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Gold Cup Races Harrison's Cave

5th March 2017

From St. Nicholas Abbey over Cherry Tree Hill to Lonely Bay, and a Final Chill Out with Animals

    After a quick slurp of coffee I headed down to the local beach at 06:30 for a swim. A few lads sat on a wall opposite the hotel site development, staring blankly at their mobile phones. They were waiting for the gates to the site to open in order to make up some overtime. The beach was only three minutes' walk from our abode, and access was through an old graveyard, the ancient vaults covered in a patchwork of olive green lichens.
    The expanse of sand was almost deserted. An old Bajan chap was ambling in the surf along the beach, slowly dancing with his hands in the air, rocking to the rhythm of the surf rolling in. At times he seemed to be conducting the waves as they washed around his feet. He would catch up with what appeared to be an oversize basketball, which he then picked up and heaved another 10m along the surf. Then followed another dance routine till he caught up with the ball again, which of course he heaved again. On reaching the rocks at the end of the beach he would simply turn around and come back again. Perhaps I should give it a try sometime.
    A large, stout , British chap was content to walk up and down the beach too, exchanging pleasantries as he passed.
    The early morning sea was deliciously cool, and I was aware of shoals of small fish as I swam out to one of the breakwaters, the water rapidly becoming deeper as I approached these man-made beach protectors.
    After a while a few couples appeared on the beach enjoying their early morning strolls, and a couple of chaps who took to the waters too. Crumbs, it must have been rush-hour.
    Then I caught sight of something out of the corner of my eye, and spotted a small land crab cower down into a footprint I had left in the sand. I crept up to investigate him, and he quickly scurried off with one of his claws defiantly waving a piece of bread in the air. The approaching surf picked him up and he somersaulted around in the swirling water before a larger wave deposited him ashore. He then seemed to hover in mid-air as he rapidly sped off on a blur of thrashing spindly legs; amazing to watch, not unlike a drone anchored to the earth.
    I lazily watched the first plane of the day glide in, and then returned for a shower and breakfast - a delightful way to start the day. As I passed the neighbour's trash bins, the ones that had been emitting a terrible stench, I found that the one that had contained all the flies was now awash with maggots, all crawling in a clockwise direction along the bottom 30cm of the inner surface of the bin. Argh ...! They will soon turns into flies and invade Mike's bungalow. I returned in a few minutes with boiling water and bleach to foil their plan.
    Over coffee, Rex gave me a wonderful account of the Elite Racing Club. For a fee he receives a weekly newsletter which provides him with inside information from the stables on how each of the Club's horses in training are progressing at home, in readiness for a racecourse appearance. The Club maintains an average of 25 horses across the training and breeding regimes, but members are not acquiring any of the bloodstock equity and therefore there are no ongoing costs for training fees or vet bills. He also has a chance to spend time with a trainer at the gallops, where he and about 30 more members can see and hear first-hand how the horses are performing, and the progress of the stud programme. Rex is well hooked into the Club, as is Meryl who enjoys horses and often goes out on local hacks in the U.K. Now how did Rex only pick one winner at the Gold Cup Races?
Great House of St. Nicholas Abbey
    Soon we were heading up the H2A highway, the nearest one can get to a motorway on this island, passing lads selling coconut milk, banana and sugar cane plantations, and churches where loud gospel music spilled out through open doors and windows onto the lush, verdant landscape.
    Our destination was St. Nicholas Abbey. Built in 1658 by Colonel Benjamin Berringer, St. Nicholas Abbey is one of the island's oldest surviving plantations. With its original boundaries still intact, the plantation is located in the hills of St. Peter, encompassing over 400 acres of undulating sugar cane fields, lush tropical gullies, mahogany forests and formal gardens. Despite its name, there is no religious connection here at all. The name is credited to the 19th century owners, Charles and Sarah Cave, who combined "Nicholas Plantation", "St. Nicholas Parish" near Bristol where Sarah's family lived, and "Bath Abbey" nearby where they were married.
    Parking up among towering cabbage palms, we entered the site and immediately fell upon the plantation's Great House. Its stone-and-wood architecture makes it one of only three Jacobean-style houses still standing in the Western Hemisphere, the other two are Drax Hall, also in Barbados, and Bacon's Castle in Virginia, USA. The building had Dutch gables, coral stone finials, and four cornerstone chimneys. The Jacobean-style is a transitional phase in English design; it merged the Tudor and Elizabethan styles with continental Renaissance influences, including Flemish, Dutch and French architecture.
Drawing Room of the Great House, Meryl Taking a Seat
    We entered, and were immediately greeted by a rotund Bajan lady, dressed all in red, with a wicked sense of humour. She quickly enrolled us onto a guided tour she was about to begin. The ground floor is fully furnished with period furniture and portraits of family members.
    Our tour began in the drawing room. Sir John Gay Alleyne added the Georgian-style triple arcaded portico and sash windows in 1746. The cedar panelling was installed in 1898 to protect the home from dampness, likely taken from trees that fell during the strong hurricane that hit the island that year. The mahogany door, added in 1910, was also felled on the planation.
    The roofing beams, while not visible from the ground floor, are original to the home; however the original flooring was replaced with Honduras Pitch Pine, imported from North America, in 1910.
    Many of the antiques date to the 1800s, including two Wedgewood tea sets. The Sailor's Valentine collection includes wonderful examples of these popular souvenirs of the period, often brought home for loved ones after a long voyage at sea. Featuring intricate designs created from local and imported seashells and other natural materials, the patterns typically centred on a compass, heart or sentimental message. The lady pointed out that although the name suggests the sailors made these valentines themselves, most originated in Barbados, a popular seaport of the era. The New Curiosity Shop, located in the island's main port by the old ice house in Bridgetown, sold most of the valentines produced by local craftspeople. Hmmm..... perhaps Rex may be encouraged to create one of these for next Valentine's Day.
Dining Room of the Great House
    Our next room was the dining room. The English Sheraton sideboard c. 1780 is one of the few pieces dating to the original owners of the house. The dining table and chairs, made locally from Barbadian Mahogany in 1850, features a stunning collection of Coalport China. Circa 1810, the set is hand-painted with an Amari pattern taken from Japanese silk. The Coalport name, derived from the village in Shropshire, England where pottery was produced from 1796-1926, is renowned for quality and expert craftsmanship. Those were the days when Britain was respected for quality workmanship.
    The study contained a Burlington Gentleman's Chair, manufactured in 1935 by Foot & Co. (a manufacturer of hospital equipment during WWI), defined modern relaxation of the time. Described in advertisements as the "ideal easy chair", it could be transformed into a semi or full length couch with the push of a few buttons. Featuring adjustable tables, a book holder, reading lamp, backrest and footrest, it was a common spot for impromptu napping. The chair could be easily wheeled into another room for the duration of the nap. There is also a Mahogany Judge's Chair featuring the Coat of Arms of William IV, made in England in the early 1830s.
    A stunning set of Minton China (c. 1850) is located in the cabinet. Greatly influenced by French Sèvres Porcelain, English-made Minton China was very popular with 19th century embassies and heads of state. The collection of 19th century glassware decorated in gold leaf was a wedding gift from the Duchess of Buccleuch to Lt. Col. Cave's grandmother in 1895.
Bathhouse and Outhouse
    James Petri, the last owner within the Cave family, sold the property to its current owners, renowned Barbadian architect Larry Warren and his wife, Anna, in 2006. The Warrens purchased the property in order to preserve it as a part of the island's rich heritage. Larry, Anna and their sons, Simon and Shae, have overseen a meticulous restoration of the property as an operating sugar plantation.
    "Unfortunately, the stairs are not safe, so we will have to forego a tour upstairs," our guide informed us. Instead she led us out into the courtyard behind the Great House. This stable yard is home to the 400 year old Sandbox Tree (Hura crepitans), an evergreen indigenous to the Caribbean. The woman told us that whenever she brought a group of school children into the courtyard, she always told them not to tap the tree with their hands. Amazingly, none of them did. However, adults always had to have a go, much to their regret. I inspected the tree closely to find a multitude of tiny, sharp spines that have given this indigenous evergreen the nickname "monkey-no-climb".
    The bathhouse and outhouse stood to one side of the yard. The outhouse was once outfitted with a four-seated privy (a two-seated privy was employed at George Washington House), quite a strange concept by today's measure of privacy. There is also a water storage cistern connected to the well and reservoir located by the main entrance gate.
"Annabelle" in the Distillery
    We then paid the obligatory stop off in the shop, each of us provided with a complementary rum punch to lull us into shopping mode, before being taken into the rum tasting area. Barbados is widely credited as the birthplace of rum. The first commercial sugar cane crop was planted in Barbados in 1640, but settlers had already been harvesting small crops to create a popular local beverage called "Kill-Devil", an early ancestor of the modern-day spirit. Crude distillation methods resulted in a poor-quality product described as "...a hot, hellish, and terrible liquor", yet its popularity grew.
    Over the next century, distillation practices significantly improved and Bajan rum became renowned in both Europe and Colonial America. Alcohol played a large role in 17th and 18th century life; it was drunk during social occasions, used medicinally and served as a valuable trading commodity.
    A young fellow gave an account of sorts about the rum distilled here, but sadly the lad's speech impediment rendered his talk almost unintelligible to me. He had three bottles of rum in front of him on a table: 3-year-old, 12-year-old and 18-year-old, plus a large tray of glasses. He gave each couple a small tot of the 3-year-old rum to share. I seemed to confuse him somewhat since I was a singleton, but I convinced him to give me a tot. That went down well, it had been a long time since I drank a straight rum. Then we proceeded to sample the 12-year-old rum. This was definitely a lot smoother than the 3-year-old. "If you want to try the 18-year-old rum, one of you will have to buy a bottle and share it out amongst yourselves," laughed the chap.
Plantation Old Windmill
    He led us to a side room, the property's chapel, where a 20 minute film was shown. The Cave family owned St. Nicholas Abbey for nearly 200 years, largely as absentee landowners. The plantation ran under management of an overseer, producing sugar and syrup at the plantation's mill. The family made periodic visits to the property. In 1935 Charles J.P. Cave filmed this charming home movie. Charles' son discovered the film at the bottom of a drawer where it had lain for 40 years. It was restored by the National Film Archive, and edited with a voice over provided by the son. His commentary was informative and interspersed with mischievous wit, not far off Brain Johnston style. It provided a spectacular glimpse of plantation life as well as the mill in operation during the height of sugar cane season.
Boiler House
    The lady then took us to the distillery, where we were introduced to the still. "Annabelle" as the still has been affectionately nicknamed, is both a combination pot still and distillation column. She has been specifically designed and manufactured for St. Nicholas Abbey by a German company, to produce light rum (highly distilled) for aging. It allows for handcrafting the product to retain selective compounds produced by the yeast during fermentation, which ultimately gives the rum its unique characteristics. The woman informed us that each batch took an overall process time of 17 days. It produces ethyl alcohol at 92% or 184 proof, which is then diluted to 65% for aging in used American Oak bourbon barrels.
    There are infinite possibilities for rum since its taste and aroma are derived from the source of sugar (typically molasses, or cane juice), the fermentation process, type of distillation, and finally aging, all of which contribute to the final outcome. Uniquely, St. Nicholas Abbey Rum is the only rum produced in Barbados from cane syrup (rather than molasses), following the traditional molasses distillation process. The syrup is stored to ensure year-round production since the Bajan crop season runs only from January to June.
Cane Crushing Plant
    Our guide now left us to explore the rest of the site ourselves. Behind the distillery stood the remains of the old windmill, which at one time would have provided the power to the cane crushing rollers. In the late 1800s, steam power was introduced to the local sugar industry; the steam mill could extract more juice from the sugar cane, increasing production by 10-15% over the traditional windmills. St. Nicholas Abbey installed a steam engine in 1890. Built by Fletchers of Derby, it helped the plantation become one of the most successful on the island. A similar crushing plant is still in use, and we had the privilege of clambering around it for a close up inspection of the rollers. I'll make an engineer of Rex yet. The dried out pulped remains of the cane is used to fire the boilers.
Bottling Room
    A tall, burly Bajan chap showed us around the small room where the rum was bottled. Pipes arose from ground level to feed dispensers that allowed three bottles to be filled simultaneously. We fell into conversation with the jovial chap, who gave us his account of the history of the island, and how the Dutch Jews from northeast Brazil had introduced the sugar industry onto the island. He was a gentle, good humoured man who had views on politics and economics, and he enjoyed sharing his views, as well as listening to others of course.
Gully      (please use scroll bar)

    Beyond the rum and sugar bond terrace are several lush gullies filled with giant mahogany trees, majestic cabbage palms, ancient silk cotton and a wealth of other flora and fauna.
    All three of us found St. Nicholas Abbey to be a little gem, that gave a flavour of a plantation, its operation and the people who owned it and worked here. Anyone wanting to get a feel for the island's history should certainly put it on their itinerary.
    Just outside the entrance to St. Nicholas Abbey, a road lined with mahogany trees, which were introduced into Barbados after the Treaty of Paris in 1763, took us up hill in a south easterly direction through deep shade to the brightly lit summit of Cherry Tree Hill. It is believed that the name "Cherry Tree Hill" originated from the large number of cherry trees which once existed at this location. Approximately 850 feet above sea-level, this spot offers a commanding view of the "Scotland District" which covers the parish of St. Andrew and is named after the Patron Saint of Scotland. Far below the Atlantic relentlessly pummelled the eastern seaboard.
Scotland District from Cherry Tree Hill
    While I scrambled up through undergrowth for a higher vantage point, Rex fell into conversation with one of a small group of Bajans selling their craft wares on the summit. The chap, a coconut milk seller, wanted a lift down to near the coast where he lived. He kindly offered to show us the way to Lonely Bay, a most torturous road involving many switchbacks. Our new acquaintance, Bamboo, shouted out greetings to various folk that we passed on the way down to the bay. He was clearly well known in the district. We came across a few isolated Bajans on one twisted stretch of road who he acknowledged. "These men are waiting to catch tourists," stated Bamboo. "They know lots of tourists lose their way in these crooked backroads, and they offer their services as guides for some money. When they see a hire car (all hire cars had a letter H at the start of their registration plate), they put their hands together, and point the fingers up to the sky, looking up as they point. The tourists always slow down to see if there is a special bird, a plane or something up above them. That's when they pounce to grab their custom," he laughed a mischievous laugh.
Lonely Bay
Terrible Trio at Lonely Bay
    We arrived at a barren outcrop of land jutting out into the turquoise ocean. The pink/orange outcrop comprised coral, sandstone and clay. The view as I reached the boundary between land and sea was stupendous. Below me, large rollers were charging in from the Atlantic, and as the crashed onto the shelves of coral below me, they would break across them with a loud roar, the boiling white foam bursting surges high into the sky. The piece de resistance was due to the coral being riddled with holes and tunnels. As the surging waters swooped through the tunnels, they would blow out through holes in the top of the coral, the whole scene resembling a pod of blowing whales in turbulent, seething waters. It really was a most impressive sight. I was captivated by the power and beauty of it all, and could have stayed there for hours.
    I followed Bamboo over the sharp coral promontory, and was staggered to see he had nothing on his feet. When we got back to the car, I commented on his immunity to the sharp terrain he had just walked across. He showed me the soles of his bare feet, and I touched the tough leathery skin. Crumbs, his soles were tougher than those of my trainers.
Green Monkey
    We retraced our steps back up the narrow roads, passing a garden with an impressive vegetable patch. Bamboo took us on a slight detour, and brought us to a field at the base of a soaring cliff. Just short of the cliff was a mushroom rock similar to those we had seen at Bathsheba. It was evident that at some point the field had once been at sea level. Barbados is the eastern-most Caribbean island. The island, which is less than one million years old, was created by the collision of the Atlantic crustal and Caribbean plates, along with a volcanic eruption. Later coral formed, accumulating to approximately 300 feet. It is geologically unique, being actually two land masses that merged together over the years. The scene here before us bore witness to land being cataclysmically shifted upwards by tectonic plate action.
    We continued our journey, winding our way up through switchbacks, passing many churches, schools, chattels (houses designed to be lifted and shifted), and came across a cricket field with a game in progress. Bamboo pointed out a small bungalow with a white door at the far end of the cricket field. "That bungalow with the white door is where I live. Anytime you are over here, just come over and visit me," he said with a huge smile. We asked for the best route across to the Barbados Wildlife Reserve from where we were. He rattled out a quick set of directions. "When you get there, ask for Chinny. Tell him Bamboo sent you, and you may get concessions," he laughed an infectious laugh. We thanked the man, in his late 40s, but he looked as if he was in his 60s, shook hands and departed the best of friends.
    We located it fairly painlessly, and as we parked up Meryl brought out a picnic from the back of the car and wandered across to a picnic table. Immediately she screamed, and Rex and I turned to see she had been set upon by a troop of Green Monkeys, who clearly had other ideas as to who was going to eat the picnic. The poor lass was most concerned as we marched off smartly to the entrance of the Reserve to escape the pesky creatures. Bajan farmers must have wondered why settlers had brought these pests over from Africa.
    Once inside, I asked the young lad at the ticket office, "Excuse me, is Chinny around?"
    "Yeah, I'm Chinny," he replied.
    "Well Bamboo told us that if we mentioned his name we might receive favourable terms," I cheekily quipped, expecting no favours whatsoever. However, he smiled and only charged us for two adults. Perhaps he thought I was an imbecile and Rex and Meryl were my carers. I didn't ask.
    The Barbados Wildlife Reserve is located in four acres of natural mahogany wood across the road from the Farley Hill National Park in the northern parish of St. Peter. The Reserve was established in 1985 with seed money from the Canadian International Development Agency. Here, we had the unique opportunity to stroll freely along meandering brick paths through the Reserve watching the animals at close range and in their own natural environment. There are few cages and the animals can be observed as they eat, play and interact with the other animals.
Guinea Fowl
    Everywhere we walked we seemed to be tripping over the world's supply of tortoises. Once plentiful on the island, they are now found only in the Reserve, which has the largest captive colony of Red Toed Tortoises on the island. Brown Doves cooed about us and guinea fowl and peacocks strutted around in the undergrowth. Shy Brocket Deer hid in the shady hollows. We stumbled across a Mara, a rodent that resembles a cross between a rabbit and a small deer, which was a rare find indeed since they usually spend most of the day in burrows. The creature was sitting down minding its own business, when a Green Monkey came up and gave it a side swipe. Charming characters the Green Monkeys, aren't they?
Brocket Deer
    The reptile house contained a collection of snakes, which are not indigenous to the island. One caged area suspended high above the ground housed a collection of macaws and budgerigars, and iguanas plodded around their own large caged compound, in which Meryl spotted a Hermit Crab. What on earth was he doing up here?
Grenade Hall Signal Station
    I took myself for a short walk up to Grenade Hall Signal Station. The Station was originally constructed in 1819, and is one of the six signal stations erected across Barbados after the 1816 Slave Rebellion, for communication across the island, for example, to warn of further slave rebellions or approaching ships. These towers were constructed in strategic locations around the island on high ground. Grenade Hall Signal Station exchanged signals with Dover Fort which overlooks the historic Speightstown area, and Cotton Tower. It succumbed to neglect after the introduction of the telephone to the island but was subsequently restored by the Barbados Wildlife Reserve with help from the Barbados National Trust. The Station offers a sweeping view of the rugged Scotland District of Barbados and the east coast of the island.
Emancipation Statue - Bussa
    We wended our way back to Appleton, passing many more cliffs and ridges before becoming engulfed by the environs of Bridgetown. Rex knew this area like the back of his hand now, and even had nicknames for most of the potholes, usually accompanied by liberal use of cursing. He pointed out the Emancipation Statue, located at the centre of the J.T.C. Ramsay roundabout formed at the junction of the ABC Highway and Highway 5. This work was created in 1985 by Barbados' best known sculptor, Karl Broodhagen, and symbolises the breaking of the chains of slavery at Emancipation. Many Bajans refer to the statue as Bussa, the name of a slave who helped inspire a revolt against slavery in Barbados in 1816. Bussa was born a free man in West Africa but was captured and transported to Barbados to work as a slave. He is one of Barbados' National Heroes. Slavery, was abolished in 1834, with full freedom from slavery being celebrated in 1838. Today, Emancipation Day is celebrated as a national holiday on 1st August.
    Mugs of tea all round, followed by refreshing showers and a cool beer put us in the mood for venturing out in the evening. In our usual watering hole we met a fellow from Frinton, a stout chap with a ruddy complexion. He was over in the Caribbean for three weeks to take in the cricket. He was certainly a cricket buff, and was even familiar with the Ransomes Sports Field behind where I live, where he had played cricket many times. "How long have you lived in Tollesbury?" he asked Rex and Meryl. Five minutes later he blurted out the same question. "Come down to Frinton Cricket Club at any time, you'll be more than welcome. Just mention you met Russ in Barbados," he added.
    "We thought Frinton was a dry place," interjected Meryl.
    "No, Frinton has more drinking holes than you can count," he slurred. "There is the biggest load of p***heads in Frinton than anywhere else, and I should know since I'm one of them." Hmmm.... no wonder he was on his own.
    A few metres down the road was Sharkey's, a popular restaurant. "You may have to wait 35 minutes for food," the waitress pointed out.
    "No problem, the boys can enjoy a beer while we're waiting," replied Meryl. We were shown to a table. I ordered Bajan Saltfish Cakes for starters, expecting about two fishcakes. A dozen turned up, complete with a pot of mild sauce and another of hot sauce. I found it a struggle to eat them all, even with help from Rex and Meryl. My main course was chicken and mushroom linguine, very tasty, but again I found it a struggle to eat it all. The restaurant was geared up to providing American sized portions. Nevertheless, the food was very tasty, and the service courteous and friendly, a perfect way to end the day.

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Gold Cup Races Harrison's Cave
Last updated 25.4.2017