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Big, Bad Barn: St Helena’s Most Difficult Post Box Walk

Sharon, sitting on top of the Barn, looking down over the seaward side. This was the day we reached the summit for the first time so we took our time to enjoy the fabulous views of St Helena from here.

Sharon, sitting on top of the Barn, looking down over the seaward side. This was the day we reached the summit for the first time so we took our time to enjoy the fabulous views of St Helena from here.

HIKING THE LONGWOOD BARN | Darrin Henry

After years of trepidation and two failed attempts we finally conquered the big, bad Barn on the third try, completing one of St Helena’s most intimidating hiking trails. It certainly lived up to the hype, but in a different way to expectations. In short, the scary bits and the less scary bits were opposite to what we had envisaged.

Why We Were Afraid Of The Mist

Since that first success we’ve now hiked this brute of a rock three more times, but the tricky volcanic terrain still gives me the knee shivers every time. A good dose of care and respect is essential every time on this walk.

The Barn, St Helena. This view of the Barn from the Millennium Forest area shows how rugged and difficult the 'rock' is to climb. The knife edge ridge can be seen to the left of the frame.

The Barn, St Helena. This view of the Barn from the Millennium Forest area shows how rugged and difficult the ‘rock’ is to climb. The knife edge ridge can be seen to the left of the frame.

St Helena has some amazing outdoor walking trails. Here is Sharon, almost at the base of the Barn a few years ago, but we had to turn back soon after this as it was getting late and we didn't want to risk getting caught in fog or darkness.

St Helena has some amazing outdoor walking trails. Here is Sharon, almost at the base of the Barn a few years ago, but we had to turn back soon after this as it was getting late and we didn’t want to risk getting caught in fog or darkness.

A reason we abandoned one of our first attempts a few years back was fading light and descending mist. There’s only one safe path down from the Barn and we didn’t want to be stuck on top in poor visibility. On that successful third time we weren’t taking any chances, starting out at 1.45pm on a gorgeous Sunday afternoon in the middle of St Helena summer. The guidebook suggested 2hrs 15 mins as an outward time. We took 1hr 45.

(Here’s a short video of hiking the Barn on St Helena)

Cows Allowed On The Plain

The trail begins at the top of the gentle curving landscape that is Deadwood Plain. In fact this mirrors the first half of the Flagstaff post box walk from an earlier post.

The Barn, St Helena. This marker post can be found on the edge of Deadwood Plain, at the point where the trail heads off the grassy plain and down over the hill, through the furze bushes. The dark hulk of the Barn itself can be seen in the distance.

The Barn, St Helena. This marker post can be found on the edge of Deadwood Plain, at the point where the trail heads off the grassy plain and down over the hill, through the furze bushes. The dark hulk of the Barn itself can be seen in the distance.

Hiking the Barn you are rewarded with amazing views down over the volcanic coastline of St Helena. The distinctive peak of Turks Cap can be seen at the end of this valley, and to the far right is the towers of King and Queen Rock and Prosperous Bay House.

Hiking the Barn you are rewarded with amazing views down over the volcanic coastline of St Helena. The distinctive peak of Turks Cap can be seen at the end of this valley, and to the far right is the towers of King and Queen Rock and Prosperous Bay House.

The vicious spikes on furze bushes near the start of the Barn walk require a good dose of attention. This shrub type plant is very difficult to remove and is a hazard when it takes root in St Helena's pasture lands.

The vicious spikes on furze bushes near the start of the Barn walk require a good dose of attention. This shrub type plant is very difficult to remove and is a hazard when it takes root in St Helena’s pasture lands.

Obstacle one of the day turned out to be – cows! Deadwood Plain, a former Boer War Prisoner camp, is now an important Wirebird habitat and site of the island’s wind farm. But it is also pastureland, and while on previous visits the cattle had been scattered in the distance, on this occasion we were sharing the pathways. Crossing another field a flock of sheep were quickly disappointed when they realised we weren’t there to feed them.

After leaving the livestock and the grassy plain the path had us climb over a good old fashioned stile to get out of the paddocks, then down over the edge of the hillside to begin the serious hiking. Traversing the small, heavily eroded gully that followed would have been more fun if not for the thorny furze bushes that grow at this altitude and in places intrude into the pathway. Keeping your footing on the slope while straddling this spiky plant was a rather delicate exercise.

Watch Out For The Knife Edge

A short respite was next, the trail crosses the stunning marls of red, brown and white earth ridges. The fiery hues of this landscape really come alive in the glow of afternoon sunlight.

One of our earlier attempts at hiking the Barn on St Helena, a few years back. It's hard to believe looking at this, but the weather turned quite suddenly soon afterwards causing us to abandon the hike and turn back. The coloured soil landscape along this part of the walk is quite beautiful in the sunshine.

One of our earlier attempts at hiking the Barn on St Helena, a few years back. It’s hard to believe looking at this, but the weather turned quite suddenly soon afterwards causing us to abandon the hike and turn back. The coloured soil landscape along this part of the walk is quite beautiful in the sunshine.

To say we then found ourselves on a ‘knife edge’ would not be dramatising. It’s actually the name of the thin ridge line that would take us down to the foot of the Barn. We agreed this was the most difficult part of the walk, rather underplayed by the guide book’s description:

Descend with the cliff on your left, with impressive views down to Flagstaff Bay. This ridge has a loose covering of earth and stones and is a very slippery slope to descend.

“Slippery” the path certainly is, and very steep, which makes the “cliff on your left” quite unnerving. The narrow path in places actually sloped away to the cliff. I’m a wimp with heights, so our pace was extremely slow and precise. One careless moment and I wouldn’t want to think about ‘what the Saints did next.’

The huge bulk of the Barn looms in the distance, but this is the start of the most difficult part (for us), the knife edge, which can be seen quite clearly snaking across the ridge top. This is what makes it one of St Helena's more difficult post box walks.

The huge bulk of the Barn looms in the distance, but this is the start of the most difficult part (for us), the knife edge, which can be seen quite clearly snaking across the ridge top. This is what makes it one of St Helena’s more difficult post box walks.

I'm nearly at the bottom of the knife edge, at the point where the path veers off to the right, around to the base of the Barn. This is a good angle to view how steep and extreme the seaward cliff face of the Barn on St Helena is.

I’m nearly at the bottom of the knife edge, at the point where the path veers off to the right, around to the base of the Barn. This is a good angle to view how steep and extreme the seaward cliff face of the Barn on St Helena is.

Eventually, safely at the bottom of the knife edge the route then veered away from the cliff edge heading around the hillside to the base of the Barn. The track here was still narrow; however, it felt like a two lane highway after the experience of creeping down the knife edge.

It’s Not Nipple

Climbing up onto the actual Barn was what had worried us most about this walk. The Barn is one of those prominent, mystical landmarks which can be seen for miles, yet its fierce, rugged geology is off-putting. From afar, the rocky cliff face on all sides appears impossible to scale. But up close, even with the cliff walls towering over us, the zigzag pathway was suddenly revealed. A small, knobbly section of the rock face provided a crude stairway. Young cactus plants and some loose rocks needed treating with caution; otherwise navigating the route wasn’t too bad. The proximity of the sheer drop a few feet away ensured we stayed focused.

At the base of the Barn, trying to locate the pathway that will lead us up over the cliff face to the top. Watch out for small cactus bushes which grow in amongst the grass. The Barn, St Helena.

At the base of the Barn, trying to locate the pathway that will lead us up over the cliff face to the top. Watch out for small cactus bushes which grow in amongst the grass. The Barn, St Helena.

On the flat top of the Barn, heading towards the Haystack where the post box is located. The colourful creeper on the ground, grows in the drier caostal regions of St Helena.

On the flat top of the Barn, heading towards the Haystack where the post box is located. The colourful creeper on the ground, grows in the drier caostal regions of St Helena.

Once up above the cliff line, we were effectively on the Barn, but still facing a surprisingly long, uphill trek to reach the plateau. Not for the first time that day I marvelled at the deceiving size of the Barn.

A small, neatly formed rocky hill, at the eastern end of the Barn, beckoned. “Let’s head for that nipple,” I had said, before later learning the correct name was, The Haystack.

The St Helena Wind Shear

The Haystack turned out to be the summit, complete with a post box and visitor’s book. It was a wonderful feeling to stand there, 616m up, taking in the 360 degree panorama. We had really done it, at last. We had hiked ‘the Barn.’ The visitors’ book’s last entry had been written more than a month ago, a clear sign this walk was not easy. Only the week before on Diana’s Peak we’d found four comments in the book ahead of us from that same day. No, the Barn is definitely not for the leisure walker.

At the summit of the Barn on St Helena, 616m high with 360 degree views all round. This post box is not as well visited as the others on St Helena. The top of the Barn can become shrouded in mist very quickly so it's worth aiming to reach the top earlier rather than later in the day.

At the summit of the Barn on St Helena, 616m high with 360 degree views all round. This post box is not as well visited as the others on St Helena. The top of the Barn can become shrouded in mist very quickly so it’s worth aiming to reach the top earlier rather than later in the day.

The ice-plant thrives across the top of the Barn where the dry, barren terrain is an ideal habitat for it.

The ice-plant thrives across the top of the Barn where the dry, barren terrain is an ideal habitat for it.

On 18 April, 2016, the very first 'big jet' landed at St Helena, this British Airways, Boeing 737-800, which we photographed from the top of the Barn. To view our blog post from that day with all the pictures and a video, click here.

On 18 April, 2016, the very first ‘big jet’ landed at St Helena, this British Airways, Boeing 737-800, which we photographed from the top of the Barn. To view our blog post from that day with all the pictures and a video, click here.

Cloud (or was it fog) then suddenly threatened the view. A moment of panic! We quickly got busy with the camera, shooting the vista below.

The top of the Barn is a superb vantage point to view the new St Helena airport on Prosperous Bay Plain; the cliff top location of the runway particularly outstanding. It prompted us to return at a later date to photograph the inaugural British Airways flight, a Boeing 737-800 landing in April 2016. As it turns out, that flight identified wind shear as a major safety concern which means to date the new St Helena airport is still to begin scheduled flights. From the top edge of the Barn, overlooking Prosperous Bay, the strong constant wind is very noticeable.

Inspiration

The return walk from The Barn is easier. Going up the knife edge we felt more stable and in control. Perhaps buoyed by our success and a false sense of capability, we returned from that first success with plans to go back and camp on the Barn in order to catch the morning light for pictures. Both of us didn’t even consider we haven’t camped properly since the Scouts and Girl Guides (a long time ago); we don’t even own a tent!

But there you go. That’s the inspiration that walking The Barn will give you!

Beginning our descent down off the Barn on the day we photographed the first 737-800 British Airways airplane to land on St Helena. The ridge line of the knife edge can be seen just off centre to the right, where the dark, eroded hillside meets the smoother inland slope. And toward the top of the frame the long grassy stretch of Deadwood Plain is just visible which is the start point.

Beginning our descent down off the Barn on the day we photographed the first 737-800 British Airways airplane to land on St Helena. The ridge line of the knife edge can be seen just off centre to the right, where the dark, eroded hillside meets the smoother inland slope. And toward the top of the frame the long grassy stretch of Deadwood Plain is just visible which is the start point.

So is it the most difficult of St Helena’s post box walks? In my opinion – yes. But we haven’t done Powell’s Valley yet which apparently might be worse. If you’re thinking of hiking the Barn don’t underestimate the difficulty; it really is one for experienced walkers. I would even suggest going with an experienced guide if it’s your first attempt.

The fortress-like cliffs completely circle the Barn. This view from the opposite side, taken from on board the RFA Gold Rover, gives an indication of how intimidating the square shaped lump of the Barn can be.

The fortress-like cliffs completely circle the Barn. This view from the opposite side, taken from on board the RFA Gold Rover, gives an indication of how intimidating the square shaped lump of the Barn can be.

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