As far as you can go – from the redoubt

Even at these lookout locations you only saw part of the island.  And from the tops of Diana’s Peaks you were so high up and the valley’s so steep that you could only make out some of the key features.  The one place in the island where you really got a sense of the tiny rock you were on and how close all the villages and valleys were was on the redoubt.   I had left visiting this castle, called High Knoll Fort, till the end of my first visit, despite it being an ever present part of my life on the island.  From some windows in my house I could see its dark walls high above me.  I drove past it several times on the road from Jamestown to Scotland, and it was visible from most places on the island.  That meant that when I finally did decide to go and see it for myself, coming off the main road and up a steep track past a couple of Half Tree Hollow’s houses through a scrubby woodland to the small gravelly car park, I knew I was going to get a wide panorama.  At the time the site was open all year round and you could just wander in.  A redoubt is a place where people and soldiers will retreat to when every other area is under threat.  Maybe that explained its position.  It sits at the back of the more populated areas of Jamestown and Half Tree Hollow and St Pauls and Alarm Forest were not so far away – basically even in historical times most of the population could get there relatively quickly.  It sits on a small rocky outcrop, and on the side up which you drive the access is relatively easy, but the eastern side drops precipitously away to the valley containing the Heart Shaped Waterfall and ultimately, Jamestown.  It is supremely defendable.

The fort is large but has a fairly simple structure.  A long almost cigar shaped curtain wall contains an open area – the assumption being it could store useful quantities of supplies to live out a long siege.  The front end contained the main defences, a round fortress – on the lines of Martello Towers used in the south east of the UK against St Helena’s most famous prisoner.  The rest of the wall was solid stone, save for a line of small square holes that made the whole place look like a giant zoetrope.  The insides of the fort had few artefacts and not a massive amount of form, but to me that was not important.  What was vital was to walk as much of the perimeter and see out.  Give this location it managed to overlook half the island, from the Barn in the east, past Flagstaff Hill, Donkey Plain, the edges of Longwood Village, Rupert’s Valley, Alarm Forest and down to my house, Jamestown itself and Half Tree Hollow down towards Ladder Hill Fort, and then out to Horse Pasture, and to the south St Pauls and Scotland, down to the secondary School and the playing fields of Francis Plain.  And in the distance High Peak and the Diana’s Peaks.  The only parts of the island missing were Levelwood, the further reaches of Longwood and Prosperous Bay Plain, Sandy Bay and Blue Hills.  I was so glad I had left it till now as so many of the surprising twists and turns of the roads and pathways, the hidden gems of buildings and the forests and open rock I had grown to love would have been revealed too quickly; and with my usual wanderlust I would have tired quickly of “the rock” and wanted to leave too early.

But now was the perfect time, I saw how all the elements of St Helena linked together, how some places as the crow flies were closer together than others.  Longwood in particular always felt like a trek of drive from Jamestown, but now I saw how Longwood Gate was only a few miles from the centre of Jamestown, just the huge Rupert’s Valley meant you had to detour right down to the south before coming back up again.

As far as you can go – Napoleon’s Tomb

Napoleon died on the 5th May, 1821, and there are plenty of conspiracy theories as to the method of the demise.  Some blame the arsenic used to make the wallpaper in his rooms.  Others wonder whether he was poisoned by one of the staff.  Or maybe it was the bad weather.  Or was his spirit just broken.  Officially it was recorded as stomach cancer, which could certainly have accounted for his death at the age of only 51.  Whatever the situation, a tomb was created in the forest and he was buried with minimal ceremony.  On my return to Jamestown, I stopped off on the road and went to take a look at the tomb.  The spot is in a valley, called Sane Valley, and is well marked by one of the ubiquitous white fingerposts in both English and French.  I descended a stony path through the pine forests till I reached a grassy clearing.  In the centre, the tomb is railed off, and an arrangement of flowers and endemic plants of St Helena for a picturesque little garden.  Of all the Napoleon sites, this is the most pleasant.

The tomb itself is empty.  In 1840, France negotiated a return of Napoleon’s body to Paris and he was given a hero’s welcome and state funeral.  While on a much smaller scale, I did find the reverence given to Napoleon on St Helena a bit duplicitous.  As I’ve said, he was public enemy number one, St Helena was his prison, he was a reviled figure in the British Isles.  In many circles in France he was also seen as a villain, both in domestic policies and international bungling that killed thousands of his soldiers.  But undoubtedly he is a figure of both historical and international importance, almost to a state of legend.  And for St Helena he is a rare and valuable portal for the world to know about the island.  All the tourists who had travelled on the RMS were making it a priority to visit the sites.  And many people make pilgrimages to see the place where he died.  But there still is that uneasiness within me that this was a prisoner, someone brought down, and yet he is revered in this way.

I think he also distracts from the island’s natural features and other history; the sailing ships, the other exiles, the submarine cabling and of course the lovely people.  But, I suppose, if it gets the punters in and the island noticed, it was worth preserving.

As far as you can go – Briars and Longwood

Michel manages all three sites, and gave me the tour of the Briar’s.  The single room in the pavilion had been lovingly restored as it was believed to have been during Napoleon’s occupancy.  Tasteful Georgian furniture offsets the dark green wallpaper.  Various bits of memorabilia about Napoleon are on display, including a substantial bust, which I imagine would never had been allowed during his incarceration.  I chatted to Michel for a while, but once I had looked around the room there was not much else to do at this location, and I could see he was doing this as a favour to the National Trust so I did not burden him too far.  I drove up Side Path, through Alarm Forest and headed out to the eastern end of St Helena.  Just at a gateway that heads off to the village of Longwood, I turned off and up a gravel track I parked up in front of a low but substantial building.

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The interior of the Briar’s pavilion

Longwood House was kitted out and made secure for the long term location for Napoleon.  Opinions vary as to what was the purpose of putting him over there. It was quite a way from the sea, so any attempt at a rescue would still have to battle up to the location; its exposed spot away from forests was seen as easier to secure than other houses.  Maybe it was the only sensible place available.  But I am sure there was a part that was ensuring he would be as miserable as possible.  While the residents of Longwood will defend the location, many visitors find this the most inhospitable lived in part of St Helena.  Longwood House sat on an exposed ridge, the south east trade winds blew straight in there bringing the soggiest coolest air and plenty of rain.  Napoleon reported that the house was cold and damp.  Even though it has been restored and turned in to a museum, it still had an unwelcoming air.  The furniture put into the restored house is the same tasteful Georgian style as in the Briars but here it looked uncomfortable and wrong.  On the tour you pass through various rooms, the billiard room, the drawing room where Napoleon would receive visitors, the private rooms where he tried to sleep, and, his favourite, the bathroom.  Over the six years Napoleon lived there, the visitors gradually dropped away and he became a recluse.  The house itself did not appeal to him, and his only solace was in designing and creating a garden in the grounds.  Much of his design has now been recreated and, being within walls, it is a leafy oasis on the barren ridge.

As far as you can go- the Napoleon Connection

So it was the minutiae of the city that intrigued me, but, as tourism often demands,  I had to see the big sights of the island too.  There was no escaping St Helena’s elephant in the room.  On my first visit, the National Trust arranged a day where I could visit the locations connected to Napoleon.  If there is one thing everyone knows about St Helena, it is that Napoleon was imprisoned here.  They know that even if they cannot identify St Helena on the map, or have any idea of what St Helena looks like or how its history continued before and after the years Napoleon was on island.  Maybe the perception is of a harsh cruel environment with Napoleon banging rocks in a quarry like Nelson Mandela.  The truth is somewhat different but it was probably the period of most inward investment into the island so that it was a fortress able to hold the public enemy number 1 of the British people in 1815.  And sure the first sight of St Helena for Napoleon must have been forbidding  – the huge cliffs and cloudy uplands would scare the bravest.  The British invested a lot in building up the defences of the island in this period, less with the idea that Napoleon would want to escape, but that others might try to rescue him.  A small number of weak points existed in the natural fortress obtained from the local topography.  Where river valleys came down to the sea, walls were put across and sentry points set up.  Various signalling locations were established around the island and forts were set up.  Much of this was put in place before Napoleon arrived to protect this vital watering point for the British Commerce to southern Africa and Asia.  But as that had begun to decline, St Helena had become less important.  Holding prisoners like Napoleon was a way to bolster up the defences and attract money to the island.

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Was this Napoleon’s first sight of the island ?

Napoleon himself was kept in two locations.  Given that there were no telecommunications in these days, the Governor of St Helena only got the message that Napoleon was being placed in his care by a fast ship just a few days ahead of the boat carrying Bonaparte himself.  It was decided to renovate a house on the far side of the island but it would not be ready when the prisoner arrived.  So while his permanent accommodation was being made ready, he was housed in a small lodge on the Briars land just behind Jamestown.  I drove up the back streets of Jamestown and was greeted by Michel, the French Consul and his little dog.

One of the peculiarities of this little island is it is not under one sovereignty but two.  While the UK government control most of the island through their Overseas Territory of St Helena and its Dependencies, three pieces of land connected to Napoleon are counted as French Territory – the so called French Domains of St Helena.  The Briars is the smallest of these, not much more than a small garden raised above the road and a little pavilion – like a summer house, where Napoleon opted to live when under the residence of the Balcombe family who owned the main house.

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The French Consul and his dog

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 – In Gentle Decline

And so the island’s infrastructure, where not directly fed from outside interests, tends to decay.  Ascension’s history is lying all over the place.  The bric a brac of ruins is the legacy of brief periods when the island was useful.  The first major investment was the building of barracks on the island.  The imprisonment of Napoleon on St Helena was one of the biggest times where the British felt it necessary to have defensive infrastructure on the island.  Napoleon was such a personality, and although a hate figure in the UK, was still so much revered by the French and its territories that there was a fear that some group or other would mount a rescue mission.  Ascension Island provided a location to defend the island from approaches from the north, albeit being 500 miles to the north west and a speck of land in an ocean of water.  Georgetown grew out of this and the layout of the town is much more like a barracks than a civilian settlement.  Two Boats grew out of the need to house workers at the transmitter stations in the 1950s, with Cable and Wireless joining in later.  The air bases at the other end of the island were to billet workers for the newly constructed air field.  Over time the numbers of people have oscillated, with a huge influx when Britain went to war with the Argentineans in the Falklands.  But all businesses oscillate in their fortunes, and also in the efficiencies modern technology brings.  Most of the installations on Ascension now need far fewer people to keep them maintained than in the past, and contractors can be brought in temporarily to fix things or improve them.  The Government itself suffers the most.  It has to provide operational and technical services to keep the lights on, the houses maintained (not easy when they were built in an era of asbestos, have suffered rat and termite infestations, and the general wear of salty winds is gradually denuding the walls and roofs away), provide social and educational services… all with a tiny tax base, small help from outside and little opportunity to raise other revenue.

So things decline.  The barrack structures built in the Napoleonic era are the most grand on Ascension.  The centrepiece of Georgetown is the Exiles Club.  It was the original marine barracks but served as a club at one time.  It is taller than most in town and, adorned with a imposing clock tower, is the town’s defining landmark.  But it has been more or less in disuse for fifty years and is rotting away.  Parade grounds around the Exiles are still empty of any other buildings which allows you to get a full view from almost every angle, but it is so faded; what would be a Grade 1 listed building bustling with cafes, performance spaces and boutiques in any other town in the UK, here it is a majestic but sad representation of Ascension.

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The Exiles – fading away