Life In One Of The World’s Tiniest Capitals | Sharon Henry
If Joshua Slocum or even the Duke of Wellington were to step ashore in Jamestown today, having returned in a time machine, the only thing that might set their alarm bells ringing of something being amiss (besides the time machine) would be the motor vehicles. Other than that, Jamestown hasn’t really changed much in appearance over the last few centuries.
The Four Street Capital
Okay I might have exaggerated, perhaps the rock netting or the Olympic sized swimming pool or the missing church spire would also be confusing but you get the picture – we are kind of stuck in a time warp. Since the island’s discovery by the Portuguese in 1502 and eventual settlement by the English in 1659 a fair chunk of built heritage has survived.
Tiny she may be with just four streets, yet St Helena’s capital and only city boasts its fair share of culture and diversity. Scenes can switch from 18th century England to tropical Mediterranean architecture, battered Ford Escorts to flashy SUVs and on occasions sleepy streets to bustling carnival parade.
One of my favourite things to do since childhood is walking along the seaside listening to the piercing cries of the red-billed tropic birds overhead, or ‘trophy birds’ as we call them. And dipping my hands into the Garden pond trying to catch a gobby. And people and traffic watching on the Bridge, London-esque. As you can see, I have a few favourites.
Jamestown is my home town and I love its ‘uniqueness,’ its old worldly vibe and grubbiness. It took me a few years to really appreciate these qualities – that Jamestown is special and sets its own pace.
On The Trail Of Breadcrumbs
But don’t mistake ‘old worldly’ for backward. Behind the Georgian facades you’ll find computers and LCD monitors and on the roofs, TV aerials and AC units.
But if you look closely there are remnants of yesteryear everywhere, a clear trail of historic breadcrumbs that cannot be swept away. Fragments from Slocum’s and Wellington’s time, mingle with mine. It’s nice to think that I’ve scuffed the soles of my shoes, as they probably did, on the boot scrapers welded to the railings of Essex House.
The history of St Helena and Jamestown is already well documented so instead here’s an informal insight into Jamestown today.
The Secret Of Life
You’ll find no McDonald’s or Starbucks franchises here, minimal commercialism and no garish billboard advertising. The length of the town measures roughly a mile from the edge of the wharf to tip of the hospital at New Bridge. A stroll around Jamestown won’t take long and it’s impossible to get lost.
You’ll meet people like Derek Bennett who walks a mile up Ladder Hill, twice a day, at the impressive age of 85. He does it in half an hour. He says his secret to longevity is to “have plenty of exercise and keep walking!” Also he doesn’t eat “tin stuff” and prefers fish to meat.
Being the only port to the outside world it almost goes without saying our tiny capital is also the island’s hub. Even though only around 14% of the population lives here. If anything’s happening, this is where it’s at. It’s THE place for island events, gossip, work, services, nightlife, and most especially shopping.
The Vegetable Rush
Shopping does have its peculiarities and can be a little frustrating if you don’t know some of them. For instance, most shops close half day on Wednesdays, bread is usually sold out after lunchtime and the spoils of fresh vegetables from the country arrive on shelves at 9am on Thursdays. Miss it, miss out!
“Being close to the shops really is the best thing about living in town,” Patsy Youde tells me as she sits in her garden watching traffic go by. “There have been loads of changes over the years. I remember watching donkeys coming into town from the country. They used to be tied up at the back of the Rose & Crown.” The water trough and tethering rails are still there on Shy Road; more breadcrumbs.
One of Patsy’s highlights of town life is Old Year’s night. “The neighbours gather and we sit out on the pavement and have a party. We used to dance in the street but there’s too much traffic now.”
Bugbears And Glugging Beers
Speaking of which, a town with limited space and originally planned for horse and cart is finding it difficult to swallow the umpteen vehicles pouring in to the island and parking is a problem. It’s a personal bugbear of mine. There is talk of introducing parking meters, park and ride or converting the Prince Philip playground into parking spaces. A limited public transport system exists but it’s restrictive to most needs. I was recently asked if I had a magic wand what would I do for St Helena. Well, I’d use it to whip up a good bus system, one that runs routes every half hour to eliminate the traffic congestion. If only…
There are five bars in town and Cynthia Isaac has been a cleaner in the Standard pub since the 80s (although she hardly drinks herself.) Smiling she remembers working in Dillon’s ‘up the street’ a venue whose dance floor was crammed every weekend. “It used to be really great.”
Now the places to go on the weekends are the White Horse on the Bridge, or Donny’s or Dillon’s on the seafront where imported Windhoek lager slips down as easy as the sun at the end of the day.
Four Storey Scrapers
Jamestown seemingly enjoys its own weather system where it’s warmer, sunnier and drier than the rest of the island. Country people are often caught out having dressed for colder climes! Fruits grow here that you’d be hard pressed to find elsewhere on St Helena; bittersweet tamlets (tamerinds), acid naartjies (citrus) and juicy pawpaws (papaya) and mangoes.
Jamestown is the only place on island where you’ll find ‘high rise’ buildings (four storey). As a child I was envious of friends whose ‘upstairs’ houses stood on the street, placing them in the middle of the action able to watch daily goings on. It’s not uncommon to find people in full conversation, one person at street level the other a few storeys up.
Jamestown’s Little Bit Of Hollywood
My love for cinema began in what used to be Cecil Corker’s cinema. Unfortunately the cinema no longer exists, having suffered from the introduction of video tapes and VCRs. But I have many happy memories of watching ‘Mickey Mouse’ cartoon preludes and films like ‘Grease.’
The movie hall walls were bordered with murals of cowboys and Indians, sailing ships and flowers and I only recently discovered they still existed (to a degree), it felt like seeing long lost friends. The old cinema is now a warehouse of Thorpes, a retail business and amongst the shelving some murals are visible. The owner, Nick, who is a walking encyclopaedia on St Helena history, told me they were painted during the war in the 1940s by an Oswald Jones. He used to be a screen painter in Hollywood in the 1920s hence the American theme. Breadcrumbs.
A Word About The Elephant
If you haven’t heard already, St Helena fishcakes are the world’s best . They feature on most eatery menus. Fast food is popular here and Michael ‘Black Neck’ Leo’s street food setup offers healthier flame grilled options. It’s hard to resist those delicious barbeque smells.
One way to move about town undetected is via the Run. Tucked out of sight this man-made watercourse channels rainwater through the town and out to sea. It makes a lovely walk and the route runs from China Lane near the hospital down to the playground area (opposite the Rose & Crown shop.) It’s mainly used by locals and feels like a secret getaway.
Something that should be mentioned are the towering valley hillsides, besides being amazing backdrops they do present the danger of rock fall. Townies have a sort of indifference to the matter, it’s something they live with, adopting an ‘if it’s meant to be…’ mentality. Good news though, Jamestown underwent a rock stabilisation programme over the last 10 years and has netting firmly attached to the hillsides designed to reduce the risks. The last significant rock fall was in 2014 and no one was hurt, the last fatal one happened in 1984. A ‘rock guard’ team constantly monitors the hills and safely removes anything untoward.
This Is So St Helena
So this is Jamestown, a mish-mash of tin roofs, full of boisterous mynah birds and quite higgledy-pidledy from certain angles. Streets that are safe, where a smile will be returned, modern age meeting with the old.
By five o’clock the shops are shut, offices closed and company buses haul an exodus of workers back to the country, leaving in their wake a peace broken only at dusk by screeching and squawking birds settling in the playground trees for the night. For me it’s a sound that is ‘so St Helena’ and another Jamestown favourite.
Hopefully you too will have a favourite.