Friday, July 18, 2014

Visiting St. Helena - An Astonishing Island

Travelling for eight days for a four-day business trip, and then spending eight days wending my way home does seem peculiar in this day and age; as I write this, ensconced in a comfortable seat on a Lufthansa flight from Munich to Montreal connected to the world by wi-fi, I marvel that I started my journey home on Friday last week, and it is once again Friday. It is the sort of journey that one thought was consigned to the mists of time, but here it is. And travel in this manner is simply wonderful.

Dinner on board - a tough life; and cabin A 26

It’s funny really; stepping back into some mythical time in the past doesn't feel that odd when one does it. St. Helena has been described as living in the 1950s, and to a point that is true, it also lives in the 1850s and when the mood strikes, the island lives firmly in the 21st century. Much the same can be said, of course, about many remote villages throughout the world, but the really odd thing about St. Helena is the absence of an airport.

It is an absence that is changing as the engineers and constructors from the able South African firm Basil Read construct an airstrip on the island. It is, one of their engineers marvelled, a project unlike any other. They had to start by building a wharf to bring their equipment in, they needed to build a road, import absolutely everything, scrape the top of a hill and use the aggregate to fill in a massive ravine, and then put down an airport. It will be open in 2016, and assuming that an airline actually wants to start scheduled service, and this is by no means a certainty, tourists will start to flood in; that, at least, is the concept.

To attract visitors, the island needs to get tour operators on side, as the world of travel is a highly competitive one, and this was the underlying reason for my presence on the island together with Erik Brown of Halcyon Travel and my old friend Clive Stacey from the London-based travel company, Discover the World. We travelled with Janet Shankland, the St. Helena tourist representative in the UK, and visited every nook and cranny, many guesthouses and hotels, and were left with the main question of why this jewel has been left undisturbed by tourists for so long.

The Famous Four - Erik, Janet, Max and Clive

No good comes from dwelling on the past, but suffice it to say that we all are enthusiastic about the possibilities of travel to the island, and in particular before the airport arrives. The boat trip, which can be truncated on occasion by flying to Ascension Island and shaving a couple of days sailing time from the Cape Town run, is utterly marvellous, and a perfect introduction to this quirky destination.

St. Helena is the ideal destination for generalists; it has history, architecture, Wyre Birds, hiking programs, flora to astonish, SCUBA diving or snorkelling, deep sea fishing and a plentiful supply of souvenirs and South African wine. It offers accommodation to satisfy every taste from delightful guesthouses, such as the Town House where we stayed, to accommodation in perfectly restored 18th century properties. Food is a bit of an issue, but there are restaurants, if one books, and predictably a Chinese that is open regularly. As more tourists arrive, however, this will most certainly change. Self-catering accommodation is also possible, an option that includes the delights of joining the locals for shopping on Vegetable Thursdays.

Passing the time is not an issue at all; the main centre, Jamestown, is a delightful Georgian village, stretched out along a two-mile valley. The harbour dominates one end, of course, along with the major public buildings, The Castle where Important Work is done, the court and library, the police office and HM’s Prison.

The Court House - appropriately defended


 It is also the starting point for those who want to climb the 699 steps of Jacob’s Ladder.


Jacobs Ladder on its side (no idea how to turn images around)

This feature of the islands is interesting; built to allow soldiers garrisoned at the top of the hill, guarding the harbour, access to the fleshpots of Jamestown, the stairs (a solid 11’ each one) are a challenge to many. Clive among them, of course, who whizzed up them upon arrival and complained about his leg muscles for the next few days; I, realising that the nearest hospital was in Cape Town, refrained from showing off, and will try and learn Photoshop instead.

Continuing up Main Street, one is struck by the marvellous patina that the buildings exhibited; Georgian, lovely, solid and aged, they live in the continuum of life that stretches back to the days when 1300 ships each year called by for provisions. Jamestown has worn well, and its pubs (both a touch seedy, and I mean that in the most respectful way), and both entertaining function well, there are restaurants, grocery stores and all of the shops that a real High Street should have but few do. There are no chains, no clutch of estate agencies and no pretension; it is a lovely place.

The Market - 1860

The island does support, or at least maintain, a remarkable number of churches. Fortuitously connected to the incumbent Bishop, a cleric who curiously had known and rather liked my deeply un-clerical father and uncles for some thirty years, we were invited to dinner. Richard Fenwick, and his delightful wife Jane, are exactly what one would imagine of the Bishop of St. Helena and Ascension; a remote and really only geographically connected part of the Synod of South Africa, the parish counts over fourteen churches on the island, a couple more in Ascension and cares for the welfare of a people facing extreme change, and looks to the church for a degree of stability.

The Bishop - Richard Fenwick in fine form, and Janet, Richard and I after dinner

Dinner was wonderful; their house a lovely 18th century property, properly decorated with pictures, books and music, and redolent with conversation. Richard himself is a fine organist, and played for us as we enjoyed his cathedral; Jane is a very talented harpist, and an enduring memory of the trip will be sitting with Richard after dinner discussing the ways of the world, my ancestors’ drinking habits, London in the 1970s, and listening to Jane giving Clive his first harp lesson in the living room. Simply delightful, and a quintessential reflection of island life

But Jamestown is simply one small part of the island of St. Helena, and we left in the morning to explore more of this remote and unknown land.