Life’s a beach

Bathsheba

Life’s a beach. I’ve walked on a few today. All of them clean white coral sand and deliciously warm surf.

Unfortunately these lovely beaches are nowhere in the UK. I’m back in Barbados, visiting the same friends with whom I stayed 50 weeks ago, P&D. I arrived from London yesterday (Gatwick was 3C, Bridgetown 30C).

No hassle with camouflage shorts this time around, so once I’d clear immigration and baggage reclaim I picked my rental car (a Suzuki Vitara) and headed to Bridgetown and Prospect where I’m staying. The sun was going down as I arrived in Prospect and I enjoyed a leisurely evening catching up with P&D.

We were in Bridgetown bright and early this morning to go on a special slavery heritage trail tour. Unfortunately we didn’t make it onto the coach as it was sold out (the advert P had seen for didn’t say that booking was either required or desirable, so he didn’t). The next tour will be on the 20th which is too late for me ūüė¶

So, after returning P home and gathering up my bits and pieces, I set off on a ‘get my bearings’ day out. I headed east for St John’s Church, via Drax Hall, to see the grave of the country’s Prime Minister who died very recently. The attendant at the church told me that they’d had great difficulty locating a free plot in the historic graveyard (the oldest identified grave is from 1666!).

After St John’s I needed to put petrol in the tank which meant heading back to Bridgetown as that’s where most of the filling stations are located on the island. Certainly my tourist map didn’t indicate any where I was. Since I was in Bridgetown I decided to go to the Barbados Concorde Experience. I saw Concorde at Heathrow many times, and recall it flying overhead at some point in the past, but I’d never been ‘up close and personal’. That was fixed today.

And then I headed for the beaches.¬†There are beaches everywhere. Along the east coast they are wide and wind-blown. Here the shore is pounded by the Atlantic (there’s nothing for 3,000 miles east to Banjul in The Gambia) and is consequently popular with surfers who come from all over the world.

On the calmer south and west coasts, you can walk for miles along unbroken white sand beaches, though the way is often barred by clusters of coral rocks jutting out to sea which create delightful hidden coves. These are often difficult to access, or form part of some fabulous resort or private development, but it is still possible to find a beach all to one’s self. All along the shore large and small beaches are broken by coral formations, the soft coral rocks weathered by the ocean surf, forming abstract sculptures pleasing to an artist’s eye.

In the north, coral and sandstone cliffs rise straight out of the sea reaching up to a hundred feet in height. But even here, you’ll find the occasional sheltered cove.

I’ve done several beaches today. Here are the highlights:

1.  A walk on the beach at [the ridiculously expensive] Crane Resort. Yes its quite something but there are better beaches, almost within spitting distance, that remain unspoilt by such development. Not my kind of beach Рby a country mile!

2.  A walk on the fabulously unspoilt Bathsheba beach Рa sharp contrast to Crane and much more to my liking.

3. ¬†Several rum punches and lunch at The Round House overlooking Bathsheba’s pools (see previous link for details). This was my favourite eatery on my last visit, and when it comes to location, only Applecross in Scotland beats it for sensory delight.

4. ¬†A walk on Brandons beach on the outskirts of Bridgetown. The cruise ship terminal is visible away to the south, and this afternoon I was able to see Queen Mary 2, Independence of the Seas and a ‘Celebrity Cruises’ liner that I did not recognise, plus a traditional four-masted schooner berthed near (and dwarfed by) QM2.

Then it was back home to check out all my photos and decide what to do tomorow (a walk along the beach before the sun gets too high, application of copious quantities of Piz Buin by the pool, and later a visit to a Barbados Horticultural Society open garden).

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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. ‚ÄúThis whole area is Drax Hall, so the naming of the avenues seems to be keeping the historic link in tact‚ÄĚ, 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.

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 ‚Äúmother country,‚Ä̬†England. Back then Speightstown was sometimes called ‚ÄúLittle Bristol‚ÄĚ 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!!