Edsel and I tried to keep out of it; our role was to help them document the geographical data that they had and teach them how to use it better, in a system that became known as SHEIS – the St Helena Environmental Information System. Building on the work I had done for Rebecca on my solo first visit, we had designed a system for storing, documenting and applying the data to about forty different environmental uses. We had great fun meeting everyone and ferreting out all their data, and then showing how the computers could map it easily for them, especially the stuff that was temporal in nature. We managed to integrate hundreds of datasets – some more extensive and more accurate than others, but nonetheless everyone who contributed to the system felt they had something they could use.
Some of the lesser known places in Jamestown
Edsel spent many hours coding and recoding all the applications he was developing. I had more spare time available having done much of the design work, the documentation and preparing the data before getting to St Helena. I also liked to get out and about at least once a day, so I took to walking around Jamestown. Mainly I would head down to the waterfront. I found a couple of alternative back routes which might find me on the castle walls, or I would head up the Back street behind the church and past the prison, and also past the only fuel station in Jamestown. My favourite walk in town was to head out of my little courtyard, double back up Market Street, then drop down to the Run. Unbeknownst to most tourists, this was a little piece of greenery in the middle of this dense town. A footpath follows the course of a stream which runs through the centre of the town. It runs under Main Street and pours out under the promenade into the sea, but at the top end of town it is open and flows all year round. Only a few streams that start at the top of the mountains reach the sea; most are swallowed up into the loose volcanic rocks, or evaporate before they flow out to sea. This one starts up in Diana’s Peaks and tumbles over the Heart Shaped Waterfall, a superb piece of geology carved out by the water which when there has been a lot of rain flows over dramatically into the gorge below. More often to not it leaves a stain of wetness down the side of the rock or gives off a faint mist into the valley below. But then, with the water from a couple of other streams, the water gathers at the top of the town, and you can walk up this drain free from traffic , save for the odd Saint hiking down to do some shopping. It goes under a couple of bridges, hidden by buildings spreading across the valley and as you get further up the density of the buildings lessens and there is greenery in this little linear park.
Sluice and holding pool
Up the run
Up by the Briars
For location, the best place to drink was Donny’s Bar. When you went through the white gate out of Jamestown to the promenade, instead of turning right to the customs house and port buildings, you turned left. Tucked under the vertical cliff this guy called Donny had set up a bar in two old shipping containers.
Band at Donny’s
Sunday Sunset at Donny’s
Over the years he had added awnings and decks but the unsophisticated and ephemeral nature of the bar was a major attraction. The other was that it was the only official waterfront social bar. It was a great place to hang out on lazy weekend afternoons and watch the sky turn purple as the sun set.
The gate out of Jamestown to the wharf
Edsel catching a coffee
The west end of the Wharf with Donny’s
More locations did food as I went back again and again to St Helena; on the last visit, all the gossip in town was about the Chinese Restaurant. The food was not like any Chinese food, either from Chinese people or in Chinese restaurants elsewhere, but it was nice to have a selection of foods beyond what was normally served up in St Helena. I liked the fish cakes but it was good to have prawns for a change. Similar amounts of wowing were going on about the first true coffee shop on the island. One of the few high value local crops which had survived blight and disease was coffee, and a couple of enterprising islanders had established a very nice trade in selling beans and ground coffee at a premium price. The flavour was slightly vanilla-like and left a long airy after taste in the mouth. These same entrepreneurs got a licence to establish an open air cafe under a small patch of trees near the waterfront. Like Annie’s Bar, it attracted a lot of people working in the offices at the bottom end of Jamestown; grateful at last to act like their counterparts in the big cities and have lattes and cappuccinos to go!
The three main streets of Jamestown had more to sell you than the essentials to cover your nakedness and fuel your activity. Several little boutiques were set up to sell the odd tourist a trinket or two; I got fond of buying the little bits of pottery made by Serena Thorpe – having first been attracted to a selection of them that were sold from Tasty Tucker’s on Ascension. There was of course the post office too, selling the first edition stamps unique to St Helena and supplying one of the largest cuts of foreign income to the island.
Edsel catching a coffee
St James’ Church
The Consulate Hotel
The Police Station
Lots of the services such as the post office and bank could be found up and down the island (although when I visited there was still no ATM). Tucked into a corner of the front entrance to the main hotel was a barbers, owned by a couple who were so different from most Saints with their trendy clothes and hairstyles and a much more extrovert attitude than I was used to. But they did a good haircut too during my lunch hours.
And then there was the accommodation. The Consulate Hotel above the barbers was the main one on the island. Most of the visitors I met on the RMS were heading there, and I felt a bit special to be staying self catering somewhere else. I could imagine life in the Consulate would be like a continuation of the RMS experience but without the peculiarities of being at sea. My own experiences with the Consulate were restricted to a meal in their quiet dining room, and several visits to the infamous Friday night disco. Nightlife in Jamestown seemed to be restricted to a couple of solid drinking pubs – we went in the White Horse one night; while there was no hostility there was not really a lot of atmosphere for anyone beyond the usual drinking buddies there. The Consulate seemed the be the place to go for most young people and attracted tourists looking for a bit of colour. I spent a few Friday nights down there crammed against the bar as people asked for their drinks or smooched around on the small dance floor. We tried to find other alternatives, but they were few and far between. On our first leaving we did have a wonderful meal at Wellington House, which also had rooms for tourists but gave us a relaxed and very enjoyable dinner with our colleagues before we headed back on the RMS. Tucked into the Castle Gardens was Annie’s Place. This tended to be the location for lunch, especially by government workers from the castle, although I did attend a couple of receptions there in the evenings. Being open on two sides it was a bit draughty in the winter season when I first visited but was a lovely spot for the rest of the year, looking out over the well maintained borders of the gardens, the castle beyond and the dull rumble of the ocean beyond.
Castle Gardens (and Annie’s Place with the blue roof)
Jamestown is that lovely mix of small town everydayness and the realisation that it is the outward face of St Helena, its capital as well as main port. Everyone has to pass up the narrow main street to get anywhere and come into town to do any business. Multiple tiny offices of government were packed into every imaginable building, from the grandeur of the castle, to a small office at the back of a shop. The shops themselves are an eclectic mix of “everything under the sun” to specific one purpose boutiques. On my first visit I found it a little difficult to work out where best to get things; I ended up in one of the two general stores, or if I were more generous, supermarkets. The Spar was like any large convenience store in British suburban or rural life; a set of freezers and shelves packed with as much as they could get in there. Part owned by a government run company, Solomon’s, that appeared to have a finger in almost every commercial activity both on St Helena and in Ascension Island, the Spar was probably the largest shop on the island. Thorpes situated up the back on the road to Half Tree Hollow always seemed brighter and cleaner. I preferred Thorpes as across the road from the main shop they opened up a fresh produce arm, and it was lovely to buy cuts of meat, eggs, cheese and dairy as opposed to the carton, tin and frozen goods from most other shops.
There were also a couple of other emporiums. One I would go in occasionally to look for souvenirs, but was in fact the closest St Helena got to a department store called Warrens. Warrens had pride of place on Main Street and although it only had limited space and stock was the best place to get clothed. Another was the Queen Mary Store which dealt more with wholesaling and the shipping of various specialist goods on and off the island. Apart from a few sundries near a very old fashioned counter, the shop was more like a warehouse stacked full of all sorts of bulk goods.
Solomon’s Head Office
Market Street with Thorpes
The Market Building
The Market was a distinctive building up where Main Street had turned into, guess what, Market Street; a large metal clad red and purple building sticking out as you negotiated the twists and turns of the road up to Half Tree Hollow. I rarely went in here but there were a number of stores and boutiques spread around a central courtyard; I tended to end up there if I wanted a quick St Helena fish cake from the food stall there. Over the three visits I saw the variety of shops and the stock they held expand, but there were often shortages. I convinced myself one time that I was going to cook a spaghetti bolognaise from raw ingredients. After wandering around both the regular stores and more obscure ones I convinced myself that there were no onions for sale anywhere on the island. I ended up buying an expensive Schwartz pot of onion flakes to try and flavour my sauce. Of course I could have bought one of the readymade sauces that stacked the shelves at Solomon’s or Thorpes. At one dinner Edsel and I were invited to, the hostess apologized for not having any fresh vegetables; and the frozen Birds Eye Broccoli had turned mushy in the boiling pan. Tinned or frozen vegetables were often a norm, partly as the long times between the RMS turning up meant that supplies of fresh vegetables could run out (like the onions). One time I realised potatoes had been hoarded as the ship was unlikely to bring a fresh supply from the Cape for another three weeks. One of our colleagues took pity on us an presented us with a small bagful to get us through our final week on island.
We came out of the shed and past a few barriers to where a hundred or so people were waiting. In amongst the parked cars there were smiles and looks of surprise. Families coming down specifically to pick up one or two passengers would recognize old friends coming ashore. You never get that at an airport. One saint had come back for a surprise visit to St Helena as his mother was having a landmark 70th birthday. He was working as a merchant seaman and had got dressed up in his best uniform to doorstep her later that day. My first contact on St Helena was Rebecca Cairns-Wicks, an English lady who had conducted environmental research down on the island, fallen in love with a saint and now was a permanent resident.
Meeting and greeting
She handed me a set of keys and showed me the car she had hired for my stay on St Helena, an old blue escort. I loaded up my case and then looked out for her small truck to go in convoy to my accommodation. With some apprehension, I started the engine. Already overwhelmed by the change of pace from the ship, I was now, in my woozy state, being asked to drive the precarious roads. There was a lot of busy activity down here on the wharf as gradually the passengers were taken away by their hosts, and some of the retailers and business owners of the island were eagerly getting their hands on long awaited perishable goods to whisk them off to their freezers and storehouses.
I negotiated the narrow gateway into the town, passed the main square and then almost immediately parked up in the centre of main street. Rebecca wanted to introduce me to the office I was to use as my base. She worked part time for the National Trust of St Helena, and they had a lovely old building in the centre of the main street. In a high ceilinged room there were a couple of desks and a large round table. I was introduced to the darling Phyllis, who was the administrator for the trust, and a statuesque English lady called Cathy. They knew all about people coming off the ship and kept the introductions to a minimum – they could see I was a bit shell shocked. We then popped over the road to a small supermarket and I bought a couple of essentials to get me through the next day or two, and then Rebecca led me out of town to my accommodation for the next three weeks.
Our route took us up one of the two main ways out of Jamestown. Called Side Path, it zigzags up the ridge on the east side of Jamestown, the views becoming more and more spectacular as you ascend. But I kept my eyes firmly on the road ahead and where Rebecca was heading. While the cliff faces around Jamestown were almost bare, I saw that up on the ridge there was a scrubby vegetation, and as we went higher it got greener. By the time we reached the scattered houses which make up a district called Alarm Forest, I was driving through thick woodland and open green pastures. We turned off the main road and skirted a small valley before rising to another ridge. Where the road turned at right angles, Rebecca turned off to the right and we descended a well made gravel track, a little overgrown but firm and with few potholes. It hairpinned left and dropped steeply into an open pine woodland and stopped in an open car park beneath a substantial house frontage.
First view of my house
Front of the house