Antigua
    
        

"... with all the sailboats in harbour it was not difficult to imagine what those across the centuries had seen from these very windows." 
 
 
   
 
Nov 14

As we flew over Antigua’s capital, St John’s, there were two cruise ships docked in the harbour.

Antigua has always been considered a hub of the Caribbean since Christopher Colombus sailed past in 1493 and named the island Santa Maria la Antigua after the miracle working Saint of Seville, Spain. The first British immigrants arrived from St Kitts in 1632 and planted tobacco, but it was the arrival of Sir Christopher Codrington in 1684 which steered the course for Antigua through the next two hundred years as a sugar producer.

 
Lying at the centre of the Caribbean, Antigua has a jagged coastline providing safe harbours, coral reefs (the cause of many shipwrecks) and soft white beaches.  Our destination was Nelson’s Dockyard National Park on English Harbour ... a popular tourist attraction. It is not our normal style of travel to willingly put ourselves amongst tourist crowds, but this, we hoped would be worth it.

We took our favourite mode of transport ... public bus. With our backpacks on our laps and the daybag under our knees, we managed to squeeze into the 16 passenger bus which was at it’s limit (not counting the three extra). It was most convenient that the bus went all the way to the park’s entrance gate and the line-up for tickets.

A guard was standing at the vehicle entrance and we told him of our reservations at the Admiral’s Inn. He looked us over, backpacks and all, and let us through. Past the souvenir stands we found a signed doorway in a long rock wall. "Please Come In / Admiral’s Inn". 
 
Walking through the narrow doorway was like stepping into history. Nelson’s Dockyard is one of the finest existing examples of a Georgian naval dockyard in its original form. Before us stood the original boat dock and pillars ... the only parts of the boat house and sail loft remaining after the 1843 earthquake and an 1871 hurricane. Boats carrying sails for repair entered into the boat dock and the sails were hoisted up into a loft, through a trap-door, to be repaired.
 
 To our left was a building built in 1785 as a store for pitch tar and turpentine. The second and garret floors were for storing ‘various other articles’. In the 19th century the building was known as the Engineers House. There were draftsmen’s offices upstairs. In the 20th century the building has been used as a police station, as a doctor’s office and as a residence. In 1960 it was converted into a hotel by the Engineers House Co. Ltd. ... now the Admiral’s Inn ... for the next two nights Room 3, a corner room on the second floor, would be our lodging.
 
 
 We left the cruise folk milling around the lobby/bar/lounge and out on the ground-level terrace and climbed the narrow wooden stairs. The Inn has kept it’s heritage values; our room’s high ceiling showed heavy hand-hewn timbers supporting the floor above.. Darkened wide-plank floors reflected light from the thick whitewashed brick walls which held three shuttered windows. The view was of the harbour ... with all the sailboats in harbour it was not difficult to imagine what those across the centuries had seen from these very windows. Welcomed modern conveniences in the room were the ensuite bathroom, fan and an air-conditioner.
 
 
 
 
 
The dockyard started in 1725 and became an important base in the island chain where sails could be mended and bottoms of ships could be scraped cleared of marine growth enabling them to move more swiftly through the water. Although many of the 18th and 19th century buildings have been adapted for modern-day uses they still reflect the environment of the dockyard in its hay-day. One of the last houses built in the dockyard (1855) was the Naval Officer’s and Clerk’s House. It was for the officer and storekeeper in charge of the dockyard. It has been called the ‘Admiral’s House’ though it is known that no admiral every lived in the Yard.  It is now the Dockyard Museum and gift shop.

The bakery behind the house was originally a kitchen; where we purchased salads and garlic bread (highly recommended by the clerk) and ate them outside on a picnic table before we continued our self-guided dockyard tour.
 

In 1729 only three people worked at the dockyard ... a storekeeper and two others. By 1748 the numbers had increased to 56. Four years before Nelson arrived the workforce had swelled to 209: 53 shipwrights, 5 sawyers, a pump and block maker, 9 house carpenters, 6 blacksmiths, 10 sailmakers, 20 caulkers, 38 labourers, 19 seamen, 2 masons and 4 watchmen.
Horatio Nelson, whom the dockyard is now named after, arrived here as a 26 year old navel Captain in July 1784 on his 28 gun frigate ‘Boreas’. During his stay he enforced the Navigation Act enthusiastically. It stated that only British ships could trade with British colonies such as Antigua. This made him very unpopular with Antiguan merchants, since he disrupted their growing trade with the newly independent United States of America. The furious merchants attempted to sue Nelson who, to avoid arrest, lived aboard his ship.
 
Each day at dawn, Nelson had 6 pails of water poured over him as part of his cleanliness regime and each day he drank a quart of goat’s milk for his health. Each night, after darkness fell, he took the opportunity for a change of scene and went ashore where he would walk a mile for exercise. He was "woefully pinched" by mosquitoes in spite of his net and once referred to English Harbour as "an infernal hole".
He wasn’t always a ‘stuffed shirt’; to relieve the boredom of his men, especially during hurricane season when the ships were sheltered in English Harbour, he encouraged music, dancing and cudgelling and he established an Officer’s Mess.  
 
March 11, 1787, as Senior Captain of the Yard, he married Fanny Nisbet on the neighbouring island of Nevis. Prince William Henry (before becoming King William IV) of the ‘Pegasus’ was his best man. Seventy-nine days later on May 29, Nelson left Antigua a sick man. He was concerned that he might die during the journey back to Portsmouth, England so he had a barrel of rum placed onboard the ‘Boreas’ so, should he pass, his body could be preserved in the rum. He lived and spent the next six years with his wife in Norfolk, England during which time he tried to obtain a new command. The Admiralty did not favour his applications because of the confusion he had caused in Antigua by his enforcement of the Navigation Act.
  

At the outbreak of the new French and Spanish war in 1793 Nelson became Commander of the 64 gun ship ‘Agamemnon’. For the next twelve years Nelson built an impressive naval legacy.
 In October 1805, at the Battle of Trafalgar, Nelson destroyed the French fleet. Near the end of the battle he was hit by a sniper’s bullet which entered his left shoulder, pierced his lung and stopped at the base of his spine. He was carried below and made comfortable (a scene immortalised in a painting); he died three hours after having murmured the words, "Thank God I have done my duty." 
 
 
 
 The restored handsome brick building with it’s four semi-circle water cisterns, once stored copper and lumber on the lower floor with quarters above for seamen whose ships were being careened.

When we first saw a drawing of a careened ship, we thought it was a ship sunk in the harbour. To ‘careen’ means to pull down the masts of a ship so that one side of the bottom shows above water, thus allowing maintenance of the ship’s bottom. To finish the work, the ship is righted, turned around and pulled down on the other side.
 
 
We decided to leave the dockyard and wander into town. We passed Porter’s Lodge and out through the dockyard’s old gates over which hangs a bell from HMS Tarter. At the Porter’s Lodge the rules for the gatekeeper were inscribed on a notice board. Among the rules were: "no foreigner, stranger or woman to be admitted; no person to be suffered to smoke tobacco; bathing from the wharfs not allowed; crews of transports, soldiers and wives not to straggle about the yard or be ashore at improper hours."
 Our walk into town took us by ‘Grace before Meals’; a small humble café in an orange and yellow wooden building with blue shutters. The ladies inside were welcoming and friendly and made us the most delicious and cold fruit smoothies. Looking at their menu and prices we wish they were open for dinner ... but tomorrow was another day. We carried our smoothies with us and before we were even a block away, decided that we would have another tomorrow ... maybe for breakfast.
 
   


When we returned to the dockyard, it was quiet; the cruise tourists had returned to their ships and we continued our walk around.
 
Dinner was had on the terrace of the Admiral’s Inn; we were not at all impressed with the food, value or service.
 

 

Nov 15

Pushing the shutters open, we drank in the quiet harbour view from our Admiral’s Inn room. It was a most pleasant way to greet a new day.

We went back to ‘Grace before Meals’ for a morning smoothie but they were closed, so we walked to Falmouth Harbour and had a breakfast sandwich on the terrace at Chez Maman before going over to the new marina. On reflection, the marina is where we should have gone for breakfast. The docks not only hold a most impressive assortment of sailing vessels but also cafes, shops and a small supermarket where we purchased water for our hike.

From the Admiral’s Inn, stopping in at the dockyard’s museum, we made our way around English Harbour to Fort Berkeley.

English Harbour provided the British Navy with a secure base from which to maintain British control of the trade-oriented colonies throughout the Caribbean. Surrounding hills and a narrow winding inlet sheltered the dockyard from the north-east trade winds and open sea. Forts were built to protect the dockyard from invasion by French privateers lured to the area by the rich Caribbean sugar trade.

The Fort Berkeley guardhouse (circa 1745) still stands near the point. It was a post for soldiers on duty. The original roof was blown away in the hurricane of 1751.

Nearby is the powder magazine built in 1811 as a bomb-proof building partially constructed into the harbour hillside. It could hold up to 300 barrels of gunpowder and the shape of its roof was designed to help deflect cannon balls. We went inside the thick walls ... and decided this is where we would want to be during a hurricane.
Before beginning our hike up the hill behind the fort, Terry (ignoring Sherrie’s fear-of-height protests) decided the surrounding wall, with its some-places-crumbling cannon ports, made for a good morning’s run and leap session across the ramparts.
   
The ‘Middle Ground Trail’ would take us from Fort Berkeley to Pigeon Beach on the west side of the peninsula’s ridge. The hillside was rocky and dotted with dry climate succulents, many having useful purposes. For example: Aloe (Aloe vera), now used worldwide for soothing burns, skin creams and as a hair conditioner. It doesn’t need any processing, one can break off a thick leaf and apply the liquid inside directly onto the skin. It makes for a good ... and useful ... houseplant in more northern climates.

The ‘Dagger’ or century plant (Agave) has a tall sturdy trunk which was dried and used to make fishing rafts. The leaves, clustered around the bottom can be scraped and woven into rope. The Dagger plant only blooms once in its lifetime; about seven years.

The Turkshead cactus is round and looks like it is wearing a fez. We have seen it both in the wild and used as a potted plant. It’s fresh flesh is said to make good shampoo and a cure for colds and the liquid in the trunk is a source of sterile water.

We followed white dots painted on rocks and tree trunks which marked the trail and proceeded up a short steep hill. At the top we looked down upon the isthmus which separates English Harbour (where we were staying at the dockyards) from Falmouth Harbour (where we had breakfast and did some shopping this morning).  

 
We walked a flat section along the ridge, where goats were grazing and then up another steep hillside to what remains of a gun battery and onward over large boulders showing depressions created by soldiers of African origin when they ground plants and herbs. Higher at the plateau called Middle Ground we could see the remains of barrack foundations quickly being covered by an intrusive vine with delicate flowers of pastel pink.
 
 
 We were keeping an eye open for the Manchineel tree ... it’s dangerous. It has fruit which look like little green apples (sometimes black) ... they are poisonous. The roots, which are valued for preventing soil erosion, provided poison for Carib arrows. All parts of the tree are highly toxic. We were warned not to touch any part of the tree and not stand beneath it, especially in a rain shower ... as the dripping water will severely burn the skin and could do serious damage to eyes. The next short section of the trail was through a ‘tunnel’ of these trees ... not a place to be when it rains.
 

It was good to stop every so often and notice the miniature world which is often missed with hurried activities and such stunning scenery surrounding our every move. At one rocky spot we noticed a black and white snail shell which had been adopted by a hermit crab. The size of its colourful large pincher and legs suggested it might soon be looking for more spacious accommodations. Nearby a tiny little cactus (not much larger than an AA battery) near the centre of the path had managed, so far, to grow and another tiny-spiny cousin clung to the side of a rock. Small but remarkable.

 

When we reached what was left of Fort Cuyler’s terrace, being careful not to stumble over tree roots which were pushing up the heavy stone blocks, we were able to look down at the tip of the peninsula and the entrance to Falmouth Harbour.

The trail was downhill from there ... still following the white dots ... until we reached the trail head at Pigeon Beach. We left the beach behind and returned by road to Falmouth Harbour and then back across the isthmus to Grace Before Meals which was closed; it was Sunday. We doubled back to the dockside market and picked up a few picnic items for dinner.

     

 
 
 
 

Nov 16

In the laneway behind the Admiral’s Inn, Ted discovered a small cannon ... well, small for us, big for him ... and couldn’t figure out why the thing wouldn’t fire.

We had our backpacks on and asked one of the security men where we might find a bus at this early hour. "They don’t come up to the park until later on in the day," he said. "Walk down to where the main road turns to Falmouth Harbour." No sooner had he said the words, that a bus pulled up. What luck!

   

It was the start of the driver’s run back into town and for a couple of minutes we were the only ones aboard so were able to have a conversation with him before he picked up others. As each person got on they said, "good morning" and most people already on the bus would return the greeting. Such a pleasant way to start the day.

When we got to the bus depot in St John’s, we asked 'Sancho', the driver (whose real name is Greg), where we might get a taxi to the airport. We had been told no buses went to the airport. He told us he would take us to the airport. Once we settled on a price, as if by magic, the bus became a taxi and off we went. Interesting procedure. As we approached the airport’s entrance gates, we saw buses using the round-about and stopping to pick up passengers. We could have got a bus to the airport ... just not into the airport. A couple of hundred metres difference.

   
      
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