The capital of St Helena
and the only 'town' on the island. For most visitors this will be the natural base during their time on the island, unless you prefer to stay somewhere isolated “up country” (as they say here). It also has all the facilities you may want, and a couple of points of special interest to the dark tourist as well, not least the rather excellent Museum of St Helena
More background info:
Jamestown is where it all began for St Helena
. It's where the first explorers who discovered the island landed at the beginning of the 16th century and where the Portuguese first built a chapel. The name Jamestown, however, wasn't given to the place until 1660, after the British had taken possession of the island. The name derives from James, the Duke of York, later King James II. The Bay outside the town was in parallel named James Bay (or strictly speaking more correctly with an apostrophe: James' Bay, though it's often omitted).
The place owes its existence mainly to its location, the low valley, sandwiched between steep rocky cliffs/hills, is one of only a few natural landing places on the rugged coastline of this volcanic island, and it's the biggest and calmest, as it lies on the leeward side of the island. For some 500 years it was the only entry point to St Helena. For private boats and cruise ships it still is, even though a new wharf has been constructed in neighbouring Rupert's Bay, so that commercial freight shipping will, or already has, move(d) to there. But the monthly arrivals of the Royal Mail Ship “RMS St Helena” are now history. Now passenger travel between the island and the mainland (South Africa
) is by air – see also under St Helena
In its early history, the town wasn't a town yet, but just a fort, at what is now The Castle. After the defeat of the invading Dutch in 1673, fortifications were extended, including at Munden's
. The military also moved up the cliff to Ladder Hill, while down in the valley the town grew behind the fort/castle and seafront fortifications. This includes the oldest Anglican church of the southern hemisphere, called (what else!) St James' Church. The current building dates back to 1774. Most of the houses you see in town today, however, date from the 19th century.
The infestation of white ants (a kind of termite) caused lots of destruction as timbers were eaten away by these bugs. This is why you see lots of metal verandas on houses such as the Consulate Hotel today. These replaced earlier wooden structures. See also under St Helena Museum
and St Helena
The town gradually extended to fill more or less the entire valley. And because of its steep rocky cliffs either side, that was all the building land there was. (Rockfall from those steep cliffs used to be a danger, and caused destruction and casualties, but these days comprehensive metal netting prevents this.) Expansion now continues out of Jamestown proper, primarily up at Half Tree Hollow (I saw several new homes under construction there). Hence the proportion of the population living in Jamestown has dropped in relative figures, from once well over one third of the entire St Helena population to only 14% now (629 out of a total of 4531, according to a 2016 census).
Yet Jamestown is where all “the action” is, and most of the crucial facilities, including the island's hospital. The Castle, which isn't really a castle in the strict sense, is the seat of government, the court and the police HQ. The governor is actually based in Plantation House (see under St Helena
), but all the government-related offices are here. And so are most of the shops, and most of the entertainment. On Saturdays it can get quite busy, when shops are open late and there's music and dancing and so forth. But come Sunday, almost everything is closed, the car parks empty, the streets deserted. Island contrasts.
The town is the most natural base for visitors to St Helena, unless you prefer a secluded rural base. But for general logistics and flexibility, it's really best to get accommodation in town (see here
). Plus there are a few things worth seeing here, including from a dark-tourism perspective, as described below.
Jamestown is normally a very peaceful, extremely friendly and generally laid-back and quiet place. But that can change briefly and abruptly. Namely when a cruise ship arrives and pours out several hundred visitors all at once who flood into town for a few hours. Then shops will be overrun, even Jacob's Ladder gets crowded, and all tours and taxis get booked up. Fortunately I was spared that dreaded spectacle when I was there, as that time was out of season, in the southern hemisphere winter. The weather may be less stable and potentially wetter then, but at least there is no threat of cruise ships. Good.
Whether the opening of the airport in 2017, and hence the increased accessibility of St Helena
for tourists, will have any significant impact on the town, apart from the already completed new hotel (see below
), remains to be seen. So far, not all that much seems to have changed. On the one hand that is nice, as it means the pleasant character of Jamestown remains intact, on the other a boost in tourism would obviously bring economic benefits. Always a delicate balance.
What there is to see: It's a small place, but Jamestown has quite a bit to offer for its size. From a particular dark-tourism perspective, the main thing is the museum, which is accordingly given its own separate chapter here:
Points of interest in addition to that include old fortifications at the seafront, with Castle Terrace
atop the main wall being a good starting point for getting an overview of the old heart of Jamestown. The single road out of town to the seafront passes through The Arch
in the wall and over a bridge across the former moat. The Arch features a cute image of the island's national bird, the wirebird (see St Helena
), as well as a marker indicating the height of water during a flood
in the 19th century.
To the left of the road bridge on the seafront stands the Cenotaph
, Jamestown's war memorial
honouring those from the island who died in WW1
. A panel on the side separately names the 41 fatalities of the sinking of the “RFA Darkdale” by a German U-boat in 1941. The wreck out in James' Bay, even though it is a sea grave, is still a diving destination. (There are many such wreck diving opportunities around St Helena
Continuing along the seafront northwards you come to the harbour part, which ends at The Wharf … where formerly visitors arriving on the “RMS St Helena” were brought ashore, and where these days cruise ship passengers start their brief invasion of Jamestown (unless landing will also be moved to Rupert's).
Huddling under an overhanging cliff with metal safety-netting (to prevent rockfall) sits a strange little old stone building with an arched roof. It is painted blood red. Fittingly, as this used to be the town's morgue, apparently converted from a previous freshwater cistern. What its current function is, I don't know.
Another dark place in Jamestown is the old prison, in a secluded corner of Grand Parade, directly adjacent to St James' Church (!!). I was told by the head of the Equality & Human Rights Commission of St Helena that this prison has long been a cause of concern for them since, belying its quaint historic exterior, inside it is apparently more like an old-school dungeon, with cramped 19th century facilities and limited sanitation, and thus seriously outdated. Apparently, there's been a long campaign calling for this facility to be closed down and to establish a new prison outside Jamestown. But various plans have come and gone without any concrete results up to now. Apparently nobody wants a prison in their neighbourhood and with regard to a recent proposal there are also environmental issues at play. We'll see what will come of this.
Not far from the old prison, right behind the Museum
, is the bottom of what is probably the one thing Jamestown is most (in)famous for: Jacob's Ladder
. (The name is a biblical reference – look it up for yourself.) It was originally a so-called 'inclined plane', a type of funicular, where loads were hauled up on carts on wheels by means of ropes/chains and pulleys operated by donkeys at the top. The rails were removed after white ants (termites) destroyed the wooden sleepers, so only the steps built for pedestrian access running between the two former rail tracks remained. Handrails were added and it became the shortest, but also toughest route between Jamestown and Ladder Hill / Half Tree Hollow.
It's a whopping 699 steps (it used to be a straight 700, but one was lost due to roadwork construction at the bottom) at a steep incline of between 38 and 44 degrees (though it looks much steeper than that!). The full length is 282 metres as you climb to a height of 195 metres when you arrive at Ladder Hill Fort (see fortifications
The steps are also quite high individually (28 cm), so, as you can imagine, it's quite tough climbing to the top – and down again. While up is naturally more strenuous, as I can confirm, going down is certainly more vertiginous (looking down that steep abyss), and even though the individual steps are not as hard to descend, when I got to the bottom and onto flat ground again, my knees almost refused to support my weight and felt like jelly for a good half hour or so. At least I had taken a break between ascent and descent, namely to go for dinner in Half Tree Hollow. That means that on the way back it was dark, which made looking down Jacob's Ladder from the top even more vertiginous – see that last image in the photo gallery below
. The lights, by the way, were not installed until the year 2000, so before then you would have had to go down in total darkness after sunset (or rely on moonlight)!
I also went on a Historical Walk of Jamestown with a local guide (Basil George, a real old timer and quite a character, as it turned out) and as part of it he gave a demonstration of the traditional way St Helenians descend Jacob's Ladder: by sliding down the handrails, using one foot to brake/slow down. (Before you ask: I never even dared trying.)
Incidentally: if you've climbed the Ladder you can get a certificate, stating your name, the date and the time it took you, from the Museum of St Helena
. As far as I can tell they don't require proof, they just take your word for it … and your money (£2.50) … so it would actually be easy to cheat here (but then again you wouldn't want to have a lie of yours framed on a certificate, would you?)
That walking tour of Jamestown also included a visit to The Castle, even inside, as well as the courthouse, providing glimpses into the island's officialdom that would otherwise be closed off to foreign visitors. So it comes highly recommended. (The tourist information office can arrange this.)
Back in public space, the tour carried on in Castle Gardens
, the pleasant small park next to The Castle, off the top of Main Street. In this park, a monument
was pointed out that commemorates the “Waterwitch”
(also spelled “Water Witch”), a Royal Navy brig that played a key role in the British efforts to intercept slave ships in the mid-19th century (see under St Helena
). More specifically the monument honours the shipmates who died while in service.
One final dark-historical site that goes back in time even further and is also related to the history of slavery is rather inconspicuous: the two trees
that stand by the mini roundabout at the bottom of Main Street outside what's known as the Canister building, which is also home to the local tourist information office. Apparently the space under those trees was once used as a slave market
! (That is: at a time when Britain still happily took part in that trade, until it was finally banned within the British Empire in 1807, and slavery as such was abolished in 1834 – see International Slavery Museum
All in all
, Jamestown may not be the top destination in terms of dark tourism, but it's the ideal base for all further explorations of St Helena
and is just an exceptionally pleasant place to be in as well.
Location: on the north-west coast of St Helena, at James' Bay.
Google maps locators:
Access and costs:
see below and under St Helena
Details: In the past, getting to St Helena meant going by boat. Even though the Royal Mail Ship service by the “RMS St Helena” is now history, getting to Jamestown by boat is in theory still an option. Some 30 buoys for anchorage by visiting yachts are provided in James' Bay. And visiting yachts do come. However, for most readers of this website, coming by plane will be the more realistic mode of transport. From the airport to Jamestown there is said to be a bus service, though I couldn't find out any details. It's probably best to arrange a private transfer in advance with your accommodation.
Access to Jamestown by land, i.e. to the rest of the island, is provided by two steep and narrow roads either side of the rock-cliff sides of the valley that the town sits in. Ladder Hill Road goes up diagonally from near the bottom of Market Street in Jamestown all the way up to Half Tree Hollow. It's a narrow road, with few passing places, and traffic going up has priority. At “rush hour”, when lots of commuters use this road, driving down can take a long time because of the waiting for traffic to pass. Avoid those times if possible.
The other route goes up the north-eastern side of the valley along a road called Side Path, the continuation of what's Napoleon Street in central Jamestown. This too is narrow in places but usually more navigable, traffic-wise. It is by this route that you can connect to the airport access road, and is also the one to take to get to Longwood House and Napoleon’s tomb
. And it's just as good for accessing the centre of the island. Hence I ended up using Side Path much more frequently than Ladder Hill Road when I had a hire car while staying in Jamestown (see under St Helena
). In theory there is a third route out of Jamestown by first driving to the end of the valley at Briars along Constitution Hill, where a small winding road connects with Side Path. But this route is hardly any better than just using the latter from the start.
Parking can be a bit of an issue in Jamestown at times, now that there are almost as many cars as people on the island. Note that hire cars should not be parked on the seafront. I usually managed to get a space on or near Grand Parade, though.
In theory there is a limited public transport service by bus, but that's more aimed at locals and will be of little use to tourists. Taxis, likewise are only really an option for specific shorter routes but not for in-depth exploring of the whole island. Given the extreme topography of St Helena cycling could only be an option for the super fit and fearless.
Accommodation options in Jamestown include the new boutique hotel “Mantis”, in a converted row of three historic houses at the top of Main Street adjacent to St James' Church, plus a modern annexe in what was the back yard. This hotel has quickly become the principal choice for most visitors, given its state-of-the-art facilities (even wifi … on St Helena that's a luxury!) and a very good restaurant. It's also the one that is most heavily promoted by the government and local tourism industry. It's not cheap, though.
However, there are alternatives, including ones more affordable. Until recently the “Consulate Hotel”, a bit further down Main Street, overlooking the mini roundabout, used to be the only proper hotel in Jamestown, and it's still an immensely charming place. It oozes original character in every nook and cranny and is stuffed full of antiques and a vast collection of Napoleon memorabilia. It's almost like a museum. The owners, too, are quite some characters. So if you're after something less standardized and with more personality than the “Mantis”, this would be an interesting and endearing choice. Sadly, though the on-site restaurant was closed when I paid the place a visit... and I was given a long lecture about the woes of the airport having been delayed and still not delivering the expected promise of a tourist boom and how that entailed economic hardship. I do hope the place can survive.
There are further options in the form of the “Blue Lantern” and “Wellington House” guest houses and a few B&Bs. Self-catering accommodation can also be had (though that way you'll be dependent on shopping for provisions, which for some products can be an issue in this remote place). For those options contact the tourist information well in advance. These are certainly cheaper than the hotels, and especially worth looking into if you'd want more than just a week on the island.
For food & drink
there are a few restaurants, with the new one in the “Mantis Hotel” now the top pick (and at decent value for money) – plus it is open daily, its bar too, which is quite an asset on St Helena
as well. On Friday and Saturday evenings, when both hotel guests and locals fill the place, reservations are a must. The fare is very good and features classic St Helena dishes such as fishcakes and fish & chips made from local wahoo fish, but also features more creative things, especially on the special gourmet five-course set-menu dinner nights that are on occasionally (I think monthly or maybe biweekly).
An eatery and bar that is quite a long-standing island institution, especially with yacht folks, is “Anne's Place” at the top of Castle Gardens. However, I fear that its former seemingly 24/7 opening times have diminished. I found it closed at least two or three of the nights I was in town. The menu varies but also has island classics on a regular basis. Something a bit different can be had at the “Orange Tree Oriental Restaurant”, which serves Asian-inspired dishes, but some also with an island twist (e.g. tuna Thai curry). You have to reserve (and order dishes!) in advance, and prices are a bit higher than at the neighbouring “Mantis”. “The Blue Lantern” and “Wellington House” can also offer dinners by advance arrangement.
Otherwise there are a few more eateries in Half Tree Hollow, at the top of Jacob's Ladder – so you can combine the exercise and exhaustion of the climb with a restorative meal at the top … or get a taxi.
Informal eating is also possible at some fast-food outlets and pop-up food vans in Jamestown. Fridays and Saturdays there's also an alfresco/takeaway pizza place called “Get Carters” in the Mule Yard on the seafront side of Castle Terrace. The pizzas aren't that special but OK and the owner/chef also offers up (for free) a superb home-made chilli sauce that in addition to adding a mean kick is also bursting with aromas and flavours beyond the chilli (if you can handle the heat level, of course … I, as a dedicated chilli head, found it marvellous!).
Bar and nightlife options are naturally a bit limited in such a remote spot, but in addition to the hotel bar at the “Mantis” there are two local pubs near the market, though both are really old-school pure drinking holes, no food and a somewhat rough appearance (which is probably deceptive, though, given the all-round friendliness of the island). These are really aimed primarily at the local boozer population. Apart from sports TV there's occasionally live music in one of these pubs.
The hotspot for drinking and entertainment on Friday and Saturday nights is “Donny's Bar” right on the seafront. Go here for proper people-watching and getting a feel for the local tastes in music. Friday night when I went was eclectic but dominated by country & western music so beloved by St Helenians, and the attendance was multi-generational, let's say. They had a huge screen up to play music videos on, and requests were being made and honoured. Saturday evening, by contrast, turned out to be more for the (much, much) younger crowd and a DJ (without screen) was busy mutilating Hip Hop tracks and computer-generated beats and sounds … I didn't stay long.
A general warning: opening hours of shops and even the tourist information can feel a bit limited, so bear that in mind in your planning.
you hardly have a choice. Unless you come by means of your own boat, arrival to and departure from St Helena
is determined by the flights to/from the new airport, which are normally once a week. A week is far more than you'll need for Jamestown itself, though, which can be pretty well covered in a single day. But better spread it out and also go on tours and/or hire a car to fill the remaining time. See under St Helena
Combinations with non-dark destinations: Jamestown is quite an attractive little place in its own right, sporting some fine Georgian town-house architecture rarely found in such intact and consistent form anywhere else. There's a little park (Castle Gardens) and the historic kernel of the settlement at The Castle (now government offices, mostly) and Grand Parade (now a car park). The Castle Terrace offers good views over the seafront and the historic centre of the town. And there's even a public swimming pool.
But it's a small place and you'll get quite familiar with it in no time, so you will want to go out exploring or take a guided tour outside of Jamestown – see under St Helena
- Jamestown 01 - town centre
- Jamestown 02 - Georgian houses
- Jamestown 03 - the Arch
- Jamestown 04 - war memorial
- Jamestown 05 - former morgue
- Jamestown 06 - prison
- Jamestown 07 - Jacobs Ladder
- Jamestown 08 - looking down Jacobs Ladder
- Jamestown 09 - guide demonstrating the local way of descending the Ladder
- Jamestown 10 - The Castle
- Jamestown 11 - seat of government, administartion and judiciary
- Jamestown 12 - court room
- Jamestown 13 - Castle Gardens
- Jamestown 14 - St James - oldest Anglican church in the southern hemisphere
- Jamestown 15 - view over the mini roundabout
- Jamestown 16 - seen from the bay
- Jamestown 17 - looking down on Jamestown
- Jamestown 18 - hospital
- Jamestown 19 - old harbour building and phone booth
- Jamestown 20 - library and phone booth
- Jamestown 21 - looking down on Jamestown by night