blank Saint Helena Island Info Roads

Roads

Take me home…

blank Saint Helena Island Info Roads

What does it matter that we take different road, so long as we reach the same goal?
Mohandas Gandhi

Roads may not sound exciting, but many of our roads have a fascinating history.

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

Roads Saint Helena Island Info

Below: Earliest HistoryNapoleon - good for our roadsAfter NapoleonMore exiles; more roadsThe First Motor CarLater 20th CenturyThe Asphalt MachineOur Newest RoadRules for Road Users

The anchorage area in Jamestown was formerly known as ‘the Roads’.

Earliest History

Below: Out of JamestownCountry RoadsThe state of these roads

Maps showing the development of our roads{a}:
Ken Denholm Map 1 Saint Helena Island Info Roads

Ken Denholm Map 2 Saint Helena Island Info Roads

Ken Denholm Map 3 Saint Helena Island Info Roads

Ken Denholm Map 4 Saint Helena Island Info Roads

Out of Jamestown

Roads were not an immediate priority for the arriving colonists under Governor Dutton in 1659. They spent most of their time in Chapel Valley (now Jamestown), only going ‘up country’ (as it is still called today) for hunting and exploration.

As they became established they found there were parts of the island they needed to visit regularly, but getting out of the valley was not easy, given that it is surrounded by steep cliffs. Two routes became established: a zig-zag up the western side of the valley (what is now Shy Road and upper Ladder Hill) and a straight run up the Eastern side of the valley (Side Path). (The other zig-zag up from the far, Southern end of the valley, meeting Side Path at the top - now Constitution Hill - came much later.) But these were not originally roads as we know them today; they were merely well-trodden paths. Side Path was certainly in a relatively primitive state in 1677 when Halley visited; we know he had difficulty transporting his scientific equipment up it.

Shy Road/Ladder Hill seems to have been built up first, when the Plantation (now Plantation House but then literally a Plantation) was developed in 1673. The road followed the old path, zig-zagging up from behind where the Museum of St Helena is now (the connection to China Lane was built much later). At the time there was no fort at Ladder Hill but there was a gibbet from which criminals were hanged, in plain view of the populus in Jamestown. Ladies and visitors were carried up the road by ‘Blacks’ at a charge in 1710 of 1/6d(£0.075{1}) per trip - which went, of course, to the owners, not to the slaves themselves. The fort was built and the road improved in 1733 by Governor Pyke, much to the anger of the East India Company in London who thought the money should have been spent improving the island’s defences!

Side Path came next, using some of the imported 17th Century slave labour overseen by the island’s military, probably in the 1680s. Two alarm guns were to be placed on the Ridge at Alarm Forest (at Alarm House) and an improved road may have been built to facilitate the transport of both the guns and the subsequent resources - troops; ammunition; powder, etc. Side Path was later extended as far as Hutt’s Gate and eventually in the late 18th Century all the way to Longwood.

Another project was the route up the eastern side of the valley to Munden’s Fort, overlooking the landing place (Wharf). Completed in 1713 this was a significant piece of engineering, requiring a strong stone retaining wall on the outer side, and an enormous amount of stone cutting around the high sea-facing cliffs of Munden’s Hill. Later extended beyond the fort, this became the only route into Rupert’s Valley until the present route, Field Road was built by Governor John Field in the 1960s. (The Munden’s route is still walkable as far as the fort but was lost to the sea beyond there in September 1981.) This route was eventually extended all the way round the island’s coastline as far as Banks Battery.

Country Roads

There were defences at Sandy Bay from the late 1690s (the defences are reported destroyed by Rollers in 1717) but there was no road and supplies were carried round the island by sea; a hazardous journey given that Sandy Bay is on the south-eastern side of the island so fully exposed to the trade winds and resultant seas. Governor Robert Jenkins built himself a house in Sandy Bay in 1741, but his only route there was an eight-mile cross-country horse ride so we assume he did not commute daily! However a rather precarious and winding road, extended from the route to the Plantation, followed two years later, and this remains today the road into Sandy Bay.

The cross-country route between Hutt’s Gate and the Plantation - incorporating what is now known as the ‘W Road’ (because of its shape) - was built around the same time as the Sandy Bay road, again based on an existing bridle path.

The route to Hutt’s Gate was extended to Longwood in or around 1787 when Governor Brooke identified the Longwood area as good for agriculture.

The state of these roads

In wet weather most of these roads were a quagmire and very greasy due to the presence of marl - a sort of stcky clay that covers a lot of the island’s surface. Sometimes they had a layer of broken stone placed over the worst sections, but this was the best that could be achieved with manual labour assisted perhaps with bullock-drawn carts. Fortunately the island has no significant rivers. The very few bridges that were required were invariably built of arched stonework, as was also used for the many miles of retaining walls. Rain is not uncommon on St Helena so for much of the year travelling must have been a nightmare.

Napoleon - good for our roads

Napoleon Saint Helena Island Info Roads

Napoleon’s arrival on St Helena in 1815 changed everything. He could not, for security reasons, be housed in Jamestown (a decision with which the exile agreed - he valued his privacy), so Longwood House was chosen as his residence. His large staff had to be supplied, as did the many troops and defences set up to repel any attempt by his supporters to rescue him. This required a large number of new and improved roads, easily navigable in even the wettest weather. For example, a route had to be built down to Deadwood, where 500 soldiers were to be billeted.

In January 1816 it is recorded that Napoleon went riding in the direction of what is now Levelwood, but at that time there was no road so his journey was a rather adventurous cross-country ‘hack’. The accounts of his early time here say much about the state of the island’s ‘minor roads’ at the time, with several instances where the ox-cart intended to convey him and his party could not proceed due to the state of the road. On at least one occasion he was forced to get out and walk.

Fortunately (for our road network) no attempt was ever made to liberate Napoleon from his South Atlantic prison, so the 2,000-or so troops sent here to guard him had nothing much to do. Idleness leads to trouble, so they were put to work improving the island’s defences and its roads. By the time of Napoleon’s death in 1821 St Helena finally had the basis of a navigable road system, though much of the present network had not yet been developed.

After Napoleon

The financial effect of the reduction in troops following Napoleon’s death was keenly felt, and around 15 years later the Suez Canal opened, depriving St Helena of its importance in world shipping. What better to do with an otherwise work-less population than for the Crown (which took over the island from the East India Company in 1834) to employ them constructing infrastructure? The New Ground and Guinea Grass areas were built up in the 1850s, complete with most of the current system of roads (Sapper Way was added later). The road to Levelwood via Woody Ridge was built at around the same time, and then extended on to join the Sandy Bay road in its current configuration.

Barnes Road, 1911 Saint Helena Island Info Roads
Barnes Road, 1911

In 1847 construction began on a route from upper Jamestown, via the Heart Shaped Waterfall to Francis Plain, which would become known as ‘Barnes Road’ after Major George Barnes who supervised the project. Sadly the resulting route was found too steep for donkeys to pull carts, and was all but abandoned soon after its completion. It is navigable today only as a footpath. (More about this road on our The Heart Shaped Waterfall page.)

Another route was the one linking the ‘W Road’ to the Sandy Bay road, around the base of the Peaks and up Stitch’s Hill.

Perhaps the most important new road built in the 19th Century was the extension of Ladder Hill Road down the western side of the valley to what is now China Lane (near the Hospital). By avoiding the steep zig-zag of what is now called Shy Road (which today is an upwards-only connection, with a near-impossible sharp right turn at the top), traffic flow between Jamestown and the Ladder Hill Fort and west of the island was dramatically improved. This route was called Ladder Hill Road in its entirity. Incidentally we think we know how Shy Road got its name.

None of the routes to the west, along the ridge from Casons to Head O’Wain, Blue Hill, Thompson’s and South West Point, existed as roads in the 19th Century, though there were settlements and/or military installations in all of these. All these routes were bridle-paths only at this time.

Longwood Gate Saint Helena Island Info Roads
Longwood Gate{b}

It is interesting to note that in the late 19th Century the opening and closing of gates along the road network was normal practice for road travel on the island. Most of the country roads passed over private land and very few were fenced so the various gates signified passing from one property to another and prevented the straying of livestock. Many of the old gateposts remain, usually as stout stone structures, and many placenames derive from these gates: Red Gate at Red Hill on the road to Plantation; White Gate at the entrance to Plantation grounds; Green Gate at the entrance to Plantation forests from Scotland; Sandy Bay Gate at the entrance to Stitches Hill road; Hutt’s Gate at the entrance to Hutts Gate district and giving access to Levelwood and Longwood roads; and Longwood Gate at the entrance to Longwood district.

More exiles; more roads

The impetus for improving the ridge route to Blue Hill and beyond seems to have been the housing of about half the Boer Prisoners at Broad Bottom from 1900-1902. Indeed it is highly likely that the Boers themselves were employed in the road’s construction. The Zulu Poll Tax Prisoners (1907-1910) were also employd in road works, amongst other construction activities.

Boer Camp, Broad Bottom Saint Helena Island Info Roads
Boer Camp, Broad Bottom

Zulu Prisoners working on Sidepath, 1907 Saint Helena Island Info Roads
Zulu Prisoners working on Sidepath, 1907

The commencement of the Flax Industry in the early 1900s also created a demand for improved roads to transport the processed flax from the mills dotted around the island down to Jamestown for loading onto ships. Heavy Bullock drays required tougher roads, to which end a Road Tax was introduced on 1st March 1909 at 3s (£0.15{2}). The Blue Hill road was upgraded all the way to Thompson’s Wood in the 1920s.

Sadly the road improvements were not uniform. In 1924 the streets of Jamestown were described as being in a bad state of repair and even worse than the country roads; the gravel streets frequently produced swirling dust that found its way into all the houses and buildings.

And then a technological arrival changed everything…

The First Motor Car

The First Car Saint Helena Island Info Roads

In 1919 motorised transport was prohibited on St Helena by Ordinance. This was revoked in 1927 and the first car arrived two years later. Early cars struggled with roads quite passable by ox-cart, so a programme of road improvements soon began. A motor roller and stone crusher arrived in May 1928 and by November the same year 60 miles of island road were declared ready for the expected influx of motor cars. By the end of 1930 there were 14 cars and 5 lorries enjoying these new roads.

Later 20th Century

Not one of our better roads Saint Helena Island Info
Not one of our better roads
Under repair… Saint Helena Island Info Roads
Under repair…

The road into The Briars was opened in 1937. Sealing of roads began after World War 2 and the same process is used today. This is not Tarmac, as is used elsewhere in the world. Chipped stone is pressed into Colas - a bitumen substance - with a roller to form a surface. Theoretically the excess stone is swept up, but in practice it is usually left in drifts on the road, presumably in the hope that vehicles will press it into the road; a mostly failed hope and much of the loose stone ends up blocking the roadside drains.

The road to Blue Hill was upgraded in 1959. Field Road, the current route into Rupert’s Valley from the junction of Constitution Hill and Sidepath, was built by Governor John Field, opening in May 1968; fortunately so because the older route via Munden’s Fort was closed beyond the fort in 1981 due to undercutting by the sea. And the creation of the island’s Diplomatic Wireless Station in 1965 led to upgrading of the road from Longwood Gate past Piccolo Hill (where the DWS Staff were housed) down into Bottom Woods.

In 1982 a new road was built by the Royal Engineers from New Ground road to join the Red Hill road near Model Cottage. This very useful connecting road was accordingly named Sapper’s Way. By this time the last horses on the island had died so apart from a number of donkeys used almost exclusively for fodder transport our roads were given over exclusively to motor vehicles.

The Mini-Roundabout outside the Canister in Jamestown, the island’s first, came into operation on 2nd February 1987 (the second and, so far only other one, in Scotland, came in in July 1990. The one-way system around the flats opposite St. John’s Church was introduced in the 1990s. Ladder Hill Road was widened in 2000 and the 15mph speed limit removed (it is now 20mph like the rest of Jamestown).

The Asphalt Machine

Scrapped Asphalt Plant Saint Helena Island Info Roads
Scrapped Asphalt Plant

As incomes began to rise after the Millennium (and also as in 2004 Bank of St Helena began offering car loans) people started buying and importing newer and more modern vehicles. Performance cars began to appear and this led to rising criticism of the poor state of the island’s roads. The ‘spread and (hopefully) stick’ method of road maintenance was particularly unpopular due to the damage done to vehicles by the loose stones. Responding to this criticism, in 2011 Government of St Helena purchased an Asphalt Plant, intended to manufacture Asphalt on the spot so that our roads could be given a stronger, more even surface without the drifts of loose stones. Sadly, when the machine arrived it was discovered that significant parts were missing and those parts that were present could not be operated safely. After many failed attempts to obtain the missing parts the machine had to be scrapped, at great expense.

Our Newest Road

For the construction of St Helena Airport it was necessary to build a whole new route to transport the materials and equipment for construction from Rupert’s to Prosperous Bay Plain. The route chosen climbed the eastern side of Ruperts Vally, proceeding on to Deadwood, then circiting Longwood and Bottom Woods down to the Airport. Initially just a packed-earth track, it was planned that when the ‘Haul Road’ was no longer needed it would be properly surfaced and added to our road network. The entire length has been finished and the section from the Bottom Woods junction is now the official road to the airport. At the time of writing{3} the part from Rupert’s to Bottom Woods has not been opened to the public.

Incidentally, the Haul Road is Asphalt-surfaced. Basil Read had Asphalt making equipment available for surfacing the Airport runway…

The haul road route Saint Helena Island Info Roads
The haul road route

Construction Traffic Saint Helena Island Info Roads
Construction Traffic

The completed road Saint Helena Island Info Roads
The completed road

Rules for Road Users

Summarised from our Driving in St Helena page:

Wrecked car Saint Helena Island Info Roads
Try not to crash

  • In St Helena we drive notionally on the left, but as few roads are wide enough for more than one vehicle, just drive down the middle.

  • Don’t get caught exceeding 30mph{4}.

  • Really, really try not to crash.

  • Give way to traffic ascending the hill… and always to buses, whichever way they are going.

  • Wave at other drivers, pedestrians, dogs, cows, etc.

  • Don’t run over a Wirebird but do run over Mynah Birds is you can.

  • Try to stay relaxed, even if the chap in front only manages to reach 10mph downhill with the wind behind him - nothing here ever starts on time.

Rain can still be a problem Saint Helena Island Info Roads
Rain can still be a problem

Closing Humour Image Saint Helena Island Info Roads

Laugh at funny roads humour - LOL Saint Helena Island Info


Credits:

{a} Ken Denholm, from ‘A History of Road Development’

{b} Derek Richards



Footnotes:

{1} 

{2} 

{3} .

{4} We are told that the highest speed actually obtained on a St Helena road is 120mph, but obviously we have not verified that - and neither have the Police.



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