Diane Selkirk was utterly enchanted by the remote island outpost of Saint Helena
Falling in love with quirky Saint Helena
Ships and yachts have typically only remained in the Jamestown harbour for as long as it takes to provision. We expected our visit to be similarly short – but we fell in love with the quirky little island and our one week visit stretched to six.
While the island’s exterior appears ruggedly volcanic the interior is as lush and pastoral as the English countryside. The cows that graze the vibrant green fields are cared for by compassionate farmers who let them reach a venerable old-age before dispatching them to the table as nearly inedible stewing beef. There is a retirement home for donkeys that have been replaced by cars and a 186-year-old tortoise called Jonathan, who, along with the much younger David, Emma, Myrtle and Fredrika, lives on the lawn of Plantation House, the Governor’s mansion.
Eighty-year-old tour-guide and self-trained historian Robert Peters took us to see the island’s most popular tourist stops. We visited Napoleon’s residence Longwood House and his tomb, checked out the imposing High Knoll Fort, viewed the exterior of Plantation House and saw the island’s highest point, Diana’s Peak. The peak is one of the island’s most popular hikes and is flanked by two hills topped with Norfolk Pines that were planted there deliberately, it is said, as navigation markers by none other than Captain Cook himself.
With the well-known spots covered it was Aaron Legg –farmer and 4×4 tour-guide – who convinced us Saint Helena was worth getting to know better. He took us to isolated valleys to see picturesque churches and pointed out cannons, which are found around the island in remote defensive locations as well as on the walls and fortifications which are built in every valley. And he showed us the Bell Stone, which was a popular curiosity during Saint Helena’s original tourism boom (back during Cook’s era). This is simply a normal-looking boulder that makes a remarkably melodious sound when struck with a rock. It made me want to whack every rock I could find, just in case others sound like bells, and no-one but a Saint had ever thought to check.
“We could hit more rocks instead of continuing the tour,” Aaron graciously offered. It takes a while to adjust to the easy-going nature of islanders. There’s an old-world virtuousness that we delighted in. The most publicised crime during our visit was theft of a traffic mirror from a hairpin turn. And we learned it’s the height of rudeness to fail to wave at a passing car – a reflex that took two countries to shake.
I decided to forgo searching for more bell stones in favour of further exploration. One of my favourite spots was Lemon Valley. Accessible by hiking trail or a one-mile dinghy ride from the moorings, it was here that some of the 30,000 freed African slaves were processed and quarantined after being rescued from slavers in the mid 19th Century (they were later moved to Ruperts Valley when their numbers overwhelmed Lemon Valley). Now an inviting spot for picnicking, snorkelling, or hiking up to the old fortifications, the valley gracefully mixes beauty, history and modern use in a way that is quintessentially Saint Helena.