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  • Letter from St Helena, 11 December 2014

    Posted on December 15, 2014

    Molly’s Flat, Cambrian House
    Upper Jamestown, St Helena
    11 December 2014

    Dear all,

    As I closed my last letter the RMS St Helena had just arrived, and I was waiting to see how rowdy it got in the supermarkets when the fruit arrived.  The RMS St Helena is in again at the moment – it arrived on Monday morning on its last voyage from Cape Town before Christmas.  It will now make a couple of return trips to Ascension Island ferrying (though that seems a rather demeaning description of a two day voyage on a ship) people to or from Ascension so they can travel home for Christmas.  Back to the UK on an RAF flight to Brize Norton, or back to St Helena for the St Helenians who work on Ascension, or on the Falkland Islands, as quite a number do.

    RMS St HelenaAll the fruit and vegetables which arrive on the RMS St Helena have to be checked meticulously by the St Helena Biosecurity Service.  So it takes from 24 to 48 hours from the ship arriving to the produce appearing on the shelves.  Biosecurity is taken very seriously here, because the ecosystem is so fragile and – in readiness for the new monitoring challenges which will come when the airport opens – a new biosecurity policy was launched at the end of last month.

    As I was walking back to the office on Tuesday lunchtime one of the people I know from the Environmental Management Directorate here called across to me ‘they’ve got grapes at the Queen Mary’.  The Queen Mary is often the first shop to get the newly arrived fruit and veg out on display – partly because they don’t bother putting them onto shelves: they just stack the boxes down one side.  They did, indeed, have grapes, and peaches.  Much of the fruit is priced per piece (54p for peaches), rather than per kilo.    There was a small crowd gathering round the fruit.  Not rowdy.  More ‘politely determined’.

    Away from the three weekly rush there seems to be a healthy informal trade, amongst those who are plugged into it, in fruit and veg – either purchase, gift or exchange.  There is also a stall run by the St Helena Growers’ Co-operative in the market building in Jamestown.  I’m not plugged into the shadow fruit and veg exchange, but I did buy half a dozen eggs during the week from one of the chaps at work, Jason, who keeps chickens; and as I walked through Jamestown recently I was hailed by a couple of ladies waiting for the bus who tried to persuade me to buy, for £1.50, a large bag of rather feeble-looking carrots.  I suspect they may just have had them rejected by the market stall.

    Government’s vision (both in St Helena and in Britain) for the island is that the new airport will provide the impetus to help it become economically independent, and that tourism will be the foundation of that economic growth.  So I recently worked my way through the government’s 64 page tourism strategy.  The policy acknowledges unambiguously the importance of St Helena’s historic buildings and natural environment.  Indeed, it sees both as integral to attracting discerning (and, not to put too fine a point on it, reasonably affluent) tourists who are looking for an experience which is a little different.  Not mass market, and not luxurious, but stimulating and satisfying.  With the planned opening of the airport now only 15 months away government activity and attention is pulled in many directions: making sure the airport is built on time and within budget; ensuring the roads and other infrastructure are upgraded; helping people who live here to develop the skills they will need to welcome and look after the hoped-for influx of tourists.  Tourists who may have expectations which are rather different from those of the intrepid few who come here at the moment.  In all this spectrum of governmental concerns, ensuring that the necessary work is done to sustain the built and natural heritage itself is easily crowded out.

    JamestownOne apsect of the preparation for growing visitor numbers is the work being done to encourage the creation of more visitor accommodation on the island.  The hope is that this will be a mixture of expanding the current provision of guest house, bed and breakfast and self-catering accommodation, and of building new hotels.  So plans are afoot to create a new 30 room hotel in Jamestown, by converting three adjoining Georgian townhouses in Main Street (the three houses in the foreground of the photo to the left), almost opposite the National Trust’s offices.  It will be the third hotel in Jamestown – and the largest – (joining The Consulate and Wellington House and various guest houses).  A couple of weeks ago the architects who are carrying out the heritage impact assessment for the proposed hotel development came in to talk to some of the National Trust’s Council.  Partly to let them know what was planned, and partly to pick their brains about the architectural history of Jamestown.  The two architects (who were husband and wife) had a lovely unthreatening, understated but knowledgeable style.  As a result they did a brilliant job in reassuring an initially cautious National Trust Council that they really did want to respect the appearance and feel – the significance and spirit – both of that particular building, and of the street as a whole.  It remains to be seen, of course, whether their inspiring vision survives the pressures of deadlines and budgets.  I very much hope that the government-sponsored hotel company will make sure that it does.

    Spirit of place, significance, and authenticity were all very much in my mind when Jeremy Harris (the Trust’s director) and I were shown round Napoleon’s house at Longwood by the custodian (and Honorary French Consul) Michel Martineau.  Longwood is the most significant of the three sites on the island which are linked to Napoleon.  The others are his grave (a couple of kilometres from Longwood) and the Pavilion at The Briars (where Napoleon stayed whilst Longwood was being made ready for him).  All three form ‘Les Domaines Francaises’ on St Helena.  If you’re interested in legal history you may like to have a look at the French Government Lands Vesting Ordinance of 1858 by which Longwood and the grave were transferred to the then French Emperor in 1858.  Longwood consists of the main house, where Napoleon spent almost all of his exile (see photo above), an annex at the back (where his entourage lived) and the garden.  The place was a fascinating contrast to an English National Trust property.  The house, which is set out as it would have stood on 5 May 1821, the day before Napoleon died, has been substantially renovated over the past couple of years, and the furniture has been noticeably restored.  Coupled with the fact that it was not always obvious, when moving through the house, which furniture had been there in Napoleon’s time, and which had been introduced later, this prompted an interesting conversation with Jeremy about the relationship between significance, spirit of place, and authenticity.  Should we try to create an impression of what it would have looked and felt like, or should we try to get as close as possible to the actual artefacts from the past – as I once heard it described ‘come face to face with the physical reality of the past’?

    LongwoodI was very taken with the way the annex had been rebuilt.   In Napoleon’s day the annex was made of very fragile material called ‘cartonboard’, used as packing cases on ships.  It had already been rebuilt once since Napoleon’s time and as part of the recent renovation, that rebuilt version was demolished and replaced with a concrete block structure.  This follows the outline and profile of the original – so it looks like three small cottages.  But inside it is laid out as a large meeting room you can split in two, and two flats to accommodate important guests.  Would the National Trust in England, Wales and Northern Ireland, I wondered, have had the courage to do that?  It was brilliant and very stylish.

    M. Martineau made a point of engaging skilled local craftsmen on the refurbishment work – including a wonderful newly laid wooden floor and sash windows, both the work of a local carpenter.  In the workshop behind the property two people were restoring furniture for Longwood.  One was an old hand, the other a young man, Christen, who was relatively new to the work but proving to have a flair for it.  Les Domaines Francaises, Enterprise St Helena (the government’s economic development agency), the Education and Employment Directorate and Saint Helena National Trust have jointly arranged with West Dean College in England for Christen to attend a seven-month course there to further develop his skills and – it is hoped – to inspire others to become involved in such work.

    With growing interest in the island’s built heritage – and more renovation and conversion work likely to be needed as the economy develops – it is important there are enough people here who have the right skills to work with historic buildings and their contents.  Enterprise St Helena and the National Trust have been working together on this for a while.  A couple of weeks ago we had a small ceremony at our offices to present diplomas in Heritage Skills (Construction and Masonry) to six people who had completed a six-week course, led by a master stone mason, jointly arranged by the two organisations.  Our hope at the National Trust is that as we become more involved in building and restoration projects these craftsmen will be able to do the work – either as employees or contractors.

    When there is a conversation about restoring historic buildings on St Helena it soon turns to High Knoll Fort, one of the many military fortifications the government has to care for.  I was applying for my St Helena driving licence in the post office last week.  When the manageress (who had been called over to verify my ancient UK driving licence) learned I worked at the National Trust she immediately asked ‘are you going to be able to do anything about High Knoll Fort, then?’.  High Knoll is a massive structure on a hill above Jamestown.  It can be seen from many points on the island – though not from the town itself, because the hill is so steep.  There’s a good aerial shot of the fort, with (unusually) an event going on inside it, here.  The first part of the fort was built in 1798, and it was added to and modified over the next 150 years.  Parts of it have been used variously as a barracks, a school, housing for liberated Africans, a prison for Boer soldiers and a quarantine centre for animals.  It is also, fittingly, one of the places where the St Helena rifle team trained before the last Commonwealth Games.

    Little has been spent on maintaining the fort over the last 50 years, and the huge curtain wall has collapsed in two areas, and is starting to bow and lean in others.  Full restoration would be a hugely (probably prohibitively) expensive exercise, but the National Trust is looking at whether there is a package of lighter touch measures we could offer to implement, to tidy up the fort, remove some of the vegetation which is starting to break up areas of wall, carry out minor repairs and better tell the story of the fort – as well as steering people away from the areas which are better avoided.  I have also had very welcome help from colleagues at the National Trust in England, Wales & Northern Ireland in answering a query from the tourist office here about options for low cost lighting of the outside of the fort, so that it can be a landmark at night as well as during the day.

    Community forestsPart of the work of Martina, in the Trust’s Community Forests Project team here, is to go into schools to talk about nature conservation.  One of St Helena’s endemic plants is the dwarf ebony, described in the books as ‘an attractive, spreading shrub up to 2m high’, with white five-petalled flowers.  Discovered at the start of the nineteenth century, it was thought to have become extinct by the end of the century.  But in 1980 three naturalists (George & Charlie Benjamin and Quentin Cronk) found six plants on an almost inaccessible cliff in the south-west of the island.  Charlie climbed down on a rope to recover cuttings.  The cuttings rooted successfully and there has been widespread planting on the island since.  Charlie’s daughter and step-daughter, together with one of the island’s more ebullient conservation enthusiasts, have persuaded the government that this bit of naturalist heroism should be marked by a formal renaming of the cliff where the flower was rediscovered.  They offered a prize for the best suggestion.  Martina co-ordinated the entries from the schools she visits and I was asked to help the organisers choose the best name from the 142 entries.  I can’t tell you what it is yet, because that is embargoed until the official renaming ceremony in a few weeks’ time, but if you give me a nudge I’ll tell you then.

    It has been refreshing to spend this part of the year with much less hoo-haa and commercialisation of Christmas than we are used to in England.  Until we got to 1st December the only indication that the festive season was just around the corner was the occasional stray chocolate reindeer.  Some of the shop windows are now carrying understated seasonal displays – with Santa and snowmen standing alongside beachballs and children’s swimming rings.

    Very best wishes to all


    (In his day job, Tim Butler is the Solicitor at the National Trust for England, Wales and Northern Ireland.  Through INTO, he is spending his sabbatical with the Saint Helena National Trust.)

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