Life on Mars – Georgetown discovered

The stone buildings down by the pier head have survived much better.  The St Georges Tank pokes up above the rest, where water from Green Mountain was stored for use in the town.  And the Main Store, a massive tuff warehouse down in a dip close to the beach still looks imposing.  The Operational Services team are the main users of this building, storing kit and parts and those little-metal-loops-that-you-are-not-sure-what-you-can-do-with-them-but-you-had-better-keep-them-just-in-case.  It was reputed at one time to be the largest stone building in the southern hemisphere, and it sits amongst a few other similar store houses where the public works people keep their kit.

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the Water Tank

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Edsel on the “Cricket Wicket”

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The Stores – largest stone building in the Southern Hemisphere?

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From the Stores up to the centre of Georgetown

Heading out from the Exiles to the north you come across a beautiful little whitewashed church.  This is the Anglican St Mary’s.  The Catholics meet in an even more interesting place – the Lady of our Grotto which is set in a volcanic cave down near the US Base. Back round the main street in Georgetown you have buildings which at first sight appear modern, but often they were around when the original barracks were put up.  Here you find the courthouse, the police station, old storehouses (the Africa Store is a name to conjure with) , the Bowling Alley, the Stables.  If you look at an old plan of the town you can see how the barracks were set out, and the residences that are apparently scattered about the edges of the institutional buildings were planned carefully as well.  And to some extent the division of class or rank is still prevalent in Georgetown.  The more senior government officers have expansive villas on a ridge just behind the play area, down by the hospital or at the north end of town looking out over Long Beach.  The more junior officials’ those with families, will likely be up round the back of town in rather run down villas.  Younger couples, maybe just starting out, will often be allocated in the area known as Chinatown.  This is made up of rows of terraced units between the stores and one of the forts.  And the single people are given little digs, almost like student accommodation, close by the Saints Club.  Over the course of my visits a new set of small houses were also built on the road out to the US Base and there were mixed opinions as to their utility.  Some said they were poky and lacking good airflow, others were relieved not to have termites eating away at their walls or mould growing up the insides.

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Chinatown

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Chinatown and the Pier Head

Georgetown is a coastal town, but for many they will ignore the sea for most of the time.  Maybe because the ocean here is always in turmoil.  Even within the relative shelter of Clarence Bay to which Georgetown abuts, the sea is rolling and powerful.  The town sits on low rocky bluffs which section off big sandy beaches.  Atop these bluffs are Fort Thornton and Fort Hayes that were set up in the marine barracks period.  Fort Hayes is open every weekend for a few hours and is a typical 19th century defence – thick walls bunkered down in the hillside.  I found the pink plaster work on most surfaces a little off putting, but it certainly had the capacity to have defended Georgetown if the need had arisen.  The most intriguing piece of kit still left there is the old metal signalling equipment by which this fort could communicate by semaphore with the others.

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Fort Hayes

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Georgetown from Fort Hayes

Fort Thornton is more difficult to explore although it is accessible, and in between is the Pier Head itself.  For most of the time this is a quiet spot for locals to hang out and have a few beers.  The teenagers tended to congregate down here late at night at the weekend and let off steam, much to the aggravation of older residents in Chinatown and up on the ridge.  Only when the RMS or other boats are in the offing will the Pier Head really come to life as the launches work hard to bring people back and forth and barges are loaded and unloaded by a massive crane on the pier itself.

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Semaphore Signalling Gantry

Life On Mars – Business and Rights

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The Conservation Office Block

 

The Conservation Office where Edsel and I would work was on the main strip coming into town, so very little escaped us unless it came down the hill from Two Boats Village down the one way road off Cross Hill.  We shared the same building with the Legal Secretary and the Drawing Office of Technical Services.  Behind was the Cable and Wireless building.  Apart from the military importance of Ascension Island, it was also a useful communication hub.  Cable And Wireless had been operating on the island since the days of the telegraph and now had relay stations here, as well as being the only telephone and internet supplier.  Next door to them was the Administrators Complex.  This smart building contained many of the offices for most of the small government, including the Administrator himself and a conference room, and a proud union jack flying from the flagpole outside on the “black grass”, the loose black chippings that seemed to cover the whole of Georgetown.  The Government was small; the big organisations on the island dealt with many of their own services, contracts and other issues, but the AIG pulled it all together.  This is after all a working island.  Apart from the RAF and USAF, there were a small number of companies as well as Cable And Wireless.  There were contractors for the British Broadcasting Corporation who kept a set of transmitters at the northern end of the island for their World Service broadcasts to both Africa and South America.  And then there was CSO.  An arm of the UK intelligence service, part of GCHQ, a small office was housed in Two Boats. They heard of Edsel and our presence on the island and were alarmed to find out that we had purchased satellite imagery of the island.  We were dragged up to the office and gently interrogated about our proposed activities.  We were told we were not allowed to map the radar stations, dishes and transmitters that pepper the island.  We said we had not intended to do anything of the sort, but might spot the thorn bushes and a few turtle nests.

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The Huge BBC World Service Transmitters

The implications of the island being run for a few businesses are not explicit at first sight – after all businesses and institutions exist everywhere.  But here in Ascension Island, if you are not working or connected with someone who is working, you are not allowed to stay on the island.  That means if you are made redundant from one contract, if you cannot find another job quickly you will most likely be asked to leave.  And then forced to leave.  And nobody can retire.  Apart from the odd white haired tourist, you do not see anyone over the age of 65 on Ascension Island.  Thus there are a lot of single people working on temporary contracts around the bases or in government, or maybe contracted out to work down the power station.  Then there are key critical posts, and people come down from the UK to work on short 2-3 year contracts, bringing their families with them.  A few have become long term residents but often end up doubling up on roles – the dentist also owns the Obsidian business.  Some of the government posts have become long term, many of the Saints we worked with in Conservation had been there many years, a few born there as their parents had come over as contractors and stayed.

One upshot of this is that the hospital is a very quiet place. Apart from maternity clinics and quick fixes for children or the odd industrial or sporting injury, it does not see a massive amount of activity.  And there is a morgue on the island out at the north end near Long Beach, but it, too, rarely gets used.  I took a walk to the Georgetown Cemetery at the southern end of town one time, and looked at the grand old headstones and memorials here.  Stories of passengers on ships that had fallen ill and died, fevers and even the odd shipwreck.  But just a few graves dug in the last forty years.  A few heart attacks, the odd horrific work injury.  And even in these cases, everyone is related to someone off island, the bodies tend to be sent to the Morgue for cold storage before being transferred on the airbridge or RMS.