THE PLACE TO RELAX | Darrin Henry
Sandy Bay is a bit of a show off among the St Helena districts when it comes to landscape, but you can hardly blame it once you see the place – it really is stunning.
Beautiful, charming scenery across the island of St Helena is a common feature, but the south side of this spike on the mid-Atlantic ridge is surely the showpiece.
From the moment the car crests the legendary (among Saints) ‘Sandy Bay Ridges,’ the countryside on display below takes our breath away. A spectacular, natural amphitheatre, set against flax covered slopes on the inland side all sweeping dramatically downward to the tiny, peaceful settlement dotted about the valley.
Flax Industry On St Helena
The sea of New Zealand flax is one of my earliest childhood memories of St Helena and, for me, the defining feature of Sandy Bay. From 1907 – 1966 the flax industry on St Helena thrived with up to nine mills at one stage producing the fibre that was exported to England and South Africa. Then enforced redundancy hit in the late 1960s as global manufacturing switched to cheaper synthetic fibre. Fifty years on the wild growing flax still dominates the island’s central slopes.
Ahead, on the distant coastal perimeter of Sandy Bay, the greenery gives way to hues of brown and red where the barren volcanic ridges meet the deep blue Atlantic Ocean. It’s a gorgeous panoramic that I will never tire of.
The road down the Ridges twists and turns through the spidery flax fingers. The picture perfect scenery pops into view through occasional breaks in the flax, very tempting for photography.
The SHAPE of Sandy Bay
Below the flax line the vegetation turns dense and tropical with gingers, yams and banana trees. The air is cool and fresh. There’s a mystical feel to the place, walking in Sandy Bay, enhanced by the sounds of hidden streams beneath the foliage, thickets of ginger bushes and clusters of damp bamboo stalks huddled around the turns in the road. Warm air blowing in off the sea mixes with the cooler mountain air here, often generating foggy and low lying cloudy conditions over the peaks and Sandy Bay. But when it’s clear, like it is today, it’s spectacular.
We’re now down in the central hub of the district where we find the main concentration of homes although even these are sprinkled around the hillsides. The only flat terrain are the excavated plots for building sites. Rising up dramatically behind us are the mountainous central peaks, including the highest point on St Helena, Diana’s Peak. Every now and again you can’t help but stop and gaze around at the magnificence of it all.
The old Sandy Bay school house is now the SHAPE centre, providing employment, training and support for vulnerable and disabled adults across the island. Other small, outlying district schools, such as this one, have closed as the island’s population has declined since the turn of the century. The school is not the only casualty of this change.
Patsy Williams moved to Sandy Bay 36 years ago after she got married. Patsy told us, “One of the biggest changes in Sandy Bay has been the closure of the farm [Bamboo Hedge].” Once a plentiful source of fresh produce in the district, now only the piggery remains in operation. Patsy has been working in Thorpe’s Grocery Shop in Sandy Bay for the last eight years. The best thing about Sandy Bay “is the quiet, the beach and the views.” And the worst thing? “The mud!”
Meet The Saints Of Sandy Bay
Across the valley from Thorpe’s shop is St Peter’s church, although so well camouflaged is the building by the trees it is easy to miss, especially with the distracting view in the opposite direction. The church itself is incorporated into a two storey house and is surrounded by fruit trees – dates, loquats and guavas all crying out to be picked.
We find Bamboo Hedge Farm a little further along the road. The piggery is indeed still in operation and turns noisy when the animals see us approaching. This was previously one of the Sandy Bay flax mills.
Campbell Buckley, a Sandy Bay resident is out with his machete to tackle the invasive white weed that is putting down roots in one of his fields. Campbell’s story is a familiar one. He grew up in Sandy Bay, emigrated to the UK where he lived and worked for 38 years, before returning home eight years ago to retire. He now enjoys a gentle routine driving the SHAPE bus for few hours each morning and chores such as today’s white weed offensive.
“Not much has changed in Sandy Bay, just more houses, that’s the main thing,” Campbell tells us. Knowing we’re exploring the district he suggests Lemon Grove right at the bottom of the valley may have been home to Fernando Lopez, the first resident on St Helena.
Jesus Lives In Sandy Bay
Sandy Bay can appear very quiet and deserted if you’re driving through. The island’s electoral register (Feb 2016) indicates the population of Sandy Bay accounts for just 6% of everyone listed. That would work out to around 250 people living in the district. But take a walk or sit and rest for a while and you will soon meet some interesting characters.
Raymond Isaac is another Sandy Bay original; in fact one of his nicknames is “Sandy Bay,” the other is “Jesus.” His long beard and authentic ‘mountain man’ look makes him very popular with tourists who regularly request to have their photos taken with him. “A whole busload once stopped and asked to take pictures with me!” chuckles Raymond. “I’ve been growing my beard since September 1975. Before that I’ve only taken a full shave about 11 or 12 times.”
Raymond spent many years working as a rigger for the BBC on Ascension Island. He returned home 23 years ago and now, at age 62, tends one of the banana plantations in Sandy Bay.
Rex Thomas also has a great story. He left St Helena in 70s along with 34 other Saints and spent 15 years working on Union Castle ships. He told us tales of his amazing travels: Japan, Tasmania, Alaska, South and North America to name a few. His favourite place was the “prairies” around Philadelphia in the USA. Rex also spent time working on the old RMS St Helena (pre 1990) and on the Falkland Islands.
St Helena Coffee
We stroll on past Colin’s Bar, a popular if distant get-a-way for islanders looking to enjoy a drink with a different view.
Around the next bend is one of the coffee plantations in the district, clinging to the side of the slope. This particular coffee plantation in Sandy Bay is owned and managed by Solomon and Company. St Helena coffee enjoys prestigious status on the world market, something to do with the climate and soil conditions I believe.
The diversity of flora throughout Sandy Bay is remarkable. Walking along the road you soon spot all types of fruit dangling on long limbs out over the banks, daring you to try reach them. Oranges, locquats, plums, bananas, medlems, guavas, and wild raspberries are the main ones depending on the time of year.
Sandy Bay Baptist Chapel
The Sandy Bay Baptist Chapel, a little church set against the towering column of Lot, signals another change in landscape. We are much lower down now and the greenery here changes rapidly to a more dry and dusty terrain.
Below the chapel the route turns quite precarious, as the road becomes steeper, narrower and tighter in the hairpins with unsettling drop-offs into the valley. But once down this last stretch you find yourself in the bottom of the Sandy Bay valley.
Down here is one of the most remote places to live on St Helena. Streams that originate on the peaks above, converge here, running all the way down to the sea. The tell tale line of green runs through valley, marking the flow of water.
And finally to Sandy Bay Beach with its black sand nestled between towering cliffs on either side. It’s not suitable for swimming here but the area is popular with locals for picnics and fishing trips and there are historic fortifications that can be explored. The Lot’s Wife’s Ponds Post Box walk also begins from here.
Time to head back up the hill!
We LOVE it! Having gotten a flat tire on our first descent down Mr Toads Wild Road. Rick had to pull off into someones driveway and fix our flat on our “rental” car. an adventure for sure.. Such a beautiful location. Stephen Biggs told us that one time he drove the Rolls all the way down to Sandy Bay, YIKES!! Thanks, Really, really enjoyed.
Haha, brilliant story!
That road has plenty to tell, I’m sure.
Back in 2005 I was coming up the road on my own after a hot day filming down at the beach, met these two tourists in a rental car, just gotten off the RMS and out exploring. The narrow bit we met in required them to reverse to a bay about 10m behind them but the guy kept stalling. I had to get out my van, reverse his car for him into the bay and then carry on. All very, ‘as you do’ kind of way.
Thanks for the comment Sally & Rick.
Great to hear from you guys, as always, appreciate the support.
In the picture the ocean in the bay looks so calm. I was wondering, is the beach unsuited for swimming at all times or is a dip in the water possible on certain days? It just looks so enticing …
In a months time we are visiting st helena for 8 days – arriving on the RMS St helena and then flying back to SA. We have been reading all we can find about the island and love your website and blog. my wife sarah’s grandmother came to england back in the 1920’sand we would love to be able to find out more about her family on the island and background. can you help point us in the right direction to do this?
Cant wait for our trip.
Hi Martin, thanks for the comment and hope all goes well for your trip.
We would suggest reaching out to the St Helena Government archives, based in the Castle, Jamestown. If you could do that in advance of your visit with as much notice as possible they might be able to have something for you on arrival.
Good luck, might bump into you during your visit.
Thanks for the help. Maybe we could grab a beer in Jamestown?
For sure, that would be good. Will ping you an email 🙂
Our good neighbour Lou sent us this site about her birthplace. Fascinating! Here in the middle of wintry Alberta, Canada, almost no one has heard of your Island, except vague references to old Nap. What a lovely place, so varied – and nice and warm! Don’t ever let too many “tourists” find you – that can Disneyfy and spoil a place even while the $$$ roll in. If your inhabitants are even half as great people as our neighbour, you really are special!
Hey Bonnie and Sam, thanks for that lovely comment, glad you’ve found us (thank you Lou). Will try not to let the place get overrun but will be nice to have just a few more visitors to show off to 🙂 We made it in to Canada for the first time ourselves recently, only Toronto, but it was great, can’t wait to go back and see more of your beautiful country. Take care, cheers 🙂
Thanks Darren, you have certainly put SH on the map, with your narratives and pictures. Sandy Bay is the gem part of the island. So enjoyed my stay there with nephew Jeff and family( man on bicyle 🚵) while there 2014/15.Like most Saints, we never appreciated the beauty of the island, u until we return back home.Having left there as a teenager in 1955. God bless you, keep up the good work.so enjoy your blogs.
Lou (moyce) Patjas
Agreed about Sandy Bay being the “gem” part of the island. You always get that sense of ‘freshness’ going down there. Sometimes you actually need to go away to really appreciate your own home, it’s only then you can really measure it up to somewhere else. Thanks for the lovely comment and following the blog Lou, cheers 🙂
Great article, beautiful pictures.
Cheers Larry 🙂
This was so wonderful to read. I grew up in Sandy, but I don’t think I appreciated the beauty and wonder of it until I left the island. Always a pleasure to go back to. Thanks x
You know, I think all Saints are guilty of not appreciating our home fully until we’re away from it. Whenever I’ve been in the UK for a period of time it’s the amazing views of the vast blue sea that get me when I get home. It seems like we all have amazing views on the island, no matter where we live. Thanks for the feedback 🙂
Lovely article, very descriptive. I could imagine where you were when describing the landscapes. Not sure about seeing Jesus thou lol…
Haha, Jesus is a legend in the ‘Bay.’ Thanks for the comment, glad you enjoyed the post. Cheers 🙂
I particularly liked this article as it brings back fond and vivid memories of the 14 months I lived in Sandy Bay. My wife and I lived in the St. Peter’s Church residence and, of course, spent many hours chatting with Patsy and Leslie at Thorpes, Joyce and Leatrice at Solmons shop, and all the other warm and colorful inhabitants of Sandy Bay. Beautiful photos as always. Thanks and keep up the good work!
Sandy Bay is a place where you have to just chill, slow down and synchronise to enjoy it. So peaceful. Thanks for your comment Steve. Cheers 🙂
Great article. Totally agree that Sandy Bay is the most beautiful district on St Helena, described by some as “the jewel in the crown”. One small correction – Lemon Grove was the home of the first Governor of St Helena (Jenkins); there is a plaque on the wall which shows this.
Another interesting little nugget about the ‘Bay’ area. Thanks for the comment Jeff 🙂
Great photos. Sadly, the old sign at St Peters seems to have finally disappeared. I believe that the St Peters church also incorporated a school (I believe the schoolroom wall was taken down to enlarge the church). I believe that Rev Heinrich Frey, who arrived in 1843 from India, lived in the flat and taught liberated slaves to read and write in the school. He was Lutheran, but was ordained as a deacon by Bishop Robert Gray in 1849. He died in 1870. He was not intending to come to St Helena from India: He was returning to Germany for health reasons but his ship was badly damaged in a storm in the Indian Ocean and it limped into Mauritius and was abandoned to the insurers. He managed to get another ship and was again caught in a storm off Cape Town. This time the ship limped into James Bay, and Frey spent the rest of his life on the island, and made himself useful.
Quick observation re your first photo from Diana’s Peak: There appears to be a hill in the distance which seems above the horizon, indicating it is higher than Diana’s Peak!! Maybe it has something to do with the curvature of the earth, or there is a higher spot on the island!
The distant hill is High Peak, not higher than Diana’s Peak, just an ‘impression’ thrown up by the angles 🙂
Thanks for the feedback and revealing another layer of Sandy Bay/St Helena history – fascinating. Cheers
Loved reading this – great to see a celebration of the people of Sandy Bay. And also to take another look inside the wonderful Thorpe’s shop. I hope it’s still there when I get back to the island. Thanks, Darrin and Sharon.
Thanks for the comment Simon. The shop is even more of a focal point since Solomon’s shop closed, it’s as much a meeting place as a shop. Cheers 🙂
Great article indeed. Loved the pics; especialy those of the Saints there. I remember leaving JT early in the morning on day in late 1997 heading for Lot’s Wife Ponds. Reached the place; had no water with me! Headed home; had somewater from a stream; then asked at a house (think it was “Jenkins’”) for something to drink. Had a long rest at Thorpe’s shop (a CASTLE); Really great memories.
By the way: on my way to The Ponds I stopped at Solomon’s Sandy Bay Shop and took a photograph of the lady behind the counter. This shop was closed August 31st 2015.
We actually took a ‘rest’ as well at Thorpe’s shop while doing this article, Windhoek though (changing times) and it went down very nicely 🙂 Thanks for the comment, cheers 🙂
Lovely article, great photos; a very special place
Agreed, a very special place – cheers John
Brilliant blog and amazing photos always ☺️. Proud to be a Sandy Bay gal ☺️.
Haha, thought you would like this one. Thanks for the comment, cheers 🙂
Darren this is a great article, some great detail you never take any notice of when you live on Island, it Emphasizes Sandy bay that we all remember and of course Rex and Jesus (bay legends) that we probably forgot. I am sure they were set on the milestone there. I did not see any guavas or did I scroll too quick. Airport will never impact Sandy bay.
Blogging makes us appreciate these details now that we took for granted before. Yes, Sandy Bay will remain timeless, I’m sure. Didn’t include the guava picture, always end up with too many images and having to make the tough decision on what to drop – perhaps another picture post later 🙂 Thanks for the feedback
Great photos and great narrative…I can’t wait to be there!
Thanks Richard, I think a lot of people are waiting for you to be here too! Cheers 🙂
Brilliant post, Darrin. And those photographs are amazing.
Glad you like the pictures. The oldest one in this post was taken 11 years ago! Thanks for the comment, Cheers 🙂
Marvellous photos – as always from you! I also enjoyed the quotes of the people you came across and how real portraits emerged in just a few sentences.
Thanks for this feedback Oliver, much appreciated. There were a lot of stories recounted during those conversations in Sandy Bay that couldn’t be printed!! Loads of fun as you can imagine. Cheers 🙂
A very interesting and informative article, with, as always, beautiful photographs!
Thanks for the comment Sheila. Always good to hear from you, cheers 🙂