Big, Bad, Gnarly: The Barn, St Helena – Island’s Most Difficult Post Box Walk
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.
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, 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.
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.
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.’
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, St Helena 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.
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.
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.
The Barn, St Helena – Inspiring Adventure
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!
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, St Helena, 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.