Turtles!

Well I’m home!  But what a fabulous final day I enjoyed in Barbados. It feels like a lifetime since I was there, yet it was only Thursday afternoon (writing this on Sunday).

I got my packing sorted out first thing, just a few last essentials to go in the bags when it was time to leave for the airport. Then I could forget all about the travel that lay ahead and focus on a last grilling, that last swim in the pool (eeek!) and the prospect of swimming with turtles just before heading to the airport.

We set off to Holetown, just up the west coast, at lunchtime to find Marvin, a friend of Derek’s, who runs a glass-bottomed boat for tourist trips there. We were fortunate to find that he was free and off we set in the boat, just Derek and I as passengers. He asked us whether we’d like to switch to a power boat which would mean that we could go further (and faster) as the turtles were known to be around the bay at Port St Charles some way further up the west coast. We readily agreed to this and a transfer was effected pretty easily.

We headed north, skimming the waves at tremendous speed, though my back got a fair bit of pummelling I coped surprisingly well. We slowed down whenever there was something of interest along the shore. Marvin and Derek were talking about various properties we could see, houses belong to various acquaintances or well-known personalities including one substantial property that apparently belongs to the owner of Matalan, and a fabulous resort, Sandy Lane (check the mind-boggling room rates).

And finally we arrived in the environs of Port St Charles, a resort of minor consequence, certainly nothing to rave about. All pretension and glamour but not for me. Check out the website and you’ll agree I’m sure. I mean, who wants to be able to park their multi-million £ yacht outside a holiday home? I certainly don’t!

But that doesn’t mean I didn’t feel like a founder member of the hoi polloi set when there were, at every angle to behold, some fabulous-looking expensive floating palaces. To say I felt like a bit of an outside would be an understatement. But the waters around Barbados are nothing if not open. There are no private beaches and anyone can go anywhere and photograph anything (within reason obviously). So I was quite content to snap away with my camera (more of which a little later).

About a quarter of a mile beyond the entrance to the marina there were to be seen a couple of tourists boats at anchor with people in the water close by. There was clearly something going on! As we got closer it soon became apparent just what that was. Turtles! We moored up and Marvin set about sorting snorkelling kit for us both.

It was at this point that I realised that I’d never snorkelled before and I hadn’t the faintest idea what it was going to be like. “Oh well, in for a penny, in for a pound!” I thought. The water was so clear I could see the sandy bottom with coral outcrops here and there; I was convinced that it couldn’t be more than six foot deep.  Given that I’m 6’7″ tall, I had serious doubts as to whether I would be ‘safe’ in the water with all that coral around. But Marvin said the depth was around 12 feet, probably more. I was not convinced, but took my heart in my hands and launched myself into the turquoise blue water.

I remember how deliciously warm the sea was. Philip had told me earlier in the week that it was around 27C at this time of the year, and it certainly felt like it could be.  Then I put on my snorkel and mask. Once it was secure I put my head under water and the mask instantly flooded with water and I panicked! After I’d calmed down a bit I adjusted the mask to make it tighter and I tried again. No leak this time but I felt seriously claustrophobic and I didn’t like it at all. I really couldn’t cope with it and decided that I’d have to abandon the snorkel element of the trip.  I threw the snorkel and mask back to Marvin on the boat and swam, now unhindered, in the direction Derek had headed.

I soon saw the shapes of turtles amongst the throng of about eight other people in the water. Of course they were all snorkelled up but I didn’t care tuppence. I was thoroughly enjoying being in the sea, deep enough that I couldn’t touch the bottom. One of the problems of my height is that swimming pools are rarely, if ever, these days deep enough for me to be able to stand on the bottom but not be able to breath air!  So it was pure luxury from that perspective, regardless of all else. And I certainly made the most of it.

But the turtles wouldn’t have known that, and soon they came investigating the stranger in their midst, the one individual that wasn’t trying to muscle in on their swimming session. They seemed to make a bee-line for me. And it was at this point I had a sharp wake-up call about swimming anywhere other than a pool that I had entirely forgotten about up until that moment.

Many years ago, indeed I can’t remember when it was, I had a bad experience swimming in a lake somewhere in the UK. I couldn’t see the bottom, indeed I couldn’t see anything in the water because it was dark (unlike the ultra-clear Caribbean I was now in). Then something touched me – or maybe I touched something (which is more likely I acknowledge). Anyway, I freaked out then, and ever since I’ve had something approaching a morbid fear of not knowing what might be around me in deep water – a shark? a whale? a tiny fish? I didn’t really want to know, let alone say hello to it. And so over the years I’ve studiously avoided putting myself into any such potential situation.

So, just imagination what happened when a turtle swam directly underneath me! Correct, I panicked.  And boy, did I panic! The snorkel incident was as nothing compared to this. I was in seriously bad way, and couldn’t get out of the water fast enough, but where was the boat? I made for it straightaway, but it was quite a distance by now.  About halfway there I realised that I was being silly, and I hadn’t got this far with the experience to abandon it now and regret at leisure. Yes, I gave myself a good talking to and resolved to try again, this time conscious of my limitations.

My subsequent encounters with the turtles was, obviously, somewhat tentative. I didn’t really enjoy the experience as much as I had hoped I would. But I was there and I was now determined to make the most of the opportunity but within certain boundaries which I would try to push out a bit.

I was OK when I could see turtles swimming past me at a distance, and I delighted when I saw a head pop out of the water about six foot ahead of me and then disappear again, but time and time again whenever one passed underneath me I just couldn’t handle it, and panic came on again and again. I came to the conclusion that this was not going to be overcome today.  Perhaps I should go out of my way not to look down! Not very practicable though …

I gave up on the turtles and focused on enjoying swimming in the sea and so for the next ten minutes or so, I swam or I floated on my back, revelling in the deliciously warm ocean. And then I decided that I’d had enough and made for the boat once again. Getting out of the water, onto the boat, is probably left to your imagination. It certainly wasn’t pretty!

Back on dry ‘land’, now I could see the turtles swimming around and under the boat. Altogether more enjoyable I thought. I was pleased that I’d tried to swim with them, and got reasonably close to a couple, but definitely felt more comfortable leaving them to their own environment and I’d stick to mine in future. But maybe next time I’m in Barbados I’ll have another go, this time forewarned about the perils of swimming at sea, a lesson I am unlikely to forget another time.

We retraced our journey back south to Holetown but rather than zip along on the crest of the wave, we made slow time. But I was not objecting, for it was an opportunity to top up the tan and to drink a couple of highly restorative rum punches that Marvin produced from nowhere (actually it was from a coolbox at the back of the boat).

As we passed the Port St Charles marina entrance there was now moored a huge private yacht, Callisto.  It was about 200 feet in length, gleaming in glossy white with a fabulous paper aeroplane-like profile. I asked Marvin to go around it so that I could have a good gander and take a few pics. At the port bow there was what looked like a garage door open, and we saw inside this ‘garage’ that a miniature boat (in comparison to the main vessel but actually quite substantial in size) was ‘docked’ and being cleaned by a crew member. The port of registration was Hamilton, Bermuda. Marvin said that this boat is a regular visitor to Barbados but no-one knows who owns it. Since I’ve returned home I’ve tried to find out via the internet but I’ve drawn a blank so far. Do you know???

It was 2.30pm when we finally made the beach at Holetown, and 3.00pm  by the time we were back home. Philip wanted to leave for the airport at 3.30pm so there wasn’t time for a last dip in the pool as I had those final few essentials to pack and last thoughts to be shared.

We set off for the airport and hit the coming-out-of-school traffic jams. Yes, the school commute is the same the world over it seems, even in the Caribbean! The Bridgetown by-pass was fine, but once south of Bridgetown the two-way traffic flow was interrupted at various points by troupes of schoolchildren crossing the road. And all this designed to hold up someone who had a flight to catch, a deadline to meet. But do you know what? I didn’t care one hoot if I missed the flight, indeed I was rather hoping I would!

Unfortunately we got to Grantley Adams International Airport well ahead of the gate closure time. Philip, Derek and Dale wished me farewell at the drop-off zone, with an entreaty to return soon, and then I was alone, all set for the journey ahead. I left my bag at the BA bag drop desk, managed to get my allocated seat changed (from aisle to window – my preference always), and headed for the duty free shop where I purchased a bottle of Mount Gay Rum (of course) and then headed for the gate to wait for the flight to be called.

And then it was up, up and away from the beautiful island nation of Barbados after just seven days. But I felt that I’d been there for so much longer, and that I felt surprisingly at home there. Was it the English influence, the colonial past? Or was it that it is just such a friendly island to visit? A combination of the two, I think.

Certainly tourism is key to the island’s economic future, and this seems to be fully acknowledged by the entire population. Some places you go you feel that tourists are unwelcome, regardless of the economic benefits they bring, but I never felt that in Barbados.

The only thing that jarred on me throughout my time on the island was what seemed like the automatic responses I received from various people if I thanked them for some small service rendered, eg a postcard seller when thanked for the transaction, saying “You’re welcome” as if it was programmed-in rather than a spontaneous rejoinder. Rather like the extremely irritating American habit of saying “Have a nice day” when you know full well that the speaker doesn’t care two hoots whether your day is nice or not!

I had such a fabulous holiday, indeed as I write this it is hard to imagine that I’ve been at all, though I do have rather a nice tan to show for it, plus a stamp in my passport. Barbados affected me far more than I ever imagined it would, I simply love the place and I can’t wait to return for a further visit. Fortunately P&D said that I’m welcome to return anytime that they’re in residence (they travel a lot) or if I’m happy to visit when they are not there, I’d be welcome to use stay at theirs all the same.

Arriving at London Gatwick at 05.30 on Friday morning was a bit of a rude awakening. The temperature was 4C (it was 31C in Bridgetown nine hours before), raining and with the possibility snow showers later in the day. I was soon reunited with the car and headed for the M23, M25 and the A3. I finally made it home to Hampshire at just before 9am after getting caught up in a jam on the M27 in rush hour traffic between Portsmouth and Southampton.

A trip to Ecuador

At an altitude of 1171 feet above sea level, single-storey Chimborazo House, St Joseph, is the highest residence on the island of Barbados. From any approach it looks down on you and I suspect that’s exactly what the original builder envisioned when he chose the site: to look down on his plantation and workforce.

But there’s also a practical purpose to building these houses on high spots: they then catch the trade winds blowing from the east to west, giving the house air conditioning free, gratis and for nothing. Chimborazo was laid out so that the front door could remain open through the day and the breeze blew straight through the house and exited a door at the opposite end, a door which opened outwards rather than inwards so that it wouldn’t slam shut!

Chimborazo (meaning high spot) is named after Ecuador’s highest mountain (20,700 feet) which is located 1.5 degrees from the equator. Its not the highest mountain on earth, but due to the planet’s equatorial bulge, this mountain is the point on the earth’s surface which is farthest from its centre – apparently.

Chimborazo House has had a bit of a chequered history since it was built in the late 18th century as a plantation house. Being so high (and therefore exposed) it has often been badly damaged during hurricanes, including one in 1898 which caused £1287 worth of damage – quite a significant sum 112 years ago.  It was originally two-storey, but the top half came off in an earthquake in 1927!

The house has been in many different hands since it was first built and is now available as a holiday let through Island Villas. But yesterday it was ‘open house’ as part of the Barbados National Trust’s Winter 2010 programme of fundraising events. Each Wednesday afternoon from early January to late March a different property is available to view and some of them sound extremely sumptuous.  These are not National Trust properties in the sense we know back in Blighty, rather private residences, the sort you drive past and think “I’d love to have a peek in there”.  Well this programme lets you do just that!

Yesterday’s crowd (and believe me, it was a crowd) was interesting to say the least. I’d say the vast majority were Bajans with a sprinkling of tourists like me, with about 95% white to 5% black visitors. Whether its lack of interest (or motivation) or something like that, the black population doesn’t seem especially interested in the island’s heritage or modern day values (ie poking round other peoples’ houses!).

Everyone was in snazzy gear, not necessarily Sunday best but definitely more than the average UK visitor to a NT property would don. It was extremely social, little cliques gathered round some feature or other chatting away about last week’s horse racing event or this weekend’s upcoming polo match.  I think you get the drift! All rather la-de-da in my opinion, a bit like drinks at the big house in a pretentious English village (I can think of several I have direct experience of at home!). Not, I’m afraid, my cup of tea.

The entrance was B (about £6) with 50% discount if you belonged to the Barbados National Trust or a reciprocal organisation like the NTS which I do, and I had my card with me).  The drinks table was doing a roaring trade, including the ubiquitous rum punch and various fruit juices. I paid B for a mango juice, absolutely yummy and freshly-squeezed (do you freshly squeeze mangoes? I don’t know).

It was a lovely house, it is clearly very much loved and the rooms were splendidly large. Being a holiday rental though I did rather expect it to be perhaps a little more sumptuous than it actually was, indeed it felt very spartan, especially the children’s bedroom with stacking bunkbeds, one on either side of the room, and full-size divans at that, none of your foam mattress and a bit of MDF.  The room was austere in the extreme.

Outside there was a lovely kidney shaped swimming pool surrounded by decking beyond which the hillside fell away and there was verdant growth everywhere.

The Barbados National Trust was founded in 1961 ‘to preserve the unique heritage of our island home, be it historic buildings, places of natural beauty or the island’s flora and fauna’. During my stay I’ve seen loads of buildings with blue plaques placed by the National Trust on buildings they regard of historical importance.

I suspect the trust doesn’t have an awful lot of money because about a mile down the road from Chimborazo there’s a semi derelict sugar windmill.  It hasn’t always been like that, P&D told me that it was badly damaged in a storm about 18 months ago when the sails fell off, yet nothing has been done to restore it to its former glory.  I can’t help wondering if someone forgot to insure it. Perhaps that what the fundraising programme is for!

I didn’t take any pictures of the house so I can’t show you what it looks like. There was a threatening sky yesterday afternoon with the promise of heavy rain (which didn’t in the end materialise). The house was surrounded by trees and was very dark and foreboding on the outside, lighting was essential inside.  Consequently I didn’t bother my camera…

Next we visited St Nicholas Abbeyone of the seven wonders of Barbados” (?) which isn’t an abbey at all (and never has been).  It used to be called St Nicholas Plantation but a past owner decided Abbey was better.  Its almost (but not quite) as old as Drax Hall, but built in a very different, Dutch, style.  It is also, unlike Drax Hall, open to the public, and one is made very welcome.  It is under new ownership since 2005 but up until that point it had been in the same family since it was first built in the 17th century.

We were shown a fascinating movie film of the late owner’s grandfather visiting Barbados in the early 20th century, we saw the ship leaving Dover, crossing the Atlantic and arriving in the Careenage at Bridgetown. Later on we were shown how the plantatation worked all those years ago, with manual labour galore. It was a fascinating tale, all narrated by the late owner in a deep, rich English accent “and there you can see him taking orf his pith helmet (which was the sign of a plantation owner)” etc.  Afterwards there was rum tasting session, followed by a rum punch!

Back home again a quick change, wash and brush up and we were out again, this time to a very posh dinner at The Cliff, Barbados’ most expensive restaurant. A very swish affair it was too. I’ve read the reviews on Trip Advisor, a very mixed bag, but I found it delightful.  All open air, with canopies that suddenly swish out if there’s the slightest hint of a shower (there were a few last night). Once the rain stops they swish back again, almost by magic (but I saw someone press a button!).

Here are some pics from our trip out yesterday.

Today (28th) is my last day in Barbados. I’m all checked-in for my flight home tonight, and I’ve just about completed my packing. Once I’ve published this I’m off down to the pool for a grill and swim, and then I believe we’re going out to swim with turtles in the sea if its calm enough (given the wind at the moment I suspect it won’t be). I’m not sure how soon the next blog update will be – depends on whether I get jet lag on four hours’ time difference…

Read on for another post: “Halo polishing” which I published late last night!

Halo polishing

More grilling by the pool yesterday morning, and in the pool on a lilo.

I’ve gradually reduced my SPF from 30 to 8 over the week and I’m moderately pleased with the results. I’ll never been bronzed like the bathing beauties (both sexes) on the sands, because I’m too frightened of getting burnt like I did on the Great Barrier Reef in 1992 (I’ve never forgotten the blisters and pain of overdoing the grilling). But I think TSM will notice a difference when I get home on Friday.

The morning started, however, with a leisurely stroll along the shoreline, watching the sun climb in the sky. I don’t think I’ll ever tire of the changing seasons and unpredictable weather that we have in the UK. It’s lovely being here and enjoying guaranteed sunshine, 30C temperatures and the cooling trade wind from the east that is a hallmark of Barbados.  Lovely for a week, but I think I would ache for some variance after a while. I have some ex-pat friends who currently live in California who don’t understand why I like the unpredictability of the British climate so much.  Ah well, each to their own I say.

So after the morning’s grilling Derek took Donroy and I off for a trip to St John’s on the east side of the island. We passed by Drax Hall en route, so it felt like familiar territory for much of the short journey.  Its a relatively small island as I intimated yesterday, but distances feel quite considerable, possibly due to the nature of the roads twisting and turning, rather rough surfaces in places. And all the while that cooling east wind. All the cars have airconditioning, but equally all the cars on the road drive around with all the windows down … its really rather lovely.

Philip was incapacitated yesterday with a bad back which he swears he’s picked up from me, though goodness only knows how. For myself I’ve had a liberating week, free from back discomfort and I’ve been able to do (and walk) so much more than I’ve previously managed. I truly feel like a new man.  Let’s just hope I can keep this up at home. Oh I’m not looking forward to returning to the UK just in time for February.  I hate February: gloomy, depressing, the depths of winter without a hint of spring to come.

Derek took me to the parish church of St John which is famous for its particularly spectacular location on the crest of a ridge overlooking the east coast. Consequently it gets that trademark cooling breeze to take the edge off the searing heat. Church services are conducted with the windows all open, with distant views of the Atlantic and all God’s creation spread out before one.

The church is classic Gothic and situated on a cliff overlooking the picturesque East Coast. This church was built in 1836, the fifth to be erected on the same site. It replaced a building which had been destroyed by a hurricane in 1831.

In the churchyard rests the remains of Ferdinando Paleologus, a descendent of Emperor Constantine the Great, whose family was driven from the throne of Constantinople by the Turks. Ferdinando died in Barbados in 1678, after being a resident here for over 20 years.

The churchyard also contains some pretty spectacular mausolea of plantation owners from centuries past. There’s not a lot of topsoil above the solid coral core of the island, particular above the principal arable growing areas, and so graves look a little different in Barbados. Very often they have to build up a gravespace because one can’t dig down below ground level for more than a foot or so. This means that little mausolea are a common feature of graveyards: they look rather like domed cardboard boxes which have been rendered and a memorial plaque added to the construction. There were graves like this dating back to the 1700s. No new burials are allowed in this particular churchyard (there is another graveyard about half a mile distant), except for burials in an existing family mausoleum (provided there is space inside), the last one being as recent as 2005.

It was lovely reading the memorial plaques in the church. Its one of my favourite pastimes back home to visit country churches and graveyards. I enjoy reading the memorials and learning about inhabitants from time immemorial. The ones I particularly enjoy are those that ‘big up’ the deceased individual as an exemplar of piety and good works.  I’m all for that kind of exhortation, but its an indication of how times have changed so much that the language used on such memorials is often strange to our eyes, words that we no longer use in daily speech yet brought to life in marble or stone.

From St John’s we made a short trip to Codrington College, an anglican theological educational establishment, found by one Christopher Codrington, who after his death in 1710 left portions of his ‘estates’ – two slave labour plantations on Barbados and areas of Barbuda – to the Society for the Propagation of the Gospel in Foreign Parts to establish a college in Barbados. Construction was started in 1714, and the College was eventually opened on September 9, 1745.

It initially provided a general education but began to teach advanced studies as early as 1748; this served as a preparatory education before the students – usually sons of the local gentry – went to an English university.

The plantation slaves were considered heathens and not suitable for entry into the Kingdom of Heaven and so they were totally ignored by the church until after emancipation in 1834 when a wholesale conversion effort started. Suddenly these heathen souls were lost souls and they needed to be saved. Oh how times change!

The college is now owned and run by the Church of England, which still owns two neighbouring sugar plantations and makes a healthy profit each year!  I understand there was a fuss a couple of years back because London wanted to ditch this college but there was an uproar in Barbados and they backed off.

Finally, for dinner last night we graced ‘Whispers by the Bay’ with our presence – P&D, myself and Donroy.  It was a fabulous outdoor setting right on the beach with the breakers crashing onto the shore just a few yards away.  The restaurant was sumptuously decorated and the service extremely attentive but I have to say the food was only average. We only discovered after booking that it was by no means cheap.  Overall, great location but I wouldn’t dine there again, certainly not value for money and it seems from Trip Advisor that I’m not alone in that opinion!

Rum, sugar and hot chocolate

After the usual business was out of the way yesterday morning, namely a swim and a swift grill on a sunlounger, P kindly drove me into Bridgetown (distance about three miles max) and dropped me off at the Mount Gay Rum Distillery visitor centre.

The process for making rum is essentially identical to that of scotch whisky, except the raw ingredient is molasses made from sugar cane rather than an extract of barley. My only encounter with molasses before has been in comedy films, when some hapless villain has fallen into a vat of molasses and couldn’t get out. Well after what I saw yesterday I rather think if you gotta go, then there could be a lot of ways far worse than to drown in a vat of brown sugar. Sweet!

Yesterday the plant was bottling Golden Brandy made from rum. We didn’t unfortunately, get a taste of it so I can’t report back on that one, but we did sample five and ten year old rums and I must say that the ten year old was decidedly superior to the mere youngster of five years. Yet the five year old is the core retail product of the business.

I resisted the temptation (very strong at this point) to purchase a bottle or three, nor did I purchase two very attractive glass tumblers which would have been just perfect for my evening tipple back home.  I’m weakening on the tumblers though and might have to return to buy them before I leave.

I took a taxi from the distillery on the outskirts of Bridgetown into the central business district. Bridgetown feels big and frenetic after St James, but its really rather compact and homely. There are two principal streets for shopping, Broad Street (duty free shops for tourists) and Swan Street (real shops for locals). Everything in the duty free shops has three prices – Bajan $, Duty Free Bajan $ and US $. The current rate of exchange is approximately three Bajan dollars to the £.  The B$ is permanently linked to the US$, but not at a like for like exchange. The cost of living is said to be high in Barbados, but I didn’t think the tourist tat was particularly over the top, and the nice clothes I saw in the duty free shops seemed pretty reasonable.

But I didn’t buy anything, apart from an ice cream!

Next I went along to the Barbados Parliament Building to visit a museum dedicated to the story of democracy in the island. The architectural style of the Parliament buildings are Gothic, and reminiscent of the Victorian era back home in Britain. A prominent feature of both coral-limestone structures is the clock tower attached to the west-wing. Windows of the buildings have louvered shutters for blocking out direct sunlight (this, incidentally, is a common architectural feature – louvred windows are an art form here!).

Barbados has one of the oldest Constitutions in the Commonwealth. The office of Governor and a Council were introduced in 1627, and a House of Assembly was constituted in 1639. An Executive Committee, created in 1881, evolved functions similar to those of ministerial government. From 1938, a campaign for political rights developed from within the trades union movement and the franchise was widened in 1944. Other political parties existed by 1946. Universal adult suffrage followed in 1951, a full ministerial system in 1954, and cabinet government in 1958.

Thus, by 1958, Barbados had virtual self-government, a status formally recognised in 1961. Nominated members ceased to sit on Executive Committee, and the Governor became bound to accept the decisions of this Committee.

Barbados was a member of the Federation of The West Indies, set up in 1958. After the Federation was dissolved in 1962, the Barbados Government first pursued negotiations for a smaller federation and then resolved to seek independence alone. Arrangements were agreed and Barbados became an independent sovereign state within the Commonwealth in 1966.

Barbados is unique across the Commonwealth for having adopted the English parish system for local government. In 1629, Barbados was divided into six parishes. These were: Christ Church, Saint Michael, Saint James, Saint Thomas, Saint Peter and Saint Lucy. In 1645, five more parishes were created by subdividing the existing large areas. These parishes all still exist today. I, for example, am staying in St James, and the administration works just as it always did, with a few modern day adaptations of course.

Each parish, just like a parish back home, has a distinctive identity. Its really quite uncanny how you can drive a couple of miles and the landscape feels totally different.  Yet this is an island only 21 miles long and fifteen miles wide (at its very widest point, five would be a more realistic perception of the width generally).  As I’ve a background in parish pump politics (I myself was a parish councillor for ten years) I find this tale of the parish set up absolutely fascinating.

After visiting the museum I crossed The Careenage, a large sea inlet that comes into the centre of Bridgetown and forms a lovely marina right in the town centre. There are boardwalks on either side with huge pleasure fishing boats, yachts and catamarans berthed close in. Crossing the Independence Bridge one reaches the Independence Arch, erected in 1966 to celebrate, yes you guessed it already…

I had arranged a rendezvous with P&D at a waterside cafe and we duly met there at the appointed time.  I had a couple of rum punches (this is getting to be a habit!) and enjoyed grilled shrimps with Caribbean salad for my lunch.

Thereafter Philip and I set off on the major expedition of the day, a visit to Drax Hall Estate.  Well visit is perhaps a little strong, since the estate and particularly the plantation house are not open to the public.  Drax Hall is well marked on the map and, being the very first sugar plantation on the island, everyone knows it anyhow!

Comparing Drax Hall to Charborough Park in Dorset would be difficult. Drax Hall, for example, doesn’t have a six-foot high wall running around the perimeter. But what it does have that Charborough does not, is Drax Hall mansion. This is one of only two surviving authentic Jacobean mansions in the western hemisphere (the other one is also in Barbados). It is still owned by the Drax family, so it hasn’t changed hands since it was built circa 1642 (ish – no one knows for certain when it was built, apparently). They were in sugar right from the very start, and so amongst the original English settlers who really did make their fortunes on sugar production and sent the profits home.

I was rather hoping to come across a friendly custodian who would cordially invite us in for afternoon tea and a gander, but no such invitation was forthcoming. So photos were snapped and we came away, me very much happier for having been to Drax Hall and with a comprehension now of how the Draxes came to be able to afford such a magnificent mansion at Charborough Park!

Extract from Barbados Business Monday news supplement (4 January 2010):

There is an historic side to the new housing development which the National Housing Corporation (NHC) has constructed at Drax Hall Hope/Greens, St. George.

Not only have the houses been built on land owned previously by the Drax Hall Plantation, a historic landmark in the parish, but two avenues carry the names of icons associated with that organisation.

The James Drax Avenue is named after Drax, one of the early British planters who came to Barbados in the 17th century, acquired several acres of land in the parish bordering St. Philip and St. John, and began the cultivation of sugar canes. Sugar cane cultivation remains the principal agricultural activity on the Drax Hall Plantation to this day. Another street is named after another member of the Drax family.

One resident in the area told Business Monday that the authorities appear keen in having a historic connection to the housing project. “This whole area is Drax Hall, so the naming of the avenues seems to be keeping the historic link in tact”, said the resident.

The 51 units are part of efforts by the Government to provide more housing for Barbadians. A spanking new pavilion has also been constructed while the accompanying playing-field is already in use by residents in both Greens and Drax Hall Hope.

The Drax Hall Plantation House, along with St. Nicholas Abbey in St. Peter are considered national treasures. They stand as proud examples of Jacobean tradition, featuring steep gable roofs, impressive staircases and casement gable windows.

We returned to St James along the Bridgetown by-pass, the only bit of dual carriageway on the island! Back home we had a visitor waiting for us, Donroy, a magnicent specim of a local ~ 6’5″ (a good match for me!), muscular, deep chocolate coloured skin.

We all made for the pool and I apologised to Donroy that my tan wasn’t nearly as good as his… He said that when he’s been in the sun his skin goes even darker. Fun and games involving a lilo ensued and then we all retired to the hottub for more fun and frolics.

Being 25th January the day wouldn’t have been complete without haggis and neeps to celebrate Burns Night. It certainly felt rather different sitting on the verandah with the fans whirring away above our heads, enjoying haggis and neeps Caribbean-style (mashed yam instead of bashed neeps), doused with a little Scotch.

I was up with the lark this morning and enjoyed a stroll along the beach in the breakers as the sun came up, looking forward to the day ahead.

St Lucy and the fish pot

Yesterday dawned sunny and bright, just like every other day here in paradise.  But before dawn I found myself awake at 4.25am and decided to have a swim in the pool which, by now, I consider to be deliciously warm. A far cry from my first experience of it.

Of course, at that time of the morning you don’t have to worry about onlookers, so I threw caution (and my bathers) to the wind …

Then it was back to bed after a towel dry, and I slept for another couple of hours before getting up for some more pool dipping (appropriate attired now) on and off during the morning.

Swimming was interspersed with grilling on a sun lounger. I’ve dropped the high protection sun cream in favour of a medium one now as I’m managing not to burn.  Or is it because I’m being very careful not to grill for longer than 5-10 minutes at a time, and consequently I’m not grilling very much at all with all that slap on?

Throwing caution to the wind (a lovely, fairly constant, easterly breeze is a most welcome feature of Barbados) I took a walk down the street to explore the locality a little. This from someone who until recently was very wary of walking anywhere away from the sanctuary of home lest I hurt myself.  If nothing else this week in Barbados has been a truly liberating experience, I’ve come to realise that I can indeed do more than I thought I was physically capable of just now.

I wasn’t out long, maybe 20 minutes, and I certainly felt the heat, but I enjoyed the stroll (as much as you can stroll in flipflops that is), and then back home again for another dip in that by now familiar pool.

Around 1pm we set off on the day’s tour, this time heading for the parish of St Lucy in the far north of the island. I joked that St Lucy is the coldest part of the island because it is closest to the north pole, but really it wasn’t anything of the sort. Apparently St Lucy is renowned for its country bumpkins as there is much agriculture up there and I suppose yes I did see quite a bit of evidence to that claim, although Barbados is rather notable for the lack of mass agriculture apart from sugar cane for rum production.

We stopped for lunch at a delightful beachside restaurant called The Fish Pot at Little Good Harbour on the north of the west coast. The view was faultless (see picture). From our table we had, for entertainment, a couple of fitties who swam out to the sunbathing pontoon – oh how I envied them – and I captured the lovely photograph just as a brightly-coloured dinghy sailed past the pontoon.  I didn’t really notice her much, but I reckon I could pick him out in an identity parade in ten years time!

My camera, unfortunately, wouldn’t zoom quite well enough for me to share a close-up pic of the two fitties, so you’ll just have to use your imagination on this point. My camera is also playing up at the moment, I’m finding my pictures are often coming out blurry – much to my considerable annoyance.

The Fish Pot, as you may imagine, specialises in, er, fish! I’m not really a fish eater, indeed I’ve gone out of my way to avoid eating it for many years apart from the odd smoked salmon sandwich, etc.  But back home TSM has got me into enjoying poached salmon, and fish pie, and various other bits. The Blessed Craig last year introduced me to whitebait (that, I can tell you, was something of a revelation).

And so, progressively, my piscine education has been extended. “What did you have for lunch?” I hear you ask. Well I rolled the boat out big time yesterday – a case of when in Rome do as the Romans.  I went mad and ordered fresh lobster bisque (delicious beyond words) followed by grilled barracuda with a creole sauce and a side salad. The barracuda was very toothsome, I loved it!  Philip says that red snapper is tasty too, so maybe that’s what I’ll have to have at our next meal out!

From Little Good Harbour we continued northwards to the northernmost tip of the island at Retreat, where there is a magnificent cave that has been ‘blown’ out by the sea over hundreds if not thousands of years.

The geology of Barbados is fascinating in that it is entirely made of ancient coral caused by a tectonic shift millennia ago.  Unlike the other islands of the Caribbean which are volcanic in nature, Barbados does not have any dormant volcanoes, let an active one. Over the centuries the sea has gradually eroded much of the coral at the sea’s edge and in places one finds dramatic ‘tables’ of coral jutting out to see, or raggedy cliffs where the coral has been gouged away by the force of the seawater.

And in the case of the ‘Animal Flower Cave’ the sea has gradually washed out a magnificent subterranean cave which at low tide exposes some magnificent rock pools, some of which are deep enough to swim in. The cave’s name comes from the sea anemones found in the pools of the cave.

Apparently (I’m not sure how much I believe it) there was a huge storm around Christmas (so a month ago) and all the sea anemones got washed away, out to sea. So when I was there yesterday it was just a magnificent cave with some pools of water. I didn’t see anemones (or sea anemones for that matter)!

And then it was a leisurely meander back to Prospect for another evening by (and in) the hot tub. Dale the Bajan and Mark the Jamaican joined us for the evening again. It was pretty special watching the stars in the night sky whilst chatting with friends old and new. It was at this point I realised that on 24th January one is supposed to be cold, and I was anything but cold last night!

I retired early to bed last night, I’m not sleeping terribly well here. At first I thought it was the heat, but the aerial fan (topped up with aircon when heat is too oppressive) keeps me cool, or the bed which isn’t long enough for me, but last night I seemed to not notice the shortcomings of the bed at all. So who knows what the cause of the wakefulness is.

What’s on the agenda today? Well as already intimated in a comment I’ve left on yesterday’s posting, today I’m off out on my own (I feel brave enough now) to visit the Mount Gay Rum Distillery on the outskirts of Bridgetown. And then I’ll make my way back by public bus which, I am reliably informed, is quite an experience.  Quite what kind of experience I guess I’ll tell you about tomorrow morning!

I’m not sure whether a trip out is planned for later, but I hope so … there’s so much more to see and I can already see the end of my visit looming on Thursday.

Maria Callas is locked in a bedroom

The great diva lives! It’s true, I heard her singing in the trees yesterday afternoon. More of that later …

What a lovely day it was yesterday. Swelteringly hot, fluffy white clouds skimming across an eternally blue sky giving just the occasional shade relief.  Before the sun got too high in the sky I went down to the beach (pictured) for a stroll along the coral sand. I was determined to at least get wet this time, and so it happened – though not entirely as intended.

Walking on the coral sand is a bit of a nightmare if you’ve got sensitive feet as I have. I feel literally every bump or lump under the soles of my feet. So imagine what it is like stepping on a bit of sea-worn coral, ground down to something approaching smoothness over many moons but still enough to cause havoc to this sensitive creature!

Where I lost my footing - deceptive eh?

And then, added to this, is the fact that what’s lying on the beach is the small stuff which the sea has thrown up. Conversely, just a few yards from shore there are blooming great lumps of the stuff flying around (shadow underwater on picture).

So if you wade in to the water where there’s a lot of coral debris, these lumps fly at your legs through the water. A few weeks back P&D’s last visitor apparently emerged from the water in the same spot with his legs cut to shreds.  I was anxious not to repeat the scenario.

So I found what I thought was the sandiest part of the beach, with few lumps on display, and I waded in to my knees. The water was deliciously warm and really quite clear, but not clear enough for me to notice that the sand suddenly shelved away to a not-quite-so-shallow spot!

All at once instead of paddling I found myself sitting in the water, and that’s when I discovered the current. Not a strong one, but the waves are powerful enough just here. Not soon was I sitting down but I was pushed over by a passing wave. In no time at all I’d gone from wet below the knees to total immersion!!

I must say it was fabulous, but the thought of getting hit by coral lumps, let alone stepping on the stuff did, I’m afraid, rather put me off prolonging the experience, or attempting to swim. So I returned back to the house and elected for the swimming pool instead – altogether safer, if rather more boring.  Whereas the previous day I wouldn’t go near it, yesterday you couldn’t keep me out of it!

A grill in the sun followed, slapping on high SPF Piz Buin.  I’ll want my money back if I don’t have a delicious tan when I get back to blighty.  There’ll be words I can tell you!

Around midday we set off for our afternoon jaunt, a pattern now well established (home am, out pm til whenever). P&D drove me first to Holetown, just up the coast from here, and then we turned right and headed inland to Mount Misery, at 1035 feet high, one of the highest points on the island.

I’ve no idea how it came by its name, and I have tried to find out for you this morning but to no avail. However, I suspect we can all think of at least one cause for its name.  From Mt Misery you can see the Caribbean to the west and the Atlantic to the east. The next landfall eastwards from Barbados is Senegal in West Africa, just over 3000 miles away!

From Mt Martha we headed further east to the parish of St Joseph to visit Hunte’s Gardens. This is a fabulous botanical garden established not so many years ago by its own Antony Hunte. He’s a white Bajan native, a descendant of the entirely settlers, and he was certainly an eccentric character; I warmed to him immediately. His gardens were simply stunning, created in an enormous collapsed cave: my photograph really doesn’t do it justice – the tall palm trees were over 200 feet tall.

I was completely spellbound by the gardens around me when suddenly Maria Callas started singing Puccini through the trees. It was at once weird and yet fitting in that arena, and given the big hole that the garden was created in, the acoustics were brilliant.

After our perambulation around the garden we joined Antony on his verandah for a glass of rum punch, my first tipple of rum ever.  I was rather taken (warning bells!) with it.

I took the opportunity to tell Anthony that it was lovely hearing Maria Callas singing whilst I was walking around the garden. “Didn’t you know?” he said, “She’s my wife. I keep her chained up in my bedroom these days; she just sings like a canary when she wants something.”

Rum consumed we headed off again, arriving a short time after at Bathsheba, which made me feel like I was a Thomas Hardy character.

We had a delicious snack lunch (and another rum punch!) at a lovely cafe overlooking an Atlantic beach, massive waves crashing onto the shore in their first landfall for thousands of miles, and then bumbled back to St James passing through plantations of sugar cane, banana, paw-paw, mango and apples.

I’m fascinated by the placenames (usually named for the original plantation owner thereabouts), the plantations themselves and the chequered history of the sugar trade. We have to accept that slavery is part of that story unfortunately, but my take on it is that at least the white settlers did come to their senses eventually, albeit when forced to comply with an act of parliament.

300 years of plantation history is quite something and I’m determined to find out more before I travel home and to read about it thereafter.  So expect a plantation blog soon!

Back home again more swims in the pool followed by a relaxing evening doing, frankly, not a lot.  We talked about plans for today, but I’m so relaxed I can’t for life of me remember what the agenda is.

Once I’ve finished this posting I’ll zip down to the beach for a wade, maybe an immersion too, and then more grilling by the swimming pool for half an hour.

I’m delighted to have avoided getting sunburned so far, but there’s always today …

On the trail of Drax

Speightstown

A lazy day yesterday, and I was thankful for it. I enjoyed doing not very much during the morning whilst P&D were at work.

“At work” consists of sitting at the breakfast bar surrounded by laptops and paperwork, arranging their business affairs back in England from the sultry comfort of Barbados. This occupied the morning and left to myself I enjoyed pottering around in the garden and slightly further afield.

There’s a lovely swimming pool, not kidney shaped more of an amoeba really. It looked so inviting and I decided to take the plunge. Until, that is, I dipped a toe in the water!  Brrrr!!! Something of a shock to the system.  “I’m not going in there!” I declared to myself, “Not in a month of Sundays.”

So I took myself off down to the beach (as described yesterday, it’s only about 200 metres away, across a road.  I had the beach to myself, and out on the water there were a couple of yachts and other pleasure craft idling by. I turned south and started walking along the golden coral sand, the sea gently lapping across my feet.  I was convinced that the sea was warmer than the swimming pool.  I’d have waded in a bit beyond my ankles except that the coral rocks are numerous and sharp, and so best avoided until a properly clear sandy bit is found.

I continued walking for a couple of hundred yards, passing a rather fit (this is an understatement) man who was doing some maintenance on a dinghy/yacht (I don’t know the difference so you’ll have to excuse the lack of precise detail). I wished him a good morning and he said “Would you like to go for a sail?”.

I declined, and then instantly rather wished I hadn’t been so precipitate in dismissing the idea.  Actually I rather think I would like to do that, but I’m not sure that I’m physically strong enough to do it without risk of hurting my back.  It would be the ruination of my holiday if something went wrong there.

I continued on my way and then eventually retraced my steps, passing the yachtsman and still I thought about the idea.

Back at the house I toe-dipped again. Still bloomin’ freezing!  The sea was definitely warmer!  I came to the conclusion that the swimming pool and I were not to be intimate friends during my stay here.

I started to read one of the books I’ve brought with me, this one Clarissa Dickson-Wright’s latest: a sort of year-in-the-life affair, and rather good.

But the swimming pool was calling.  Another toe dip followed, except this time I waded in up to my knees. Still very cold in my opinion, but I was desperate to swim so I resolved on an action plan.

Back to the patio and the hot tub for a quick immersion. Considerably warmer and then emboldened I went straight down to the pool and waded into the water up to my waist, and then the final baptism of fire (or in this case, ice)!

Of course, once I was in I realised it was lovely (if bracing).  And thereafter no-one’s been able to keep me out of the pool!

When P&D had finished work and been out for some groceries, we set off on a little jaunt up the west coast to Speightstown (also known as ‘Little Bristol’).

Speightstown was formally settled around 1630 and in the earliest days of Settlement was Barbados’s busiest port. Ships laden with sugar and other commodities left Speightstown bound directly for London and especially Bristol. For this reason Speightstown is sometimes known as Little Bristol. The quaint town has now become the centre of a tourist area as well as a secondary shopping centre.colligan

The area of Speightstown was the first major port and commercial centre of Barbados. The city is named after William Speight, a member of Barbados’ first Assembly during the colonial years as well as the former land owner where the city is located. It has a long and colorful history reaching back to the 17th century when it served as one of the main ports connecting the island with the “mother country,” England. Back then Speightstown was sometimes called “Little Bristol” because of these trading connections with Bristol.

Many historic buildings dating from colonial times, including Arlington House, still remain standing in the town. Speightstown saw a lot of activity during the reign of the sugar industry and the day of the slave trade. Many slaves would have passed through this town, even if they were to be shipped on further to other islands or America.

We had lunch at a lovely beach-side bar sitting underneath palm trees watching the scrummy blue sea crashing onto the shore just yards away.

Anyone who has driven along the A31 between Wimborne Minster and Winterborne Zelston in Dorset will be familiar with “The Wall”, Stag Gate and Lion Gate. A six foot high wall, one of the longest in England, surrounds the Drax estate, Charborough Park, home of the Drax family who made their fortune on the sugar plantations of Barbados, aided not a little bit by slavery.

Here in Barbados, the Drax’s were the first to cultivate sugar cane, in 1642. Drax Hall Estate is one of only two Jacobean houses remaining in Barbados. And the estate has belonged to the same family ever since it was built. The estate is still a sugar plantation but regrettably the old house is not open to the public.

I understand the family live in rather more palatial surroundings nowadays, and that they’re in residence right now – hardly surprising given the winter weather back home!

Drax Hall

So it was fascinating for me yesterday to visit the Arlington House Museum just across the road from the bar, and learn all about the history of the island and the sugar barons, led by Drax 300 years ago. The museum is the first of its kind in Barbados, very interactive and with really good interpretative displays. It was a fascinating hour with quite a number of surprises along the way. I’d say it should be a ‘must’ for anyone visiting Barbados in the future.

We turned to Prospect following ‘Route 1’, the coast road. It felt like a fairly narrow surburban road meandering through various settlements, never more than about a hundred metres from the shore, and all the while the wonderfully blue sea in view.

After the sun set (pretty spectacular sunset across the sea) dinner followed at home, with some local friends of P&D’s joining us for champagne (imported by me, along with two haggis for Burns Night on Monday) and nibbles.  After dark I enjoyed a dip in the pool with Mark the Jamaican. I’m sure I saw the moon rise out of the water but I could have been mistaken; it was certainly memorable though.  Dale the Bajan suggested an after-dinner hot tub dip and that was too tempting to turn down; it was lovely lying in bubbling warm water staring up at the stars.

And so to bed at the end of my first full day in Barbados.

The itinerary for today is more swimming, a visit to Hunte’s Garden in the parish of St Joseph’s (the whole island is split into parishes of the Church of England) and exploring the undeveloped east (Atlantic) coast.

Hopefully tonight I’ll sleep a little more soundly than I’ve managed for the past two nights. The tree frogs are noisy!!