2021 Letter from St Helena Two

Sat 17 Apr 2021 11:21

Letter from St Helena Two

Out and About with Boney

There was a typical one metre swell at the stone wharf, surging up, down and along, shining the rocks and swirling the green weed, as the British pinnace from HMS Northumberland approached containing a small contingent of officers, his secretary and personal servants and its distinguished prisoner, fallen Emperor Napoleon Bonaparte. It was the 17th October 1815.

Boney as he was nicknamed, more from affection and admiration than disrespect, leapt across the watery gap onto the slippery steps as the shadows of the evening grew longer and darker around him.

His new prison island awaited him.

Since then, those steps have been encased in concrete forming a strong and durable wall and a series of low concrete stages laid at different levels to try and ease the landing process, but the swell is unchanged in this corner of the Bay, sheltered from the wind and tucked beneath the rocky cliff face topped by James Fort.

Two hundred and six years later, our little contingent of visitors arrived on a boat no bigger and used the hanging ropes suspended from a bar above the stage to swing across that watery gap.

We supped the famous St Helena coffee at the little café by the dry moat and I wondered through which small gate Boney had entered the castle to spend his first night in a highly undesirable house for him, because it looked out over the street and folk could peer in through the windows to catch a glimpse of their new significant visitor. The porch of the little gate can still be seen from Ann’s Place looking across the Castle Gardens.

Perhaps St Helena would suit this reclusive man, or as with his confinement on Elba, did he yearn for his freedom more.

The eight of us divided up between two vehicles, Henk, Marjolein, Rob and me with young conservationist James and Janneke, Weitze, Christo and Nana with James’ partner, Jesse in a hired and not very reliable vehicle.

Winding our way up the hillside away from Jamestown James pointed out the house with the green roof, perched on a grassy level area in the pretty watered valley and sheltered from the swirling clouds that often cap the highest peaks of the island.

Boney rode a horse the next morning out to inspect Longwood and on his way back spotted the original house, (demolished in 1947) called The Briars and requested to remain there, in a folly Cottage called the Pavilion, twenty metres from the main house, until Longwood was ready. It was very near the Heart Shaped waterfall I mentioned and for Boney to stroll the shaded banyan tree avenue listening to the birdsong and return to watch the four Balcombe children playing and squabbling in the grounds of the main house was music to his ears after his long campaigns and two gruelling months at sea.

The Pavilion is where he was happiest, with the secluded and luscious location amidst people who sympathised with him, and the building can be visited today. We didn’t make it there either; another reason to return.

Our first stop involved a lengthy climb up narrow roads so bendy that longer vehicles than ours would have to enter a bend, stop and back up to a better position before continuing. Much easier on a horse!

High Knoll Fort was built in 1798 and observers from its ramparts would have spotted ships in the offing 50 miles away. Beneath its robust walls is Donkey Plain, where the hard-working donkeys would rest and graze when they weren’t hauling up goods and equipment via the 699 step Jacob’s Ladder from Jamestown.

In 1811 some of the soldiers on duty in the fort mutinied because they wanted more alcohol and six of the ringleaders were hanged as a result. Today the fort is home to a host of rabbits, six thirsty ghosts and odd human visitors who camp there, maybe on treks around the island. Serious for a moment; life for the garrison soldiers on this remote island, so far from home, was often boring and bleak, up there in the clouds with little of any purpose to occupy them and the suicide rate was high.

After a bracing few minutes soaking up the views, we headed off to The Governor’s residence at Plantation House, in use for the same purpose since before Boney’s time, having been built in 1792.

It’s a fine Georgian Mansion facing the sun’s passage and overlooking a generous lawn, kept short and neat by Jonathan who arrived in 1882, the world’s oldest reptile aged 189 and his entourage of Frederika, who appears in the photo with him and was once thought to be a male until she was examined by a vet, and two other reptilian lawn mowers. Beyond the lawn is a vast and carefully tended vegetable garden and I could not understand why, with the perfect climate and fertile soil there weren’t many more of them; but at least we were to see two on our day out.

Debbie showed us around the ground floor rooms with great pride. Like Jonathan she has seen the coming and goings of the Governors, working out their four-year terms before moving on, including the first Lady Governor Lisa Honan (nee Phillips). She talked about the local lad who went away to learn the art of furniture restoration and now has plenty of work on the island. The white painted planter is one of the three in the house once used to render down whale blubber and the chandelier in the dining room has had an additional layer of crystals added because the ceilings here are much taller than in Longwood from where the chandelier originated.

Upstairs the white and airy room in which Princess Anne slept during her visit in 2002 has a view to delight one from the north facing window, and it is good to know the house is still very much lived in and used for the pleasure of visitors and islanders alike.

Our visit ended with a glass of chilled juice and home-made biscuits and mini samosas which set us up well for the drive south, over the island to Sandy Bay where James’ parents live in the late 18th century mansion house, they have restored on Wrangham’s Estate. This Debbie was born and bred in a little house across the valley belonging to her grandmother and in which relatives still live. Debbie married Neil, from England and they have lived around the world because of Neil’s career postings. James was born in Africa and has been back on the island working on conservation projects, taking a day off to be our excellent guide. He will be off again soon, to England with Jesse so she can have her baby in Portsmouth, her home town.

The scenery here was green and abundant with steep hillsides covered in small pastures and woodland. Ridges on the hillsides told of past grazing by sheep and cattle.

Debbie has taken just a few short years to transform the area around the house into a productive garden and even grows coffee beans on a small scale for home use. It was mellow and fruity. She is developing the house into a B & B with a separate self-contained unit under construction.

We were fortunate enough to be invited to one of her special luncheons where the food was all home grown and cooked and the spinach bread was delightfully different. Coconut milk panna cotta with passionfruit rounded off the culinary experience. Being welcomed as complete strangers into her lovely home and fed with such carefully prepared food was an unexpected and very special experience.

Up amongst the Plovers was our next stop and we had to be very careful where we walked as we looked across the open heathland towards the airport runway. James’ passion is wildlife, after Jesse of course, and he couldn’t wait to show us these dainty little birds, St Helena’s only remaining endemic species. They ran away from us of course, challenging the skills of the best photographers, not including me, but I did manage to get a picture of one’s nest with its two eggs, laid on shallow hollows on the open ground, hence having to be careful.

“She’ll soon come back to her nest when we move away and if the eggs are ready to hatch the only way you’ll get her off is to lift her!” James explained.

Jesse told me how scared she was on her first landing on the island, which is 47 square miles, roughly 6 x 8 miles.

“We were just a few metres above sea-level it seemed, about to touch down and we still couldn’t see any land.” The pilots are limited in the times they can circuit the island before landing before they have to turn back to somewhere in Africa to re-fuel. See how the end of the runway drops off the cliff! I’m glad we came in on Zoonie.

Next stop was for a brief look around Longwood as it was on route and was all we could manage since the house was closed because of Covid.

One can look across directly towards High Knoll Fort and to Diana’s Peak (820m ish) both being kissed by cool clouds when we were there and it was easy to see how bleak and exposed was Boney’s ‘prison’ like the Westcountry Moors on a grey day.

We meandered to the gate and a man near the house spotted us and came towards us with his friendly dog, both were smiling. “We’ve just received our Covid test results and we’re all negative. So, if you’d care to come back tomorrow at 11.00am, you’ll be welcome to take a look around the house!” Well, that was agreed then and on we drove to our last stop, Boney’s Tomb in the Sane Valley.

Two of James’ colleagues had been waiting in their vehicle to give him the gate key and we walked a mile or so down a grassy track into the most beautiful valley of flowering plants, ferns and tall trees dripping with moisture.

Boney was entombed here in four coffins one within the other, made of different materials. In 1840, nineteen years after his death, a distinguished group of Frenchmen arrived to exhume him and take him to his final resting place at Les Invalides on the banks of the Seine in Paris amidst his beloved French compatriots.

As the final coffin was opened and the remnants of the white veil removed from his face his near perfect preservation caused his loyal rescuers to shed yet more tears. The books say his ashes were taken to Paris, but whether ‘ashes’ is a synonym for remains I am not sure, if so then he must have been cremated on the island.