Fortifications & Cannons

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St Helena once was regarded as one of the best defended, most fortified places in the southern hemisphere. It may have lost its once so vital strategic significance (as a trading route stopover and restocking point), nor does it hold any VIP exiles like Napoleon any longer, who need to be guarded, but of course those eras left plenty of relics. You can find cannon barrels and old fortifications all along the coastline, and even inland. This chapter is just a summary of the most important and most visitable ones.  
More background info: See also under St Helena in general, Munden's and Jamestown.
The first wave of fortifying the island came in the 17th century, especially after the short-lived Dutch invasion in 1673. Before that what is known as The Castle in Jamestown was the only fortified place on the island.
As St Helena's strategic role in the transatlantic slave trade as well as the East India trade increased, the island was further fortified. A particular later wave of increasing St Helena's security came when it was chosen as the place of exile for Napoleon.
Construction of High Knoll Fort was originally begun in the late 18th century, but most of the present structures date from the second half of the 19th century. It is the largest fort on the island and the one that looks most like a picture-book prototypical fort. It sits atop a 2000 feet (600m) high hill and is thus a prominent landmark – and an excellent lookout point.
However, High Knoll Fort never had to fulfil its original purpose as a redoubt fortress providing safe shelter to retreat to in the event of an invasion. None ever came.
Yet it played a small part in St Helena's dark history, namely as a place of exile/incarceration: in the early 19th century it served as a prison for some mutineers and during the time of the Boer POW camps it again housed some of those prisoners who had caused unrest and for whom a more secure place of imprisonment was deemed necessary (rather than the relatively open tented main camps). And from the late 1970s to mid-1980s the fort briefly played a minor modern military role when the RAF operated a satellite tracking station there.
In addition to actual forts, some of the valleys opening to the sea, and as such potential landing places, were walled up and secured by gun batteries. Lemon Valley also had a guardhouse that still survives. And during the time of the Royal Navy intercepting slave trade ships (see St Helena), Lemon Valley served as a quarantine station for freed slaves who were infected with smallpox.
Since St Helena lost its military significance in the 20th century, many of the old fortifications have simply been left to decay, though some restoration work has been applied to e.g. High Knoll Fort. This had fallen into a structurally unsafe condition but was restored and opened again to the public in 2015.
Many of the old cannon barrels can still be found at those fortifications and batteries, especially at not so easy to access sites, as removing the cannons would have been tricky and costlier than their scrap metal value would have been. A few, however, have been restored and placed in striking positions, such as the ones at the new airport, or the one outside the entrance to the St Helena Museum, at the courthouse, or the ones at the new Customs Building at the seafront in Jamestown.
What there is to see: On the one hand a lot, going by the number of locations you could explore, but on the other hand not very much in terms of variation. It's mostly either old stone walls, in various degrees of decay or intactness, and/or old rusty cannon barrels, some fairly well preserved, others half crumbled away.
There are so many of those old fortifications, and some of them in such isolated and hard to get to locations that they are not really feasible for visiting tourists to do. Hence I will concentrate only on the most important and easiest to access ones here:
The single largest of St Helena's fortifications, and the one most commodified for visitors, is High Knoll Fort. Until not so long ago, the place was quite neglected and in some parts hazardous to visit, but recently the walls have been stabilized and partly repaired, and several information panels have been set up. These provide not only information about the fort itself but also about the local flora (apparently some rare plant species have found a safe haven here) and about the views to be had from the fort. The views over almost the entire island are indeed the best reason for coming here. Otherwise you can walk along the buttresses and climb the tower … and even explore the inside a bit, though there's not much to see there. For going deeper you'll need a torch too. At High Knoll Hill the military relics come only in the form of the fortifications. There are no cannons here. (For more check out this page and also this – external links that open in new windows.)
Almost the opposite applies to Sampson's & Saddle Battery high on the ridge north of Jamestown and south of Rupert's. Here the fortifications are comparatively minimal. However, the place sports the best cannons, 12-pounder cast iron barrels, complete with their original iron carriages. You can still read the name of the Yorkshire-based manufacturer embossed on one of the carriages … One of the batteries overlooks the rear of the ridge with good views of Jamestown and the valley behind it. The other battery is on the north-eastern flank and overlooks Rupert's Valley and Bay. Apart from being rusty, these guns look as if they could still be ready to fire.
In contrast, many other cannon barrels you can find just lying on the ground are seriously rusting away. You can fins such barrels even right in the middle of Jamestown and at nearby Munden's.
There is also a set of such cast-away cannon barrels to be seen at Sandy Bay. The entrance to the valley is fortified like many others that reach the shore … because these would in theory be possible landing points, whereas most of St Helena's coastline consists of steep cliffs of volcanic rock. Apart from Jamestown and Rupert's, Sandy Bay is the most accessible of all these fortified valley fronts. Other, far less accessible ones include Lemon Valley, Bank's Battery and Thompson's Valley.
In addition there are various further fortifications/batteries at locations high on the cliffs, such as Half Moon Battery (high above Lemon Valley), Repulse Point Battery, Cox's Battery or the fortifications and ruins of a tower at Prosperous Bay on the east coast. The latter you can see when landing at and taking off from the new St Helena airport, whose runway now cuts the location more or less off from the rest of the island. Some of the others, such as Half Moon Battery you can see from the boat when going on a whale & dolphin watching cruise on St Helena's west coast (its leeward side).
Finally, the principal fort on St Helena is/was Ladder Hill Fort, which for a long time served as the main military garrison and was formerly the seat of the East India Company. These days the surviving buildings are mostly used as government housing, but parts of the complex are accessible, including the main gate just behind the top of Jacob's Ladder (which used to provide access to the Fort from Jamestown – with a mule-powered funicular providing a means of transporting ammunition and supplies up).
As a fort, it isn't much to look at these days, BUT: just to the west of the actual fort are two large coastal guns. These were ordered during the time St Helena was home to two POW camps from the Boer Wars, but by the time they were installed in 1902 that war was already over. Still they remained in service until the late 1940s. They are similar to some of the coastal guns you can see in Gibraltar, for instance. They are said to be six inches (15 cm) in calibre with the gun barrel alone weighing over three tonnes. They're breech-loaders with squarish metal houses. In 2015 they were given a fresh coat of grey paint and thus looked almost new when I saw them.
There are various myths about these guns relating to WWII – e.g. that they were originally from the RMS Hood (they were not) or that they once fired at a German submarine (that turned out to be a dead whale) or that it took a shot at the passing German battle cruiser “Graf Spee” on its way to the South Atlantic, but that's apparently also not true. My skipper on the whale & dolphin cruise I was on even claimed these guns were from the time of WWII, which clearly they're not.
Anyway, all military and technical details aside, these two guns are easily the most impressive of all the military relics on St Helena. And it's not just the guns, but the support structure, the emplacements of the guns, the ammunition storage areas behind/underneath them and all those hatches. There's even a deep shaft leading down to some underground facility, but I couldn't work out what its purpose may have been and I didn't go down the ladder into the abyss to explore deeper ... In addition to the gun emplacements themselves, the views over James Bay to be had from here are worth it too.
Location: dotted around St Helena, some high on cliff tops, some at the mouth of valleys, some inland, and some even in the capital Jamestown. Here are the exact locations of only the most important ones, as described in detail in the text above:
Google maps locators:
High Knoll Fort: [-15.9437, -5.7167]
Sampson's and Saddle Battery: [-15.9283, -5.7113] & [-15.9289, -5.7109]
Sandy Bay: [-16.004, -5.714]
Ladder Hill Fort coastal battery guns: [-15.9276, -5.7232] & [-15.9275, -5.7226]
Access and costs: some easy, some harder to get to; but all free
Details: a few of these fortifications are accessible on foot, but for those further away you'll need a car or else go on a tour.
From Jamestown you can hike to Munden's and potentially on to Bank's Battery. And of course Ladder Hill is accessible via the (in)famous Jacob's Ladder. The two coastal guns up there can be accessed by walking to the far end of the fort wall, past the point where Ladder Hill road bends off to the south-east. At the end of the wall you can clamber around and head towards the cliff and the batteries. There is no access to them from Ladder Hill Fort itself.
Theoretically Sampson's and Saddle Battery can also be reached on foot, namely by walking up Side Path (watch out for traffic!) and then taking the sharp turn left onto Field Road towards Rupert's. Some 300 yards after the turn-off begins the trail for the battery, opposite a small building. There's a sign as well. It's easier, though, if you have a car to drive to that point to begin the hike proper without having to walk up Side Path (which can be quite busy a road at times). When I was there I just asked my guide, Aaron, to make an extra stop and take us there when we were on his 'Historical Sites' tour in his jeep en route from Rupert's. The tour also included Plantation House, St Paul's and High Knoll Fort – see under St Helena.
For all other sites of fortifications, including High Knoll Fort, you need a car (or be on this tour). To get there, drive up Ladder Hill Road to Half Tree Hollow and continue along the main road up to Redhill, and just after Prince's Lodge there's a sharp left turn for High Knoll Fort. This narrow road winds up the hill and eventually leads through the fort's gate. You can park behind that. There's plenty of space.
All other fortifications, such as Cox's Battery, Bank's Battery or Lemon Valley, require both a car to get to the relevant trailheads and then a more or less strenuous, and in some case tricky or hazardous hike.
Sandy Bay and its fortification walls and cannons can be reached just by car and without much hiking (though it's also the start of the fabled Lot's Wife's Ponds hike, which is also rather demanding – see under St Helena). However, it is one of the steepest roads on the island and I was expressly warned by locals not to attempt it myself in a regular car. Fortunately I didn't have to because Sandy Bay, too, was included in the guided tour arrangements I had made with Aaron Legg. His jeep had no problem negotiating this route – but a regular passenger car would indeed not be suitable for the terrain on the last part of this drive where the tarmac road surface ends.
Apart from costs for a tour or a hire car, all the locations outlined here are freely accessible at all times.
Time required: depends, a) on how many of such sites you want to seek out, and b) how much effort you are prepared to put in it (and also on your fitness level and on whether you have your own means of transport). Some require only a short stopover, others a serious hike. But within a week on the island you can certainly tick quite a few of these off. But to do the lot, you may well need more than a week!
Combinations with other dark destinations: see under St Helena in general and especially Munden's Battery.
Combinations with non-dark destinations: Most of theses sites are only partially dark to begin with, and almost all offer splendid views of the dramatic coastline or the lusher interior, so all come with non-dark perks.
For other, more specific things see under St Helena in general.
  • 01 - High Knoll Fort01 - High Knoll Fort
  • 02 - High Knoll Fort02 - High Knoll Fort
  • 03 - High Knoll Fort03 - High Knoll Fort
  • 04 - Saddle Battery04 - Saddle Battery
  • 05 - gun and picnic table05 - gun and picnic table
  • 06 - made in Yorkshire06 - made in Yorkshire
  • 07 - pointing towards the hinterland07 - pointing towards the hinterland
  • 08 - big barrel at Mundens Point08 - big barrel at Mundens Point
  • 09 - cliff-top fortification on the north-west coast09 - cliff-top fortification on the north-west coast
  • 10 - cannons at Sandy Bay10 - cannons at Sandy Bay
  • 11 - rusting away11 - rusting away
  • 12 - shiny, newly painted gun barrels in Jamestown12 - shiny, newly painted gun barrels in Jamestown
  • 13 - more rusty gun barrels in Jamestown13 - more rusty gun barrels in Jamestown
  • 14 - coastal battery looking over the sea from Ladder Hill Fort14 - coastal battery looking over the sea from Ladder Hill Fort
  • 15 - coastal gun at Ladder Hill Fort15 - coastal gun at Ladder Hill Fort
  • 16 - early 20th century installation16 - early 20th century installation
  • 17 - former ammunition depot17 - former ammunition depot
  • 18 - abyss18 - abyss
  • 19 - big gun above James Bay19 - big gun above James Bay


©, Peter Hohenhaus 2010-2019

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