St. Helena

Life and Death of Napoleon on St Helena

20th June 2017

One of the perks of sometimes having to get up at 3am to go to work is that you also get some days in the week off. This is useful when some of St Helena’s tourist attractions are only open in normal working hours. Currently, there isn’t the tourist numbers to justify longer opening times but this could well change as the airport brings more and more visitors to this unspoilt location.

On Tuesday, I had a massage with beauty therapist Noleen at Essence in Jamestown. It was fantastically relaxing and a great way to send the morning when the rain was lashing down outside.

Winter has arrived, though this is winter by St Helena standards. I’ve worn a coat once and even then, a waterproof jacket and a jumper would have done just fine.

As I left Essence sleepily rubbing my eyes and very chilled out I decided to wake myself up by climbing Jacob’s ladder. The only bits I enjoy are the first 75 steps and then when you are 10 steps away from the top. The bit in the middle is pure hell but it is exercise out in the fresh air and the views are pretty spectacular.

It was then time for lunch and I heaved my way a bit further up the hill to ‘Tasty Bites’ restaurant, huffing and puffing. When I first arrived on the island in January their delicious Mexican Bean Chili blew my head off and I am sorry to say that I couldn’t finish it, it was so spicy. However, they have now adapted the recipe and now it contains a reduced level of spice. Still enough to make your nose run, but not so much that it’s painful. Just perfect. I polished off a good bowl with some of their scrummy fries.

On Wednesday, I thought I would take advantage of the Napoleon sites around St Helena that I have thus far neglected. He is the reason why (some of) the world knows about St Helena Island and it makes you wonder, if it wasn’t for him being exiled, would much of the world know about this magical little island at all?

It was £10 to see all three sites the ticket claimed: the Briars Pavilion, Longwood House and the Tomb. I mean, £10 is very reasonable for two historical houses. But the Tomb is a freebie by default, seeing as there is no one manning the entrance. So, if you are not interested in Napoleon’s life in the slightest but would like to gloat at his empty grave then go ahead! It is peaceful to sit down there. The island holds a Remembrance Day there every year on the closest Sunday to the 5th May. On St Helena, he is remembered fondly, this high-profile prisoner of the British Empire.

Napoleon arrived on St Helena after ten weeks at sea in 1815. After the first night spent in Jamestown he went to visit Longwood House, which was to be his home here. On his journey back to Jamestown he stopped at the Briars, a rather lovely part of the island (which I also live) and came across William Balcombe and his family. I discovered that he only lived at the Briars Pavilion for seven weeks while Longwood House was finished. This was reported to be his happiest time on island. He enjoyed spending time with the Balcombe family who hosted him. The climate in the Briars is a lot less windy and rainy than Longwood and it is in the perfect location, to get the heat from Jamestown but cool enough for it not to get overwhelming. Mr Magellan gave me a fantastic tour of the place. He is 84 years old and has such a wealth of information about the history of Napoleon and the island.

He then spent just over five grumpy years at Longwood House. He had his French Generals there for company and Bertrand’s Cottage which is just across the road from Longwood House was General Bertrand’s residence. It is now an excellent restaurant and they have a few rooms you can stay in.

The gardens of Longwood are beautifully maintained and while I was there the gardeners were working on the lawn. Napoleon would have gorgeous views of Flagstaff Hill in the distance. When I arrived the Longwood House staff were sitting on the veranda and I thought what a beautiful view they had from where they worked. I was the only visitor that day and judging by the visitor book, the only one all week!

As I wondered the rooms that have been refurbished to look like it did when Napoleon was here, I listened to the audio tour tell me everything I could possibly know about Napoleon. I saw the bath he used, learnt he was an avid reader and he wasn’t very impressed with the bed he was given here.

I was also told that he probably did snuff it from stomach cancer, not the arsenic poisoning that was debated. Apparently, everyone at that time in history had a considerable amount of arsenic in their system from the environment in which they lived. These levels would be classed as dangerous today.

I then visited the gift shop where I met the sister of one of my colleagues. There is only usually one degree of separation from nearly everyone here. It must be one of the few places left like this in the modern world where, because of the lack of movement in and out of the community and the tiny size, you can get to know a large proportion of people here without any difficulty.

It is now I understand how it must have been to live in a village in Europe a few hundred years ago without cars and buses where people would get to know their neighbours extremely well because you could. It is much rarer today for people to be born, grow up, start a family, retire and pass away all in the same town or village. It truly transports you back in time being here. There is no middle ground. You can’t live ‘a few hours’ away from your family. It’s either within 30 minutes or >1000 miles away! A difficult decision for young people to make.

After a quick bite to eat I took on my 11th post box walk, ‘Great Stone Top’.

Great Stone Top has jaw dropping cliff views with a fantastic bird’s eye view of the airport. Sadly, there weren’t any plans landing when I went (that would have been a super unusual thing to see at this particular airport, granted).

I followed a path down to the coast which was a eucalyptus woodland which smelt amazing. I then reached a barren area of multicoloured soil. After circumnavigating Boxwood Hill you follow the path past the base of Little Stone Top.

Then it’s climbing over boulders and a strenuous climb to the top. A terrified rabbit hurtled its way down the hillside when it saw me coming. I watched awe struck as it managed to run like the wind down the side of the near vertical cliff face without tripping up. Four legs are definitely better than two. It was probably the kind of rabbit that wasn’t used to human company. I thought about shouting after it that I was a vegetarian and I wasn’t interested in eating him, but I think that would have scared him more. It is fantastic to see 360 degree unspoilt views of the island from such a high vantage point. Looking out to sea there is literally nothing until you arrive in Antarctica.

After following my footsteps back, it just begun spitting with rain as I neared the car. Just before I got there I met a man chopping wood with a machete. Normally I would be quite friendly with strangers here, but I also don’t usually make conversation with guys holding machetes. He had a legitimate reason for the said machete but I suddenly became how acutely alone I was out in the woods on a path with a man holding a potential dangerous weapon. All the horror movies I’ve ever watched, things never ended well for lone females with axe men in the woods. I carried on the conversation with him as I walked ‘with purpose’ back to the car. In hindsight, I really don’t think he would have chopped me up into small pieces, never to be found. St Helena is extremely safe. I’ve just watched too many scary films!

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