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  • Letter from St Helena, 16 January 2015

    Posted on January 27, 2015


    Molly’s Flat, Cambrian House
    Upper Jamestown, St Helena
    16 January 2015

    Dear all,
    St Helena’s importance, historically, came from its position in the South Atlantic in relation to the currents and prevailing winds.  This made it a natural stopping off point for sailing ships voyaging from the Indian Ocean to Europe or South America.  Over the last ten days there has been an inspiring reminder of that sailing history as the participants in the biennial Governor’s Cup Yacht Race completed their 1,700 mile voyage to St Helena from Simon’s Town in South Africa, which they left on 27 December.  It was a reminder, too, of the unpredictability of sailing: the race began with winds of up to 40 knots, but later in the race the winds dropped so much that many of the yachts struggled to make progress, and the organisers extended the time for completing the race.  The winner of the Governor’s Cup this year was Black Cat – though they were not actually the first yacht over the finish line.  That distinction went to Banjo, who arrived in the (very) early hours of Tuesday 6th January in a record-breaking time, despite the difficult conditions encountered by some of the other yachts.

    GunA few weekends ago I spent a day exploring some of the numerous deserted military sites around Jamestown.  Directly north of Jamestown are Munden’s Batteries, a collection of gun emplacements and related buildings, some half way up the cliffs, the rest on the top (Lower and Upper Batteries).  The Lower Battery overlooks the landing area at the end of Jamestown Quay.  The battery was built straight after the British recaptured the island from the Dutch in 1673, and it was used, and continuously developed, right up to the end of the Second World War.  If you look out over the cliffs you can see half a dozen rusty late 19th or early 20th century cannon barrels, like the one in the picture to the left, abandoned and rusting on the rocks below.  There are also two derelict houses within the battery complex.  From 1957 to 1961 one of these – built right up to the edge of the cliff, with two privies perched precariously beyond it – housed three Bahreini princes who were held as political prisoners.  The Upper Battery includes two very solid looking gun emplacements with underground bunkers beneath them, all of which are in remarkably good condition, still with steel doors over the cupboards where shells for the guns were stored, the bunkers smartly white-washed inside, and one complete with the hand-cranked pulley used for lifting shells from the magazine in the bunker to the gun emplacement on top.

    The whole of the battery area is deserted now, and you take it as you find it: dilapidated gates, some of the drops fenced and others not, rubble over the stairways, the debris of small cooking fires in the buildings, and scrawled records of some of the visitors to the site (locals and tourists) on the walls.  My only guide to the site was a third of A4 sheet which I had collected from the Tourist Office.

    The National Trust has started tentatively to explore with St Helena Government whether – as with High Knoll – there might be a role for the Trust in tidying up Munden’s Batteries, and making it easier for people to visit them, and to understand their history.  One of the early tasks would be to remove the graffiti which has accumulated over the last 40 years (if the dates on some of the messages are to be believed).  Although not all the graffiti is suitable for family viewing, it does tell a story itself, and Jeremy Harris, the Trust’s director, is keen that it should be photographed before it is painted over.  The most impressive individual item is the uncontroversial ‘WELCOME RMS ST HELENA’ in one metre high capital letters, neatly daubed in white paint on the outside of a bunker, and which you cannot miss as you make the trip by ferry boat across James Bay from the RMS St Helena to the quayside.

    My walk home from Munden’s was along the ridge that separates the valley in which Jamestown lies fromView Rupert’s Valley, to the east.  Rupert’s Bay, at the end of that valley, is one of the areas on the island earmarked for commercial development in the future.  A new wharf is being built there so that when the airport is open Rupert’s Bay, rather than Jamestown, will become the place where the (then wholly freight) ships will unload and load.  The ridge takes you past two more artillery installations, one of which – Saddle Battery – is in the photo to the right, taken looking north towards Rupert’s Bay.  The walk has superb views over Jamestown, and of the Haul Road.  The Haul Road is the wide track which Basil Read, the contractors building the airport, have built, climbing up the eastern side of Rupert’s Valley, to transport materials from their wharf in Rupert’s Bay to the airport construction site.  When airport construction is finished, the road will be surfaced and become part of the main route from the airport to Jamestown.  For part of its length the Haul Road follows the course of a (now disappeared) pipe constructed during the Boer War to take water from a desalination plant in Rupert’s Bay to the prisoner of war camp on Deadwood Plain, 3km to the south-east and 500 metres higher.  The desalination plant was never actually used, and all that now remains of it is a tall chimney, likely to be demolished, unfortunately, when the wharf at Rupert’s Bay is redeveloped.

    CemeterySt Helena had two Boer prisoner of war camps.  Two, the story goes, because amongst the prisoners there were two factions who had to be kept apart – though in reality it may have had more to do with the sheer number of prisoners (almost 6,000 at the peak) who were accommodated on the island.  There is also a Boer cemetery, at Knollcombes, in the middle of the island, next to the Baptist cemetery.  The Anglican Church refused to bury Boers in its graveyard.  The Baptists took a different view.  The cemetery is on the side of a steep grassy hill.  There are no gravestones, but the graves are arranged in neat rows with each grave built out from the side of the hill, surrounded with a white kerb, and numbered.  So it is quite striking, and now the most visible link with that chapter of St Helena’s history.

    In the case both of the military installations and the Boer cemetery it is at the same time liberating and frustrating to be exploring places of such real historical significance with no information provided at the site itself, and about which the few guidebooks to St Helena contain tantalisingly brief passages.  Only by reading one of the history books about the island do you learn a little more about these places.  This question of what stories St Helena should tell about its history and its environment, and how best to tell them, is something the National Trust and others are starting to think about with the prospect of more visitors arriving when the airport opens – visitors who will have been attracted by hearing about St Helena’s rich natural and built heritage.  For example at the huge High Knoll Fort, which I mentioned in a previous letter, an important part of the project in which the Trust is involved is, with the help of other groups on the island, to decide how we can best help islanders and visitors to understand how the fort fitted into the history of the island, who lived and worked there, and what their lives were like.

    InteriorThere are plenty of old non-military buildings on the island as well.  But they are less easy to poke around in, and their stories are less obvious.  Many of them are still lived in, or used for people’s businesses.  The older (I would think Victorian) half of the hospital, just down the road from my flat, was originally the military hospital and has some lovely features, but is not really suited to being open to sightseers.  Elsewhere, too, much of the interest is on the inside of the buildings.  Many of the internal walls in the National Trust’s offices, for example, are made of metal sheets tacked onto a wooden frame (see top photo to the left).  In other Jamestown buildings you might notice, through an open door, internal walls made of broad planks of wood set horizontally on each other, again attached to a wooden frame.  Away from the main street the architecture becomes more varied – which you may get a feel for from the middle photo, with a modern house tucked in behind a much older building.  And once out in ‘the country’ there are the big planters’ houses, including Plantation House (the Governor’s residence) and Farm Lodge (generally considered Exteriorthe best place to stay on the island –see the bottom photo to the left).  Very few of these planters’ houses are in such good condition as Farm Lodge.  Indeed several of the once grand buildings are derelict, some now lost in the midst of rapidly spreading eucalyptus, wild mango and other invasive woodland.  I went last week with Jeremy Harris to see whether the National Trust might be able to play a part in helping to bring back into use a deserted house, on a scale not dissimilar to Farm Lodge, which has had a colourful history, including being one of the places which Napoleon visited on his rides out from the house at Longwood, where he was imprisoned.  Although reports from only a couple of years ago suggested that the house still had most of its roof and many of its important features, in the intervening period the bamboo and other plants had advanced right up to the building, and roots and shoots were threading through the walls.  Parts of the roof had fallen in and many of the linHousetels above the windows had collapsed.  It was a property where the owners and the planning authority had been unable to reach agreement on how many of the original features could afford to be sacrificed in the process of turning it into a 21st century home.  The result of that stalemate, almost certainly, will be that the house will be lost altogether.

    Whilst it is not always possible to save the buildings themselves, brief details of many of them have been captured on St Helena’s Historic Environment Record.  This is an excellent piece of work done a few years ago for the National Trust by Ben Jeffs, an archaeologist and conservationist.  This record has a measure of recognition by the St Helena government and is a valuable source of easily accessible information, available to everyone.  If you’re interested, have a look

    One of my more fun responsibilities whilst Jeremy was on leave was signing the certificates which the View 2Trust presents to people who pay £10 for the planting of a tree at the Millennium Forest.  There is a similar scheme for sponsoring a wirebird, the only remaining endemic bird on St Helena.  The certificates are a nice touch: only postcard sized but neatly printed with the donor’s name.  Having signed a number of these certificates I thought I should do my bit towards the actual planting work at the Millennium Forest.  So a few weekends ago I joined one of the family volunteering mornings there.  Guided by the community forest team from the Trust a group of about a dozen volunteers aged from six to….well, I was the oldest…planted 202 hairgrass clumps, small bellflowers, gumwoods and ebony plants, grown in the Trust’s nursery.  We planted them on the cleared area of ground overlooking the airport site, adding to the 12,000 or so trees and plants which have already been planted there.  One of the biggest problems on that area of land is making sure the plants get enough water during the first year after they’re put in, so the plantation has a long irrigation hose snaking through it, with tiny holes to allow water to leak out.  The aim, when you are putting them in, is to make sure you get your plant into one of the damp patches (and then hope the hose doesn’t get moved).  The photograph above shows an area of the forest which is now starting to establish itself.

    It was a bit of a forestry weekend, because the next day the project manager, Jason, showed me round one of the last remaining areas of the endemic forest which covered the island before overgrazing, erosion, over-felling and encroachment by flax and non-native trees all took their toll.  This area, at Peak Dale, is now extremely fragile, with the few trees which remain threatened also by rats which gnaw away the bark around the upper branches, causing them to die.  In addition, the trees seem to be finding it hard to propagate, so few if any new trees are growing up naturally to replace the ones which die.  Work is being done – by Saint Helena Government’s Environment and Natural Resources Department (which has a successful nursery producing young trees for planting), by the Trust and by a handful of committed private individuals – to plant replacements, but all these initiatives are very labour intensive.  At Peak Dale itself Jason leads another scheme to involve islanders in saving and regenerating the endemic forest.  Once a month (on a different weekend from the Millennium Forest volunteer days) the Gumwood Guardians spend a Sunday morning clearing fast growing wild mango and other plants around the gumwoods, to give them room to grow, and laying poison to control the bark-gnawing rats.  Tackling this long-standing problem requires a blend of energy, enthusiasm and patience.  Its long-term success will depend on capturing people’s imagination – the ability of today’s experts and enthusiasts to share the vision which they have, and to articulate clearly to those who live on the island and those who visit it why it matters.

    With very best wishes


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