The Adopted Dog – Fort Charlotte

Our time there was coming to an end.  We’d slogged out the last few days finalizing the training course we were delivering, writing reports, following up on various bits of administration.  I realized that we had hardly had a chance to relax and enjoy the country.  One day we had managed to take a couple of hours off one afternoon and taken a walk up to Fort Charlotte.  Situated at the western end of the bay, it has commanding views over the Bequia Channel  and is typical of that early 19th century construction that you find in forts large and small all over the former British Empire domains.  The last time I had wandered up here, on my first ever visit to St Vincent, the fort had been derelict, but now the authorities had done a wonderful job of restoration, repointed the brick work, cleaned up the pathways, removed the weeds and painted the rocks.  One curious element of the fort is that although it has this wonderful vista over the Grenadines where any French ship trying to enter the harbour would be spotted hours before it could be a threat, most of the guns were pointing inland.  This fort was used as a redoubt, the fortified location that the colonists would retreat to if there was a threat to their wellbeing in Kingstown.  And the biggest threat in St Vincent was from the local Black Carib tribes in the north of the island.  These were the ferocious escaped slaves who hid in the jungles of the interior.  So the fort kept as much of a vigilant watch over the mountains to the north as the sea approaches from south, west and east.

Inside one of the fort’s many rooms was a series of paintings of one of the episodes in St Vincent’s history related to the Black Carib uprising.  The style was a mixture or naive and explicit – the colours were bold and light effects emphasised, but the detail was meticulous.  The murals show how in 1779 the Black Caribs, led by their chief, Chattoyér,  ransacked many of the plantations and settlements across the islands; the fort was commissioned soon after to stop a repeat of this episode and was completed in 1806.

We looked out at the view, both the distant islands of the Grenadines and the little details in the immediate environs.  Below the fort, nearly 600 ft below, was a outcrop of rocks. Cut in to the rock was a square shaped pool which I later learnt was used by lepers to bathe separately from the people of the nearby city.  To the north west of the fort were a couple of little valleys that contained the western suburbs of Kingstown.  I had only once before been down there, when I visited the Hairoun Brewery with a colleague of mine from BVI.  We’d had a fascinating tour of the brewery itself, but then were left alone in the executive bar with a free tap.  Hairoun lager is one of the more flavoursome of the Caribbean lagers, but draught fresh from the tap a few metres from where it was produced it was sublime.  I was merry that night.

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.