What you need know about St. George Bermuda – A first hand account.
Bermuda - Sunday, December 28th, 2014
St. George, Bermuda or St. George’s as it seems to be called on at least half the maps, was settled in 1612 and is generally recognized to be the oldest continually inhabited British settlement in the New World. While there were older English places of occupation in Jamestown, Virginia (1607) and Cupids, Newfoundland (1610) they did not survive. St. George did and is now recognized as a UNESCO World Heritage Site based both on its colonial architecture and the series of fortifications that surround the town. This morning Alison and I are setting out to explore St. George including those fortifications. I can never resist a good fort. Unlike yesterday when we got rained out, this morning is a beautiful late autumn day, which in Bermuda means temperatures in the low 70s with little wind. We grab a bus that stops right at Grotto Bay Beach Resort where we are staying and in less than ten minutes are in the heart of St. George which is King’s Square where the Tourist Bureau is located. Here we get directions to the Bermuda World Heritage Museum which is on the waterfront a short distance away down tiny Water Street that reminds me far more of a small street you might see in Cornwall or western Ireland than North America – every building is made out of stone which is then painted. The museum is located in a large two story former warehouse that is dominated by a huge hoist wheel once used to lift goods up to the second story for storage.
There is a short informative film that tells the history of St. George starting with the wreck of the Sea Venture in 1609 on its way to Jamestown bearing supplies and more settlers. In one of history’s truly ironic episodes the stranded crew and passengers, most of whom survived the wreck, realized that Bermuda provided everything they needed for a proper settlement. After finally getting to Jamestown in two boats built from scratch, Sir George Somers returned to Bermuda in 1612 and established the settlement that outlasted Jamestown by over 250 years, so far. The museum has many other historical vignettes related to the area, the locations of which we intend to explore as we walk the town and environs.
Our next stop is the Bermuda National Trust Museum where we learn a lot about St. George’s role in the American Civil War. This building, originally built as the Governor’s House in 1699, was used as the base for Confederate Major Norman Walker’s cat and mouse game with Union agents and spies on Bermuda to purchase supplies for the Confederacy and help deliver them through the Union blockade of Southern ports. By now you might be thinking “Hey, it’s a beautiful day out there. What the hell are you doing going from one indoor place to another?” It’s always been my practice to learn as much as possible about an area before setting out to explore it; that way you are less likely to miss something important. One last indoor stop and we are on our way.
St. Peter’s Church is the oldest Anglican church in the New World, beating out St. Paul’s in Halifax, the oldest in Canada, by a whopping 137 years. It has a beautiful symmetrical facade which its a lot easier to describe by photo than in words.
The interior is equally as beautiful, the woodwork having the patina that can only come with age.
For me the most interesting item on display inside the church was this chair once used by Bishop Charles Inglis who is a major historical figure in my city of Halifax where he was the first Anglican bishop, not only of Nova Scotia but apparently Bermuda as well. I had no idea.
OK, time to start exploring the exterior of St. George starting with the two cemeteries attached to this church. Two cemeteries you ask, why two? Well there was this minor problem that many of the church’s parishioners were black and while they were entitled to a church burial, (that’s only Christian right?) it sure as hell was not going to be alongside proper white folk – so two cemeteries. I wonder if there were two heavens or more likely, two hells back then as well?
Here is the sign entrance to the black cemetery which makes it clear that it was not whether you were free or slave, it mattered that you were black.
The ultimate irony (seems to be a lot of that around today), is that this little piece of ground is every bit as peaceful as the white cemetery from which it is separated by just a stone wall. Richard Lovelace mused that ‘Stone walls do not a prison make’, and if it’s true that they cannot separate people in life it is even more so in death.
Most of the black burial grounds in Nova Scotia (yes we had them too) are long lost including even the one at the Black Loyalist site at Birchtown and the one I remember visiting outside Amherst had nothing to indicate the names of the dead. Here at least the deceased have been dignified with names and some of the headstones were erected by people who clearly were not poor.
Crossing to the white side things don’t look that much different.
The carvings on the headstones are exquisite and much less weathered than those in northern climes. I was particularly taken with this one showing this rather glum guy for whom the sands of time have run out as he is about to be beheaded by the scythe of the Grim Reaper. Shades of ISIS.
I’m always amazed at how often when visiting cemeteries, and I visit a lot, that there is some connection back to home and just like Bishop Inglis inside here is the connection outside.
In case you can’t make it out, it says, “This stone is laid in memory of Thomas J. Stirling, surgeon of Halifax, Nova Scotia, who died on Board the mail Boat Rosemary, off St. George’s 25 February, 1846 Aged 32 Years”. Too young to die, but so is almost everyone you’ll find in any cemetery before 1900.
Returning to Duke of York street we pass one historical building after another including the first Bermuda seat of government dating back to 1642 and the first stone building on Bermuda. It was the start of a great architectural tradition.
The various little lanes and alleys that run off Duke of York Street have interesting names like Pieces of Eight Lane and
We come to one called Folly Lane and find a ruin that reminds me of Tintern Abbey that I visited a few years ago in Wales, but because I did my research in the museums I know that it is a pile of stone that was erected to replace St. Peter’s Church until St. Georgians got sentimental about the old church and chucked things in more than half way through construction. I’ve committed many follies in my lifetime, but none to match this.
Time now to go looking for those famous fortifications. We walk north on Government Hill Road which becomes a narrow lane with very little traffic until we come to the absolutely stunning Tobacco Bay which has a couple of interesting stories associated with it. See, these museum visits are paying off, but first have you seen a nicer looking small bay? Considering we have the place entirely to ourselves it’s pretty awesome.
There are two stories associated with this place that are worth repeating. The first has to do with its name. Apparently the survivors of the Sea Venture found wild tobacco growing here and one of them John Rolfe, the same dude who later married Pochahontas, took it to Jamestown and started the whole damn industry that has killed more people than any other evil enterprise that we have ever come up with. No longer can we respond to the guilt placed on us by the indigenous peoples that were wiped out by diseases like smallpox, measles and syphilis by saying, “Yeah, but you got us back with nicotine!” Apparently not. In fairness, tobacco was already in use from the stuff that had been found by Walter Raleigh in South America over a twenty years earlier, but it is interesting to contemplate that the fortunes amassed by the Dukes, Reynolds and others may trace their roots to this tiny bay in Bermuda.
The second story is less apocryphal and based on solid facts. The Bermuda gun powder plot occurred during outbreak of the American Revolution when Bermudian sympathizers stole barrels of gunpowder from the magazine in St. George and rolled them up the hill we have just climbed and down to Tobacco Bay where they were loaded onto a waiting American ship and secreted back to the mainland. As far as I can tell no one was ever punished for it, even though the culprits were quickly identified.
There is a closed concession stand at the back of the small beach and nearby we find some amazing rock formations that bring to mind claims that early descriptions of Bermuda influenced William Shakespeare in the writing of The Tempest. It was not far from here that the Sea Venture foundered in 1609.
While the area was reputed to be the home of devils the closest I could find were these two kiskadees which are Bermuda’s equivalent of mina birds or magpies – pretty to look at, but real bullies when it comes to tormenting other birds.
From Tobacco Bay we picked up Barry Road and soon Fort St. Catherine came into view.
We crossed the small walkway through the narrow entrance and were greeted by a very friendly fellow who took our $7.00 admission fee and advised that we were the first visitors of the day so we would have the place to ourselves. Not bad, our own private fort.
I’ve visited many forts around the world and would have to rate Fort St. Catherine as right up there with the best. Its location on a triangular point of land gives it a view all the way back to the Royal Naval Dockyard on the other end of Bermuda and of St. David’s lighthouse in the other direction. The fort is in amazing condition and during our visit we came across a workman busy repainting some of the cannons with what was obvious skill and care – the very opposite of a slapdash job you might expect in such a situation. You could tell that he was proud of what he was doing. He wanted that cannon to look its very best. The fort has many levels to explore and everything is very well documented. The artillery is outstanding with examples from the 1600’s up to WWII. When I had Alison take this shot it was not my intention to make it look like I was about to be blown to smithereens, but that’s how it looks.
O’er the ramparts we watched.
The one bizarre thing we came across that seemed a bit out of place was a room containing replicas of the British Crown jewels, which last time I checked are kept in the Tower of London. It gave Alison a chance to feel like a queen for a day.
After a thoroughly enjoyable visit we said goodbye to the forts only permanent residents and headed back to Barry Road. The fellow in charge said it was an interesting walk along the shore that would eventually lead back to St. George.
We encountered next to nobody as we rambled along this country lane and my previous concerns about walking on Bermuda roads was dispelled, at least in the St. George area. This was an absolutely perfect walk – only an occasional car, everyone we passed smiled or waved, the sea on one side and believe it or not, a dairy farm at one point on the right. Not far along we came to this monument made out of salvaged parts from the Sea Venture marking the actual location just offshore were wreck was discovered in 1958.
It seemed like we had come full circle on Bermuda as we had started our trip on the opposite end of the island viewing other items salvaged from the Sea Venture at the National Museum of Bermuda in the Royal Naval Dockyards and now we were at the site of the wreck. It also says a lot about the honesty of Bermudians that you could put items of such historical importance on a public monument on a quiet country lane and not have them vandalized or stolen.
We continued on past Alexandra’s Battery which has not been restored and rounded the point at the narrow entrance to St. George’s Harbour where we found the oldest fort on Bermuda. Gates Fort dates back to the founding of St. George in 1612 and it’s pretty basic compared to Fort St. Catherine. It gives you an idea of just how much military fortifications progressed, if that’s not an oxymoron, in just over two hundred years. It also helps explain why the forts of St. George played a role in the UNESCO World Heritage Site designation.
Even if we had seen nothing of interest on this walk it would have all been worth it just for the magnificent views of St. George that came into view as we walked down into town from a high point on Cut Road. That’s Ordnance Island to the left.
It didn’t take long to get back to King’s Square, but not before passing by more of St. George’s wonderful old buildings including this one with a bust of Tom Moore in a little park in front. I’ll write about Tom Moore when we visit the tavern named after him tomorrow night.
Well, that’s our tour of St. George and we hope you’ll follow in our footsteps soon.
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