Over three visits to the island I explored almost the whole accessible part of St Helena. One or two places eluded me and I curse myself for not taking the opportunity to explore more. But you had to take your chance. The first trip was on my own and I had a lot of freedom to drive around the island whenever I had spare time, the two subsequent trips were with Edsel and although I still did get around he was not quite the explorer of minutiae that I wanted to be.
I suppose the natural way to describe an island is to start at the coast and work inland or go from one side to the other, but St Helena was an oddly inverted island. From the sea you only caught glimpses of habitation; the rugged and steep coastline was the most inaccessible area. You pierced into the interior through the three routes in from the coast, Jamestown being the most used, and then there was a ring of activity where most people lived, schooled, worked, farmed or played. Then in the centre was a little ridge of hills that pricked up into the clouds above the rest, the tallest of these being Diana’s Peak at 820m. So let me start up there and work down in a spiral that will lead us back to Jamestown.
It’s good to start way up on the roof of St Helena as this was the reason I was first pulled to visit the island. Rebecca had been a leading light in conserving the weird and wonderful endemic flora up in what was called The Peaks, although the official name is the Diana’s Peak National Park. When St Helena prospered as a calling point for ships, the interior was heavily managed to supply goods and materials for ships. When the first ships called they started leaving goats and other animals to roam free and later be caught and used as fresh or salted meat on the long voyages across the ocean. The residents started to farm and opened up the land, but then various attempts to produce cash crops were made. The most successful of these was the flax farms. Brought in from New Zealand (and not to be confused with the linseed flax of Europe), it is a tall spiky plant with thick succulent leaves pointing out in all directions. It flowers with an elongated stem with red flowers, and the hard heavy seeds fall to the ground near their parents. But this being St Helena with hardly a flat surface to be seen, the seeds would gravitate down slope and thus their range expanded quickly. Large segments of the centre of the island had been cleared of the natural vegetation, tracks cut into the ridges or up the hills and flax planted as a monoculture on every slope. Due to their prolific seeding they started growing outside the fields and cultivated every surface they could find, including some of the steepest, most inaccessible slopes. Flax mills were set up in the middle lands of the island where the swordlike leaves would be stripped out and the stringy inner material used to weave rope and make bags. At one time St Helena flax was an official material used in making royal mail bags. The Royal Navy and merchant shipping also made good use of the ropes and sacks made from flax.
But like so many industries, there was a heyday then a decline and the market shrunk as other materials more locally sourced stripped St Helena of any chance to make a profit. The flax industry collapsed and fields were abandoned. Flax may have been economically dead but it was naturally vibrant. It had found a niche in these upland areas and continued to spread over the mountains, the farmland and any gaps in the forests below.
What the flax industry had almost obliterated was a rich and unique flora up here on Diana’s Peaks. Isolated from the rest of the world, spores, fruits and seeds that arrived here from elsewhere must have had an incredible journey.