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Open Features: St. Helena Island

... A short walk along the sea-front and we cross a narrow bridge over the dry castle moat, through an archway set in massively thick stone walls, into the most perfectly preserved replica of an eighteenth century colonial town...

Jacqueline Dowling paints a gorgeous word-portrait of St. Helena Island.

Early evening - December: position 15 56' south: 5 45' west: mid South Atlantic. The fair-weather route from Southern Africa to Buenos Aires.

On either side of the ship long swells and bow wave cream in falling light. The sea stretches out like hot metal, horizons flare bronze in air that scarcely moves, torpid and tropical. Beneath us the South Atlantic Basin, six thousand metres deep. Inquisitive sea birds hover above the masts, drifting on gentle thermals; a school of dolphins surf and race alongside.

A smudge appears on the horizon, hazy at first, then gradually finding form and rearing up shadowy and grey from the brilliance of the sea. Sheer volcanic cliffs, the face of St Helena 17 km long and 10km wide, far from the coast of Africa; one of the world's most remote, unique and appealing inhabited islands. A web of cloud hides the jagged uplands, fishing boats chug homewards and lights like willow-the-wisps flicker from a huddle of houses perched precariously on a grim basalt clifftop. Anchor unshackled and snaking seawards, tiny figures appear on the jetty, waving and laughing. Ocean-going yachts lie moored in the roadstead, rising and falling to the rhythm of the sea.

Harbourless, the stone wharf is frequently pounded by ferocious waves which make landing impossible. Today the good weather holds and our laden tenders roll between ship and shore, confident of a safe landing. These have not always been without incident; the wettest and most memorable took place in 1984 during a visit by Prince Andrew. The then British Governor, immaculate in whites and gold braid, missed the step on leaving Her Majesty's launch and plunged ignominiously, and to the hilarity of millions of viewers around the world, waistdeep into the Atlantic; to emerge dripping but still clinging to his Imperial dignity and soggy plumed headgear. Later reports had him posted to the much drier regions of Guyana. The wharf steps were improved and extended.

A short walk along the sea-front and we cross a narrow bridge over the dry castle moat, through an archway set in massively thick stone walls, into the most perfectly preserved replica of an eighteenth century colonial town. Jacarandas in full bloom cast dappled shadows across rough lime-washed walls in an atmosphere thick with tropical langour, the pace of life slow, the welcome friendly.

Purple flowers crunch underfoot as we make our way towards the compact Grand Parade past a castle where white stone walls enclose a tiny cobbled courtyard and time-worn steps lead to the present day St Helena Government administrative centre. Here we find the courthouse, the oldest library in the southern hemisphere, police station, tiny prison, St James' church and a charming shady park, complete with Victorian fountain and cannons.

Sitting on a bench under a large peepul tree, we meet one of our fellow travellers who, for several days, had been dreading a visit to a practitioner of similar calling, to have a tooth extracted. He is remarkably chirpy and tells us that the dentist is a Harley Street man who loves the island and is doing a two year stint in the local clinic.

'Best of all' he says, 'apart from the easy extraction, is the fact that I was charged local NHS rates. Too good to be true!' He grins gappily.

Two rows of beautifully restored Regency houses face each other across Main Street; their shutters, filigreed wrought iron and deep set sash windows drowsing dignified in the midday heat. An eclectic variety of vehicles park around the square; outside the cool and well stocked Spar supermarket a board offers Fresh Spit Roast Chickens One Each.

Entering the bar of The Consulate Hotel is like walking into a Graham Greene novel. There's an Our Man In...
atmosphere with scattered tables at which sit hot, quiet men watching soccer on a wall-mounted tv. Fans creak and sway, moving steamy air around but not cooling it. We are offered a glass of South African Autumn Harvest wine, white and warm, from a box which appears from under the bar counter.

Beyond lies a small creeper-covered courtyard, with more metal tables. We opt for a seat on the deep blue-pillared verandah to watch the passing show, and choose a taxi. It seems that every vehicle on the island has been pressed into service. We pass over the splendid 1929 charabanc in favour of Sam and his 1960s Austin. He thinks he is eighty years old...and still driving.

To be continued...
jacqueline dowling 2013

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