Thursday, 28 April 2011

Last Day on St. Helena

[Originally posted by e-mail from the ship and edited on my return to the UK]

The day started with an excellent breakfast at Susan's B&B. They'd agreed to transfer our luggage to the dock by the cut-off time of two o'clock so I was able to post the previous blog to this one on the hotel's Wi-Fi before saying goodbye and walking with fellow guests into the town centre. Packed lunches had been ordered from Ivy at the Wellington Hotel so I picked these up before we congregated outside the Consulate Hotel for a ten o'clock pick-up by Corker's tours. We'd already had rain showers so we were not surprised and not too disappointed that they were using a modern 14-seat people carrier.

We set off up the steep, winding road out of the town on the east side of the valley. This road had become familiar from my various walks and the previous day's Napoleonic Tour. When we reached the junction by the bus shelter about a mile out of town, we took the leftmost turn for the high road, with the Cable and Wireless Satellite Ground Station (which had, no doubt, transmitted the blog referred to above) visible below us on the Briars Road we'd taken to reach the Pavilion on the day before. As we ascended, the rain became almost constant. We couldn't take the direct road to Hutts Gate and Longwood because of the road closure for laying water mains which had affected us the day before. Instead, we took a circuitous, winding road rising above 800 metres above sea level in places. We passed close to the site of two former astronomical observatories - Maskelyne's Observatory and Halley's Mount. We reached Hutts Gate with its shop and turned right at St. Matthew's Church, leaving the Longwood road we'd taken before. We followed the contours around the lower levels of the Three Peaks, although, because of the lush undergrowth and the torrential rain, we couldn't see the mountain tops. There's a lot of New Zealand flax around here.

Flax was a commercial crop at one time but I believe the last Flax Mill closed over 30 years ago. There is a desire to restore a mill as a museum but, like everything on St. Helena, the economics of such a project are those of the mad house. The island population is only around 4,000 souls, much smaller than the country parish I live in, yet it has all the machinery of a sovereign state with a written constitution, Governor, flag and its own currency (the St. Helena pound enjoys parity with the English Pound which is equally accepted in shops). Police, fire and Ambulance services are provided. The main hospital is in Jamestown and there are a number of medical clinics around the island visited once a week by a doctor. Occasionally, the remote nature of the island causes tragedies. On the previous day, we'd seen dozens of cars parking in the vicinity of St. Paul's Cathedral. We learned these were mourners attending the memorial service for a young lad of about ten who had become seriously ill. He'd been taken aboard the previous RMS St. Helena sailing for Cape Town but had died en route. The island is not self-sufficient in food and is dependent on the monthly arrival of the ship I'm on (invariably referred to simply as 'The RMS') for food and all manufactured products. There are some sheep and beef cattle on the island, but there is no dairy herd, so all milk is imported.

We stopped at Silver Hill and visited the Silver Hill Shop. This mini-market is operated by Solomon & Company (St. Helena) plc as are a number of commercial enterprises on the island (such as petrol filling stations). In general, prices were similar to England but foodstuffs seemed a little expensive. We carried on, with intermittent heavy rain, travelling generally west, to pass the junction for Bellstone (the name of my cabin on the ship) and, by a devious route, working our way across the southern flank of the Three Peaks with our elevation falling to less than 600 metres. We stopped at the picnic area at Green Hill, near a number of modest houses with gardens carefully tended to provide the owners with various fresh vegetables. It appears that 'The RMS' is relied upon for potatoes as potato blight is endemic in St. Helena.

We then made a visit to the Adult Training Centre operated by 'SHAPE' - St. Helena's Active Partnership in Enterprise. This is a part Government funded venture for the physically and mentally handicapped. We were taken round by the retired principal of Tamworth College in England who is on a 6-month voluntary stint in St. Helena. She explained that they currently have 18 clients but that, given better arrangements for ferrying people to and from the centre, there are probably at least 40 more people who could benefit from attending the centre.

They are engaged in making various products from milled flax but it was explained that, once limited available stocks are exhausted, this will cease unless a way of milling flax can be established. Other products include hand-made soaps and toiletries, necklaces, hand-made paper and recycled cardboard briquettes to burn as an alternative to wood. They are experimenting with wool spinning, since the fleeces of the island sheep are not currently used. We saw a crocheted scarf made from wool spun at the centre.

We were still dodging showers as we stopped at the Cathedral Church of Saint Paul. The first church here was built in 1678 but, being timber built, it needed replacing in 1699. The replacement building was reported as being in a 'ruinous condition' by 1732 and the next church was a substantial affair in stone. The present building dates from 1851 and incorporates a number of commemorative plaques from the earlier building, some of which are quite moving.

Our route continued past the Governer's house, Plantation House, and the hilltop location of High Knoll Fort, visible for miles around. Sadly, because of the dangerous condition of the stonework, visits to this fort are no longer allowed. We passed through the modern housing of Half Tree Hollow and descended the zig-zag road descending Ladder Hill to finish our tour outside the Consulate Hotel a little after 3.0 p.m. The rain had stopped temporarily and there was a warming sun.

We were to present ourselves at the docks at 4.0 p.m., so I had time to make a second visit to the charming museum before walking towards the sea front. Crowds of people were waiting on the road to the dock. Some were clearly passengers, some were seeing off passengers and some, perhaps, were just observing the activities. Just after four, the barrier across the road was removed and passengers walked to the customs shed. The same two ladies from the Immigration Department of the St. Helena Police who had admitted us to St. Helena now checked that we were shown on the ship's manifest and stamped our passports as 'Departed'. They no longer seemed as forbidding as they appeared when we entered the island and the one lady, with a smile, said 'Come back again'. Numbered permits were issued and we waited for our number to be called before joining the waiting bus. The same driver took us past the stacks of containers and the two large cranes to the launch. We donned lifejackets and were allowed aboard. This time, the launch was bobbing up and down in the swell. A short trip took us to the pontoon next to the gangway on our ship. Because of the swell, the bottom of the gangway varied from touching the pontoon to being about 18 inches above it. By half past four, I was back in my original cabin, 'home' safely.

My St. Helena Island pictures.

All my pictures from the trip are here.