Exploring St John’s and historic Antigua
If only bricks could talk. At first glance, they look fairly ordinary. A nice honey colour and thinner than you might expect but for all that, just another brick in the wall.
Except this wall and these bricks have seen history. Admiral Nelson strode past them, they were built on the fruits of the lucrative Caribbean sugar trade and its darker side, stood as slavery was abolished and independence was declared on Antigua.
If you ever think this Caribbean island is only about its 365 beaches, a short visit to Nelson’s Dockyard is the perfect starting point to make you think again. And the perfect starting point to discover some of Antigua’s history.
Dating back to the 18th century, the Georgian dockyard is still operational today. Instead of being the centre of operations for the British Navy, it’s bars, shops and hotels which draw the boats now. And as well as wandering round gazing on the historic buildings and occasional British relic (red phone box and post box, for starters), there’s a museum giving an insight into life in the Navy.
Short. That’s the overriding message – if the battles didn’t get you, the disease almost certainly would. If you survived both (and the doctors’ ministrations) the lead vessels used to distill the sailors’ rum ration were pretty much guaranteed to poison you.
Today it’s lovely. Quiet cobbled streets, ornamental cannon, blue skies and palm trees waving in the breeze. Minnie, jetlagged, promptly fell asleep in her buggy, leaving me time to wander around and check out the exhibits, from four-poster beds to gruesome medical devices, and the views out to the fortified harbour.
From here, you can head to Shirley Heights for one of the best views on the island down to English Harbour, to the interpretation centre at Dow’s Hill (although the sound and light show is probably better for older kids) and over to Betty’s Hope.
The most famous of the sugar mills dotted around the landscape, it’s another relic of the sugar trade. The plantation, named after the planter’s two daughters, was one of the earliest on the island dating back to 1651.
Goats were nibbling the trees as we drove up the winding path but we’d timed it too late to have more than a quick look around the restored mill, with its machinery and sails.]
For a deeper look at King Sugar and Antigua’s history, you need to head to the capital St John’s. Beyond the pastel brights of the buildings, the Duty Free shops of Heritage Quay and the market, you’ll find the Museum of Antigua and Barbuda.
Quiet and empty of other visitors that day, the fans whirring were almost all the noise to be heard. Definitely a museum of the old school, there’s lots of glass cases and documents but nothing interactive – Minnie, fortunately, was amused elsewhere checking out the engines outside.
Which left me free to discover a bit more about the early Amerindians, the 17th century settlers and the realities of slavery, from bills matter-of-factly advertising the sale of slaves to the immediate and harsh penalties for any kind of resistance. Plus, thankfully, the proclamation of its abolition.
Overshadowing it all, the St John’s Cathedral – or St John the Divine – with its white neo-Baroque towers. Currently under much-needed renovation, it’s closed to visitors although you can wander through the graveyard outside.
The third cathedral on the site, with the first two destroyed by earthquakes in 1683 and 1745, the ornate and elaborate stones commemorate some of the island’s earliest British settlers.
I couldn’t help wondering what one long-departed soul might have thought of Antigua today, a tropical holiday paradise for us. But when he died in 1720, the first fortifications had only just begun to be built – and even those bricks at Nelson’s Dockyard, used first as ship’s ballast then building materials, were still waiting the long sea journey from Britain to Antigua.
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