who come to the island because they love it, and lo and behold they want to change things once they get here," said Elizabeth Perree, whose family, descendants of original tenants on the island, operates an inn and small farm.

"It still has the lovely simplicity of horses and carriages trundling along the roads. Cattle grazing and having lovely butter and cream straight from the farms -- all these little things are what make Sark what it is," she said.

"It'll be a tragedy if it starts to get built up and become like anywhere else in the world," Perree said. "People say, 'progress,' we should do this, we should do that. Someone at the moment is suggesting that we should have more building because that would give more work to people.

"But in a funny way, I feel it's special because it has stayed as it was. It's the last feudal state in the Western world, for goodness' sake."

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kim.murphy@latimes.com

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