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Jacob’s Ladder

Stairway to heaven?

Talk to him of Jacob’s ladder, and he would ask the number of the steps.
Douglas William Jerrold

One of the Seven Wonders of St Helena Saint Helena Island Info Jacob’s Ladder

Jacob’s Ladder’? That’s something to do with the Bible, isn’t it? To find out, read on…

This page is in indexes: Island Structures, Island Place, Island Activity, Island Detail

Below: What is ‘Jacob’s Ladder’?History‘The Ladder’ todayWhy ‘Jacob’s Ladder’?Other places called Jacob’s LadderOther uses of the term7 Wonders of St Helena votingRead More

What is ‘Jacob’s Ladder’? 

Jacob’s Ladder from the top looking down upon Jamestown Saint Helena Island Info

Jacob’s Ladder is a run of 699 steps{2}, up from Jamestown in the floor of the valley to the fort at Ladder Hill on the western valley slope. It is one of the Seven Wonders of St Helena.


Incredible as it may seem, the first route from the valley floor direct to Ladder Hill Fort was a rope ladder, up and down which soldiers would climb travelling to and from the barracks at the top{3}.

The rope ladder was replaced in the 1820s by an ‘inclined plane’ - a horse-powered machine for hauling goods to the top of the hill on rails using pulleys - see diagram (below) from Mechanics’ Magazine of March 1834 - if you still can’t envisage it, there’s a working model in the Museum of St Helena (photo, below) and it’s also described in detail on funimag.com{4} and www.railwaysofthefarsouth.co.uk.

The ‘Ladder Hill Railway’ was in service from its completion 1829 to 1871, and was particularly useful for carrying the large quantities of manure which accumulated in stables, stockyards, etc., out of Jamestown for the use of inland farmers. It was even suggested it could carry passengers but that was considered too dangerous.

The inclined plane Saint Helena Island Info Jacob’s Ladder
The inclined plane

Winding Mechanism Saint Helena Island Info Jacob’s Ladder
Winding Mechanism

Inclined plane stamp Saint Helena Island Info Jacob’s Ladder
Inclined plane stamp

Plaque describing the Inclined Plane Saint Helena Island Info Jacob’s Ladder
Plaque describing the Inclined Plane

Working model with creator Clive Stewart Saint Helena Island Info Jacob’s Ladder
Working model with creator, Clive Stewart

By 1871 it had fallen into disrepair, largely due to the wooden sleepers being eaten by White Ants. John Melliss wrote:

It is very greatly to be regretted that the whole construction has fallen into disuse and bad repair, the woodwork being eaten by White Ants. Indeed, it is said that these insects visited Ladder Hill through the medium of its longitudinal wooden sleepers.{a}

It could have been refurbished, but actually it was dismantled by the Royal Engineers in 1871.

The plaque (above) reads:

THE INCLINED PLANE, constructed for the St Helena Railway Company in 1829 under the supervision of Lt. G. W. Melliss, St Helena Artillery Regiment{5}, rebuilt by the Royal Engineers in 1871. Length 924 feet, rise of steps 11 inches average, height above sea level 602 feet; number of steps 699.

Further statistics are: Average Incline 39°; Maximum Incline 44°.

(By the way, this wasn’t St Helena’s only railway!)

The ascent of the Ladder is much more fatiguing than at first sight appears. Some visitors accomplish it, and even descend it again, but only to pay the penalty next day of being scarcely able to move their limbs.{a}

It is commonly assumed that ‘Ladder Hill’ is so named because it is ascended by Jacob’s Ladder, but according to G. C. Kitching this is not the case. The name Ladder Hill appears in the Records for 1693 and the route was ‘improved’ in 1718{6}, but the Inclined Plane was not constructed until the beginning of the 19th Century. G. C. Kitching says Ladder Hill is so-named because of the rope ladder that was the first means of ascent, prior to the construction of either the Inclined Plane or the roadway we now know as Shy Road/Ladder Hill Road.

‘The Ladder’ today 

When the inclined plane was broken up the steps remained and today it is either a short way up or down the valley, an exhilarating climb, or 699 steps of torment, depending on your point of view and level of fitness. The steps are around 30cm high and the same wide, giving it a 1:1 slope - the view from the top (above) shows how steep it is, and the one below illustrates the scale of it. Most of the steps were repaired in 2006.

View showing the scale of ‘The Ladder’ Saint Helena Island Info Jacob’s Ladder
View showing the scale of ‘The Ladder’

Some people skim down it, by putting their feet on one handrail, their upper back on the other and just sliding down (Illustrated below) - easy to get started, somewhat harder to stop. It’s also said that people carried hot food down from the barracks in the fort at the top to soldiers serving down below, rested on their stomachs; how much got spilled isn’t recorded.

Sliding down 2015 Saint Helena Island Info Jacob’s Ladder
Sliding down, 2015

Sliding down 1975 Saint Helena Island Info Jacob’s Ladder
Sliding down, 1975{1}

I rose to the challenge and conquered Jacob’s Ladder. The climb of 699 steps is a must for the finest views of Jamestown! It’s a steep climb but a real sense of achievement when you get to the top (recognised by the certificate you can get from the Museum of St Helena).
Jacob’s Ladder is a 699-step slice of masochism that allows the fit and the foolhardy to walk from the lowest part of the valley to the very top, pretty much vertically. On my first attempt, I rushed on up there, snorting at the suggestion that it would defeat me. By halfway, I was stopping for regular "photo breaks". By two thirds of the way up, I was seeing shapes and stars that weren’t visible to anyone else. By four fifths of the way up, my photo breaks involved me laying as horizontally as possible on the ladder, wrapping my arms around the handrail supports and shouting for any God passing by to take me away from this life. From the very bottom, a lone figure had been standing at the top, watching my slow gasping progress and so by the time I wheezed past him, pleading for air and chasing the black dots in my vision, my pride forced me to stagger a few extra metres around the corner before collapsing, out of view. It was about this time that I knew I needed a Stairmaster in my life. My second attempt sliced 5 minutes from my previous record and even allowed me to stand upright when I reached the top.{c}

Top Twenty things to do Saint Helena Island Info Jacob’s Ladder

Climbing Jacob’s Ladder is one of our Top Twenty things to do during a visit to St Helena.

Top Twenty things to do Saint Helena Island Info Jacob’s Ladder

The Ladder at night Saint Helena Island Info Jacob’s Ladder
The Ladder at night

Visitors on Jacob’s Ladder Saint Helena Island Info
Visitors on Jacob’s Ladder

Whenever a cruise ship visits the ladder is filled with tourists, taking the island’s great physical challenge.

The lighting on Jacob’s Ladder (left), 71 lights, was officially launched by Governor Hollamby on 21st May 2000 (St Helena’s Day). Prior to that, night climbers had to rely on starlight!

Stories abound about ‘The Ladder’. One says that Matty John, a legendary island squeezebox player in the mid 20th Century who lived at Cliff Cottage, would climb back up the Ladder every Saturday night after his playing (and drinking!) sessions in the White Horse pub. Once, near the top, he fell, but was saved when his braces got snagged. He was spotted by an inmate in the prison below, and rescued.

And if you think walking up would be hard, can you imagine running up? And yet, as part of the island’s Festival of Running, that’s exactly what happens. Experienced runners from around the world try to beat the ‘Ladder Challenge’ (see article below). Want to give it a try? Contact the Tourist Office to find out when the next Festival of Running will be held.

If you do attempt the climb, please consider carefully the following advice:

If you find yourself putting a foot on step one of Jacob’s Ladder, and if you do actually make it all the way to the top, NEVER under any circumstances EVER turn round and skip gaily and speedily down thinking (stupidly) how it’s so much easier to go down than up.

If you ignore this warning and do this crazy thing, the next day you will wake to find that all the muscle, blood, bone and flesh cells of your legs have been replaced - at the cellular level - with wood. Not ordinary wood. Special wood that fills you with intense pain if you attempt to move.{d}

Stamps depicting Jacob’s Ladder can be seen in this article (3.1Mb){7}.

OK you say that’s all very well but why is it called ‘Jacob’s Ladder’ anyway? And is it the only Jacob’s Ladder in existence? For answers to these questions, read on…

View from the top through the ages{8}:
1903 Saint Helena Island Info Jacob’s Ladder
1943 Saint Helena Island Info Jacob’s Ladder
1962 Saint Helena Island Info Jacob’s Ladder
1970s Saint Helena Island Info Jacob’s Ladder

Why ‘Jacob’s Ladder’? 

It certainly isn’t because it was built by or owned by a chap called Jacob. The answer comes from the Bible, in the Book of Genesis chapter 28 verses 11-19:

Jacob left Beersheba, and went toward Haran. He came to the place and stayed there that night, because the sun had set. Taking one of the stones of the place, he put it under his head and lay down in that place to sleep. And he dreamed that there was a ladder set up on the earth, and the top of it reached to heaven; and behold, the angels of God were ascending and descending on it!

Since then, in all the parts of the world where the Bible is a sacred book, any impossibly steep climb tends to acquire the name Jacob’s Ladder. And our 699 almost-vertical steps probably qualify as well as any, though at the top of ours lies Ladder Hill Fort and if that’s Heaven…

Other places called Jacob’s Ladder 

The Wikipedia lists several other places that carry the name Jacob’s Ladder, including

Other uses of the term 

High Voltage Traveling Arc Saint Helena Island Info Jacob’s Ladder

Interestingly, the term Jacob’s Ladder also has a variety of other uses.

If you watch sci-fi movies you may see sparks travelling up a pair of wires, as in the picture (left). Every mad scientist’s laboratory has one! Often called a Jacob’s Ladder, presumably because of its etherial quality, it is more correctly known as a High Voltage Traveling Arc. Attractive but dangerous - the voltage needed to make it work is enough to do you some serious damage. (Go here for a larger image and an explanation of how it works - a basic knowledge of physics is required to understand the explanation.)

To the nautically inclined a Jacob’s Ladder is either a flexible hanging ladder which can be lowered down the side of a large ship, consisting of vertical ropes or chains supporting horizontal wooden or metal rungs and used to allow people to board the ship from small boats. Or it is the part of the rigging on a square-rigged sailing ship that sailors use to climb above the lower mast to the topmast and above. This provides an alternative explanation as to why our Jacob’s Ladder is so named.

For children it’s a toy, consisting of a block of wood connected with strings. When the ‘ladder’ is held at one end, the blocks appear to cascade down the strings. The Wikipedia provides a more detailed explanation and even a video, in case you’ve never seen one in action.

Crepuscular rays over Blue Hill Saint Helena Island Info Jacob’s Ladder
Crepuscular rays over Blue Hill

The term is also used to describe this light effect, formally known as ‘crepuscular rays’, when the sun’s rays shine through a gap in the cloud (seen here over St Helena but at Blue Hill, nowhere near the physical Jacob’s Ladder). Very pretty but not a feasible means of transport; for humans at least.

The Wiki also lists several other uses of the term, including one related to a body piercing, and nine pieces of music entitled ‘Jacob’s Ladder’ or containing the term, ranging from rock to gospel/folk to opera. And finally the name was also given to a 1990 film, in which an American soldier in the Vietnam War has hallucinations prior to his death from a bayonet wound. Probably very profound. More detail on the Internet Movie Database.

Fisheye-view Saint Helena Island Info Jacob’s Ladder

7 Wonders of St Helena voting 

7 Wonders badge Saint Helena Island Info Jacob’s Ladder

This appeal (right), by local historian, Barbara George, was broadcast on Radio St Helena prior to the Seven Wonders voting{h}:

We suspect that some parts of the old railway were re-used as constructional materials. The following photos were taking in the basement of The Moon, but there are many examples around the island. They appear to be of type Bullhead, but there are many similar rail profiles and only an expert could pronounce on which they are. What do you think?

Re-used rails? Saint Helena Island Info Jacob’s Ladder
Re-used rails?

Saint Helena Island Info Jacob’s Ladder

Saint Helena Island Info Jacob’s Ladder

It is known that used UK rails were imported to St Helena from the 1830s, to be used as construction materials, so maybe these came from that stock. Of course, if they are re-used local rails there is no way to tell if they came from the Inclined Plane or the Rupert’s Valley Tramway, though the latter seems more likely. Maybe rails from the Inclined Plane were used to build the Tramway? Who knows…the records do not seem to exist.

Read More 

More stories on our page Read articles about St Helena.

Article: Graham beats Jacob’s Ladder record - hands down

By Simon Pipe, published in the St Helena Independent 25th January 2013{9}

The record for climbing Jacob’s Ladder has been beaten by less than a second - by a ‘runner’ who went up on all fours.

Graham Doig cleared the 699th steps in a time of 5 minutes, 16.78 seconds, using feet and hands. Then he rolled on to the ground at the feet of spectators.

Graham Doig cleared the 699 steps in a time of 5 minutes 16.78 seconds Saint Helena Island Info Jacob’s Ladder

And Martin Squibbs set a new record for others to try to beat - five ascents of the Ladder (and four descents) in a time of one hour, 14 minutes and 4 seconds. Martin is an outdoor enthusiast who has made a practice of climbing the notorious steps at least twice a week. He had previously managed three ascents in succession before deciding to set himself the five-climb challenge.

Prince Andrew School student Charlotte Hubbard also completed three ascents, but her overall time was not recorded because organisers had not known in advance that she would do so.

The previous Jacob’s Ladder record was 5 minutes 17.46 seconds, set by German Stefan Schlect in 2007. Graham said he was extremely delighted to beat it.

The previous record was daunting and although I had managed to achieve a time under six minutes on my previous visit to the island, I did have a small element of doubt. It was the support from everyone who made it all happen. The crowd at the top kept chanting and urging me on. It was unbelievable.

Graham is a visiting consultant - and keen mountain biker - working for engineering firm Fairhurst. He is due to leave the island on 25th January 2013 after a two-week visit.

He passed up on the technique used by most Ladder challengers, who use the wide handrails to pull themselves up, and instead pitched forward and placed both his hands and his feet on the steps, as though climbing a fireman’s ladder.

Martin Squibbs was sore but quietly pleased after climbing 3,493 steps - and really pleased that Graham broke the record. He had been saying all the previous week that he wouldn’t get anywhere near the record, such that I was pleasantly surprised that he turned up.

He joked that he would organise another climb for the next Fairhurst visitor.

He would not be repeating his own feat, though. I always said it was a one-off and I don’t think I will do it again. Apart from anything else, I kept losing count of the steps.

Martin completed his first climb in just under ten minutes. In order, the times for his ascents were: 9 mins 49:54 secs, 11:27:75, 13:04:02, 13:12:74 and 13:38:35. His fastest descent was 3:03:05 and the slowest was 3:13:58. In all, 24 people took part in the Ladder Challenge in aid of New Horizons - many of them members of the organisation. Chairman Derek Richards and his wife Linda joined the climb, as did manager Nick Stevens.

Ten-year-old Josh Benjamin managed the climb in 9 minutes and 28 seconds, six seconds faster than Aiden Yon-Stevens - Nick’s son - who was the youngest challenger, a few days before his eighth birthday.

At a ceremony at the Police Club after the last climb, Linda presented all participants with certificates designed and printed by Solomon and Company. The St Helena Fire Service provided first aid cover at strategic points, and official timings were taken by the National Amateur Sports Association.

Closing Humour Saint Helena Island Info Jacob’s Ladder

Laugh at funny Jacob’s Ladder humour LOL Saint Helena Island Info


{a} St Helena: A Physical, Historical and Topographical Description of the Island, including the Geology, Fauna, Flora and Meteorology, by John Melliss, published in 1875, 1875{9}

{b} Posting on www.tripadvisor.co.uk, 2015{9}

{c} www.leonneal.com/albums/TyuVD/the-island-of-st-helena-1, 2017{9}

{d} Curious Little World{10}, 2007{9}

{e} Robert Stephen, a World War 2 serviceman stationed here, from his memoirs ‘Around the Atlantic’{12}

{f} Copyright © 1962 Film Unit, used with permission{9}.

{g} www.expert-tours.com

{h} Manfred Rippich/Radio St Helena


{1} There was considerable debate on our Facebook™ page as to exactly who this is in the photo. The majority said it was Neil Joshua, aka Jimmy, but a significant number suggested Barry/Doggy/Douglas Pie. In the end a relative spoke to Neil (Jimmy) Joshua, who confirmed it was him, so that’s good enough for us!

{2} There used to be 700 but due to road improvements the bottom step has been buried.

{3} There was no Health & Safety in those days, though no deaths or serious injuries are reported in the Records.

{4} the first web magazine about funiculars.

{5} John Melliss’ father.

{6} The improvement seems to have been made more to make invaders using it (as the Dutch did) more visible than for the convenience of travellers.

{7} Published in the UK Railway Philatelic Group Journal, March 2016.

{8} Taking the view of Jamestown from the top off the Ladder seems to be something every photographer just must do! If you have a novel variation on this theme that we could display, please send it to us!.

{9} Reproduced for educational non-commercial use only; all copyrights are acknowledged.

{10} Curious Little World - A Self-Imposed Exile on St Helena Island, by Rex Bartlett. Toppermost Books, ISBN 978-0-9783927-0-3 2007.

{11} The four ‘Wirebird’ publications should not be confused.

{12} Reproduced in ‘Wirebird’, the magazine of Friends of St Helena{11}. #46, 2017{9}.


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