(Back to St Helena…. Sunday 31 July )
I had arranged with Alun (from Shropshire) to accompany him on a day of exploring the south west side of the island. He is putting together a series of photos of the island to develop, with a colleague who teaches Geography, a secondary education module on St Helena. It was a fascinating day of learning a lot more about the history of the island – and about the Boer war – from someone who is an expert ie a History teacher!
Alun had researched exactly where he wanted to go and was prepared with Ordnance Survey map and a tick-list. We started by driving up through Half Tree Hollow, the more populous settlement that sits high above Jamestown. The road leading out from Jamestown is very windy and narrow, with passing places but blind corners too. Once on top we turned off on a small road going via the coast to the community of Scotland. There were soon views back to the north east over to Flagstaff and The Barn. High Knoll Fort, a fortification from the time when the island was under East India Company control, was also clearly seen from many of the roads we wandered along. We drove along one road as far as we could go, then continued on foot for half a mile or so, being rewarded with views down into Lemon Valley, so called because there were once thousands of lemon trees there. The easiest access into Lemon Valley is from the sea. Sailors used to stop and collect lemons from there when passing by St Helena.
Our route took us up round the hillside of Scotland (green and quite Perthshire-looking) to a crossroads by Mount Eternity. We parked up by a pleasant picnic site and walked up to the top of the ‘mount’ which is covered in high pine trees. Rather suddenly, we found ourselves on a narrow rocky ridge with steep drops either side. The ridge carries on ending in a spectacular cliff high above the Atlantic. We turned back, not equipped or prepared to go ridge-walking.
Next stop was Plantation House, home of Governor Gurr and his wife; also home of Jonathan and his five ‘friends’. Jonathan is a giant tortoise now believed to be 178 yrs old, probably the oldest living creature known to be alive. He was a gift from the Seychelles to St Helena in 1882 when he was believed to be 50 years of age. Over recent years, he has been joined by five young ‘whippersnapper’ giant tortoises, three of them being female.
A grand old man he might be, but he is still reported to have enough energy to get up to ‘nooky’ with the three younger females. Sadly, eggs have been laid, but none have proved to be fertilised.
The tortoises live on the large lawn at the front of Plantation House. There is a tennis court in the middle, but plenty grass and space around for the tortoises. The day we met them, Jonathon was the first to greet us. He was taking shelter from the rain under a large tree under which was strewn bundles of hay, suggesting that this tree must be his home. What an amazing experience to touch a living, moving thing that has been around for so many years before my coming into being. He didn’t move very much, that’s for sure, but he blinked his bleary eyes a lot and slowly lifted his head and neck to Alun’s stroking finger.
We found three other tortoises – all much smaller than Jonathon. Two were mobile around the grassy perimeters. The other was nose deep in mud. It was fascinating to watch how slowly they plod around (apart from the one in the muddy pool that didn’t move at all). Alun discovered just how heavy they are when one slowly moved towards him and stood on his foot!
St Paul’s cathedral is close to Plantation House and was our next destination to explore. After pottering about the graveyard looking at all the now familiar surnames: Benjamin, Leo, Yon, Solomon, Fowler, Clingham, Henry etc we were surprised to discover the grave of Thomas Jackson of Walkerfield Hall in Co Durham. He died on St Helena on April 9th 1918 at the grand age of 82. There is no explanation of why he was on the island. The simple epitaph is ‘His end was peace’. Underneath at the bottom of the grave stone is a slate plaque that reads ‘You were lost, and I have now found you. You are gone but not forgotten. Your G.G Grandson. Jeff Jackson’. There is no date to show when the two were ‘reunited’.. Just in front of the simple 19th century cathedral building is a small plain wooden cross that has the following inscription: ‘John Michael Donovan Crook Born 1927 Died 30th June 1996 Surgeon Physician Priest and Hon Canon of this Cathedral’ He must have been a busy man, fulfilling all those duties.
On we went, further to the south up and down winding lanes. In one part, the countryside looked like Pembrokeshire, in another the Scottish borders, in another the tropics. We visited an arboretum where indigenous trees are being planted and the incomers, the arum lilies , removed. It was the first time that I had seen the arum lilies growing in the wild in such abundance. This is the national flower of St Helena though there are moves to change this to the Ebony flower which is a native plant unlike the naturalised arum.
There was once a lucrative flax industry on St Helena. All the twine for the Royal Mail came from here. But now that is no more and the Saints don’t know what to do with the rampaging flax plants all over the island. There is also the problem of the donkeys, used to bring the flax down to Jamestown for processing. Some years ago, someone discovered the donkeys were being badly neglected and virtually feral. A donkey sanctuary was opened with more than twenty donkeys now living happily together; well, boys in one field and the ‘jennies’ in another. Local people and visitors go up regularly to take the donkeys for a walk. Today was not a walk day so I spent a lot of time petting all the boys who lined up along the fence to see what I had for them. I shared an apple, biting off a piece for each who was bold enough to come close.
Donkeys were not the only wildlife encountered at that point as I also disturbed a large black mouse in the undergrowth. It remained silent but suddenly seeing it made me squeak!
The next walk was up High Point, where we had amazing views all the way from Diana’s Peak in the north round to Lot’s wife to the south of Sandy Bay. We headed down one southerly road that leads to an old church called St Helena and the Cross. For the population of St Helena there must be around eight churches of different denominations, as well as a Salvation Army Hall, Seventh Day Adventist church, a Jehovah’s Witness Kingdom Hall as well as a Bahai meeting place. Quite amazing for around 4000 people!
Back to a junction near High Point and then on to another road also running south. This road traverses a ridge then enters North Yorkshire moors look-alike terrain, complete with very British looking sheep and young lambs. The tarmac ran out after two miles so we again left the car and walked on for half a mile or so in the direction of South West Point enjoying the views back to the south of the island.
Just after we set off, I suddenly caught sight of a wirebird up to the left of us. Not only is this a rare bird on the island, only around 300 in total, but this was not the place where you would expect to see it. We got out and followed it with binoculars and camera until it flew up and away into the bushes. After a brilliant day out and about, seeing the wirebird, the national bird of St Helena was the icing on the cake for me,
We ended the day visiting the cemetery of the prisoners of war from the Boer War. Around 100 numbered simple white graves fill the small steeply sloping site. At the bottom stand two large pink granite obelisks engraved with the name of each person shown against the number of the grave they are buried in. I thought of my great grandfather who had been a soldier in the Boer War and wondered what his experience had been in that awful time in British Empire history..