Monday, March 28th, 2011
The Picton Castle swung on her anchor at St. Helena for three days and many of us could easily have stayed longer at this remarkable island. Although small (it is about 5 miles wide and 9 miles long) St. Helena is a geological and ecological marvel. Almost deceiving to the approaching ship (its cliffs rugged, dry and bare) the interior of St. Helena is a lush botanical paradise of mist-covered gently sloping hills and uncultivated fields and reveals a unique sub-tropical ecosystem – influenced in part by its geographic location and in part by the southeasterly winds which have a cooling effect in this southern hemisphere.
The waterfront of Jamestown is quite striking with ancient whitewashed stone buildings, forts and and stone barricade with slots for canons, as often as not with their old canons still pointing out to sea. This is all undergoing a major revitalization and phase one of the project in well under way. All sorts of activity was to be seen, with some new stone buildings and cement getting poured, massive earth movers and a crane (how did they get them ashore with no jetty?). Those in charge of the project hope that in the future the waterfront will be lined with shops and a boardwalk – a welcoming entrance for those arriving. The very old customs office and a few other buildings from the 1700s built into the cliff wall speak to a different time and perhaps they will be maintained as another representation of a long and rich maritime history.
Portuguese sailors first landed at St Helena in 1502. Jamestown was established as an English commercial settlement in the mid 1600s and is built in a narrow and steep valley known as James Valley. The Dutch took over for a year or two before the British got it back. It is a fascinating town architecturally as almost all of its buildings represent its colonial roots. A dry moat surrounds the grand gates to the town and as you walk through the archway the castle is directly to your left and ‘Jacobs ladder’ lies to your right. Everywhere one sees ancient fortifications often with old canons sticking out. Jacob’s ladder is an imposing staircase of some 699 steps leading straight up the steep mountainside from the seaside entrance of the town to Ladder Hill Fort. The colourful balconied shops, restaurants and houses boast of Georgian and Victorian roots, while some also have Portuguese and Dutch colonial influences. The crew quickly established bases throughout the town and set about making plans for their exploration of the island. Everyone and his brother (and sister) has contributed to the ethnic mix here at St Helena; Portuguese, Dutch, all manner of Welsh, Scots, English, evacuees from the great fire of London in 1666, Chinese indentured servants in 1810, Africans, Malaysians, Afrikaners, French Huguenot refugees, soldiers and the ongoing stream of mariners from everywhere and anywhere, shipwrecked and otherwise, over the centuries and to this very day.
The friendly and solicitous tourist office was an obvious first contact and the employees there proved more than helpful in organizing cross-island tours, getting our laundry laundered, pointing out the best restaurants and bars and getting us situated. The crew spent quite a bit of time at Ann’s Place. Located just above the castle gardens, Ann’s Place was a quiet spot where the crew could get a bite to eat or some refreshment and use the internet. Ann’s Place was definitely a prime spot for mariners, they stayed open extra hours for us. It was also important for the crew to get up to the other local hangouts – Standard Pub (where they put on a food spread and music one night just for us), Whitehorse Tavern or the Consulate Hotel. Ever friendly the locals treated us to nights of dancing and karaoke.
Most of the crew made it out of Jamestown and into the country at least once. Some opted to hike some of the islands scenic trails, while others took organized tours to some of the popular destinations. As they meandered through inland pastures and rolling hills (reminiscent of Sussex, England and the Downs) they visited ancient historical fortifications; picturesque Sandy Bay; Napoleon’s home Longwood and gardens and his tomb; the settlements of Half Tree Hollow and Longwood; Plantation House and Jonathan. Arguably the oldest reptile on earth Jonathan, from the Seychelles Islands is a seashell tortoise and he is estimated to be 175 years old.
The Captain and senior staff were invited to Governor Andrew Gurr’s home (Plantation House) for dinner and Chief Mate Mike, Siri and I were honoured to be included on his guest list – along with three prominent members of the local community. We were treated to a three course meal – under the chandelier once owned by Napoleon – and absorbing conversation before we ‘retired’ to the library (built by Napoleon’s own carpenter) for coffee and a continuance of the evenings conversation. Governor Gurr had also been posted to the Falklands and it was fascinating to meet him and revel in the Old World empire charm of Plantation House with paintings of kings and queens and all manner of naval heros of England who had put into St Helena. What a rare treat of an evening.
The Captain also invited the Governor (and 12 guests) to tour the Picton Castle. We opened this invitation to the community and consequently several groups – including the Boy Scouts, the employees of the tourist bureau and a local radio personality – took us up on the offer. There are two radio stations on the island and they both requested interviews. Chief Mate Mike did one on the ship and the Captain did an interview in town on the day we departed.
We all had a really wonderful time and were just blown away by the genuine hospitality and the natural friendliness of everyone we met. Personally St. Helena was one of my favourite stops on this world voyage and I would very much like to return.
On the morning of March 17th we hauled up our anchor, set all sail and sailed off the hook out of Anchorage Harbour and once more into the great expanse of the South Atlantic.
Thank you St. Helena! And what a thrill to experience your wonderful island.