After ten days in Jamestown knuckling down to the business that brought me here, I was ready for a break. My friends from Shropshire told me about an open day at Longwood, where Napoleon was in captivity for most of his six year sojourn on the island. Longwood is high up on the top plain of the island, about twenty minutes along a narrow winding road that climbs up and out on the south east side of Jamestown.
Between here and there, Mike, our chauffeur pulled over to show us the path down to Napoleon’s first final place of rest. We (Paula, Alun, Mike and I) wandered down a lush green lane, not letting the locked gates stand in our way (thus proving that 50 plus-es can still climb over walls if the incentive is strong enough).
The setting was stunningly beautiful and peaceful, apart from bird song and the resonant clink that the local frogs make (no croaking here!), which just added to the otherworldly atmosphere. Napoleon was buried there in 1821 after his untimely death at the age of 52 from stomach cancer or poisoning by the British or kidney disease or iatrogenic causes thanks to his overzealous doctors. Nineteen years later, his compatriots exhumed him and took him to tomb number 2 in Les Invalides, Paris, on the banks of the Seine.
We carried on to Longwood after clambering back over the wall. This time we could walk through an open gate with the gardens Napoleon designed laid out before us like a mini hilltop Giverny. There were nasturtiums, irises, poinsettias, birds of paradise and michaelmas daisies all flowering despite it being mid-winter. I am sure that it is a riot of colour in the summer months. Inside, the house is comparatively dark with blinds drawn similar to the way Napoleon would have had them. In some of the shuttered windows in the main ‘receiving of visitors’ room, circles have been cut out of one or two of the thick horizontal slats allegedly by Napoleon himself so he could spy on who was coming to the front door. The height of the holes confirms that he was not a tall man as does the bed which is a replica of the one in which he died. Not only did the French take Napoleon back to Paris – but also almost all the Longwood furniture. Every wall in the building is crammed with portraits featuring Napoleon in many moods and exploits. He is not smiling in any of them.. There is even a lock of his hair on show.
After the tour of the house, it was refreshing to sit under a large gazebo on a big lawn having afternoon tea St Helena style. It was as good a cuppa as you can get anywhere and my first taste of bread’n’dance – a tomato paste and egg savoury sandwich filling. Scones and cakes completed the eats on offer. They were served by some local ladies and surprisingly, I knew two of them: Rosie, the midwife who trained in Middlesbrough and her sister, Angie, a theatre nurse. It was a family affair as all the other caterers bar one were close relatives.
Alun, was our navigator for the day and directed us on further to the northeast to view the proposed site for the long promised St Helena airstrip. Prosperous Bay Plain is windswept, undulating terrain surrounded by rocky outcrops and ending in a sheer drop into the ocean. I imagine it will become one of the most spectacular runways in the world – and possibly one of the windiest. Where we stood, looking over the plain, we were surrounded by acres of new forest, the Millennium Forest, established by the St Helena National Trust to reintroduce indigenous trees into an area ravaged by erosion through over cutting of trees in centuries past. Looking across Millennium Forest to Prosperous Bay Plain
The new trees are gum trees; 6000 in 25 hectares – about a tenth of the final goal for numbers and size. It is hard to imagine that the small, widely spread out gum trees will one day change the barren landscape back to its former woody glory – but with the help of the very active NT and conservationally minded youngsters who regularly come to plant a few more trees, the dream will become a reality.
We ended our outing with a hike up to one of the highest points on St Helena. Flagstaff hill used to be used as a site for communicating with passing ships. When Napoleon was captive, a flag was flown there every day. All knew that if the colour of the flag changed to blue, then Napoleon had escaped. Escaping was one achievement too far for the defeated emperor. The blue flag was never flown. I wonder where it ended up?