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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.{i}

‘Jacob’s Ladder’? That’s something to do with the Bible, isn’t it?‍‍

What is ‘Jacob’s Ladder’?

Jacob’s Ladder is a run of 699 steps up from Jamestown in the floor of the valley to the Ladder Hill Fort on the western valley slope. It has twice been voted one of the Seven Wonders of St Helena.


Below: Early RoutesInclined Plane

Early Routes

John Thornton, c1700
John Thornton, c1700{2}
Lafitte, 1781
Lafitte, 1781{j}

Incredible as it may seem, the first route from the valley floor to the top of Ladder Hill is described in the Records as including a ‘rope ladder’. Examination of Thornton’s c1700 map (right) shows a twisting path up the hill and at the top ‘The Ladder’. The presence of this ladder led to the hill being named Ladder Hill. If you look up from Grand Parade you can still make out the old zig-zag route on the hillside (see our page Roads for a diagram). This route therefore would have been strictly for foot traffic only.

Later a less steep road suitable for carts was cut, which we now know as Shy Road/upper Ladder Hill Road{4}. The 1781 Lafitte map (right) shows the two routes (and no rope ladder, which was clearly removed when the route was improved).

The Inclined Plane

The steeper zig-zag route was itself replaced in the 1820s by the ‘Inclined Plane’ - a horse-powered machine for hauling goods to the top of the hill on rails using pulleys - see the diagrams (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{5} and www.railwaysofthefarsouth.co.uk or this 1975 description by Percy Teale.

The ‘Ladder Hill Railway’ was in service from its completion in 1829 until 1871. It 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, though it carried many other things as the Tariff notice from 1831 (below) demonstrates. It was also suggested it could carry passengers but that was considered too dangerous and was never attempted. It was not without technical difficulties: the haulage chain kept breaking and the haulage mechanism sometimes failed because the weight of the manure-laden trucks going up greatly exceeded the weight of produce-laden trucks going down; and on 28th April 1867 there was a fire under the wooden sleepers towards the top, though it was small and quickly extinguished.

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

Although initially of great value, by 1871 the Inclined Plane 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.{k}

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

‘The Ladder’ today

View showing the scale of ‘The Ladder’
View showing the scale of ‘The Ladder’

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 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.

Inclined Plane Plaque

There is a plaque at the top (right) which 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{6}, 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 ***.

Sadly the number of steps has been obliterated, we think deliberately. The plaque probably originally gave the number as 700, which was correct at the time but the lower step was buried when the road at the base was made up, so there are now only 699. Somebody clearly felt the sign should not be inaccurate.

Whenever a cruise ship visits the ladder is filled with tourists, taking the island’s great physical challenge. If you do complete the ascent you can get a certificate from the Museum of St Helena.

The lighting on Jacob’s Ladder 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 famous 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’. Want to give it a try? Contact the Tourist Information 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.{l}

I ran down and got straight on the RMS.The next 3 days I could hardly walk. I was warned I should go back up. Should have listened.{m}

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

The Ladder alone, constructed by the Royal Engineers in 1829, makes Jamestown unique. One’s head swims as one looks up at it, one’s feet ache. It is worth travelling to St Helena just to see the Ladder.{n}

Sliding The Ladder

Some people don’t bother with walking down - they skim down it, by putting their feet on one handrail, their upper back on the other and just sliding down (Illustrated below). It’s 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, though how much got spilled isn’t recorded. Here are some images of people sliding down:

There was considerable debate on Social Media as to exactly who appears in the 1975 photo (above). The majority said it was Neil Joshua, a.k.a. 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!

Jacob’s Ladder sliding, 1962{o}:

Full Length View

Ladder Facts{8}

Incline (avg)41°
Step height (avg)28cm
Age (years)

Here are some quotes from people who’ve climbed it:

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.{k}
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.{q}
At the top, I felt like one of those doped rats you meet in cellars which don’t run away when you shine a torch on them. I couldn’t move.{r}

Refurbishment 2022-3

Refurbished, 2023
Refurbished, 2023

A ‘Risk Assessment’ was conducted on the ladder in February 2019 which concluded that immediate repair was needed to the handrails but that otherwise the ladder was safe to use. In March 2021 it was announced that Lord Ashcroft had made a generous donation of £300,000 to the British Napoleonic Bicentenary Trust, which was to be used principally to fund repairs to Jacob’s Ladder, work beginning at the end of August 2022 and completing in April 2023. The Ladder was formally re-opened on 20th April 2023, though the lighting was not restored until the night of 3rd May.

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{9}:

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

New Zealand’s Jacob’s Ladder
New Zealand’s Jacob’s Ladder{3}

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

Other uses of the term

High Voltage Travelling Arc

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 ethereal quality, it is more correctly known as a High Voltage Travelling 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{10}. 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.

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
Crepuscular rays over Blue Hill

The term is also used to describe a light effect, formally known as ‘crepuscular rays’, when the sun’s rays shine through a gap in the cloud - seen here (right) 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 not with current technology.

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.

Jacob’s Ladder Challenge

Having a race to see who could be the fastest to climb the Ladder would seem to be an obvious activity, but we have no idea when the first official Jacob’s Ladder Challenge took place. The audio recording (right) from May 1982 features a visitor challenging the island to a race up the ladder, stating that the Record was 10 minutes but that his crew had already achieved 7½ minutes. Sadly the interview gives no information on when that 10 minute record was set.

We can find a further challenge for April 2000, when HMS Endurance visited, but this was not a time trial it was an endurance test - each of five participating crewmembers ascended the Ladder multiple times until the total height ascended exceeded the height of Mount Everest, 8,848m (they actually achieved 10,092m).






Sam Collins




Graham Doig




Stefan Schlett




James Whittle




Martin Collins



The idea of making the Challenge into a regular event seems to come from 2001, when the Tourist Information Office incorporated it into the first St Helena ‘Festival of Running’. It took place on 3rd October 2001 and Jean-Paul Van Belle came in 1st with a time of 5mins 43secs{11}. The St Helena ‘Festival of Running’ still takes place each year, and still incorporates the Jacob’s Ladder Challenge. A further record was set at 5 minutes 17.46 seconds by German visitor Stefan Schlect in 2007{12} and another by Graham Doig in 2013.

The current record stands at 5 minutes 4.19 seconds, set by Sam Collins on 29th January 2024 (article below). Records and their holders are shown (right).

Special Events

Below: Climbing for Ukraine 2022Royal Jacob’s Ladder Certificates

Climbing for Ukraine 2022

Climbing for UkraineSupport Ukraine after the illegal Russian invasion @@E@@ 2022

On Friday 18th March 2022 New Horizons organised an event on the ladder to raise funds to support humanitarian aid in UkraineSupport Ukraine after the illegal Russian invasion @@E@@, invaded by Russia in February. Around 500 people turned out and raised around £1,600.

Royal Jacob’s Ladder Certificates

On Sunday 7th May, to celebrate the Coronation of King Charles III, special certificates were offered to anyone climbing Jacob’s Ladder during the celebrations.

We suspect that some parts of the old railways (Jacob’s Ladder and Our (Other) 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?

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 Ruperts 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

Below: Article: The Record is Mine!Seven Wonders VotingStairway to heaven?

Article: The Record is Mine!

By Liam Yon, The Sentinel 1st February 2024{t}

At the start
At the start

Sam Collins - former Social Worker on St Helena - departed the Island on Tuesday, 30th January, but not before placing himself in the number one spot for the fastest time ascending the 699 steps of Jacob’s Ladder - finally conquering his goal of setting a new Jacob’s Ladder record on Monday afternoon, setting a new best time of 5mins 04.19secs.

Sam’s first attempted to beat Scotland’s Graham Doig’s then record Ladder time of 5mins 16.78secs was back on Friday, 19th January, but after a brilliant effort, he finished just under three seconds short in a time of 5mins 19.12secs, placing him third in the overall standings at the time.

With just a few days left on-Island, Sam - after encouragement from his many supporters on the Island - scheduled in one last attempt at the record for Monday afternoon.

Switching up from his Aston Villa jersey to his St Helena National football kit, Sam took his position at the bottom of the ascent at around 6:30pm with another large crowd of supporters turning out to cheer him on from both the bottom and top of Jacob’s Ladder - as well as many supporting via a Facebook live stream provided by Derek Richards of Island Images, including a rumour that the then-record holder Graham Doig, was also watching.

With loud cheers, Sam started his attempt. This time he kept a steadier pace from the start in order to not burn out before reaching the summit. Once again, for those watching on without keeping their own time, it seemed it would go down to the wire.

Sam reached the top to more massive cheers from those who turned out in support, before everyone fell silent as they awaited the official results from NSASH timekeepers.

The record was 5mins 16.78seconds, announced Michielle Yon of NSASH. Sam just did it in 5mins 04.19secs!

He did it smashing the record by over 12 full seconds. A huge well done and congratulations to Sam from all at The Sentinel, as well as a sad farewell to him and partner Ella who have since left the Island - but not before placing himself as the fastest man to ascend Jacob’s Ladder!

Seven Wonders Voting



The appeal (right), made by local historian, Barbara George, was broadcast on Radio St Helena prior to the 2008 Seven Wonders voting:

Stairway to heaven?

Led Zeppelin IV Album Cover
Cover, Led Zeppelin IV

In case you are scratching your head trying to remember where you’ve previously heard the term Stairway to Heaven (this page’s subtitle) the answer could be that it’s the title of probably the best known song by the 1960s/70s Progressive Rock band Led Zeppelin (Track 4 on the album Led Zeppelin IV), covered and imitated by many other arists in various different musical genres as diverse as folk, reggae and even Country Music (by Dolly Parton, no less). At least, that’s where we got it from.

It was also the title of a totally different hit song by Neil Sedaka in 1960 and several other things.


{a} J. Graham of the St Helena Artillery.{b} Jeb Brooks{c} Tourist Information Office{d} Matt Joshua{e} St Helena Astronomy Club{f} St Helena Travel (group){g} expert-tours.de{h} St Helena Astronomy Club{i} Douglas William Jerrold{j} UK National Archives MPH 1/251{13}{14}{15}{k} From ‘St Helena: A Physical, Historical and Topographical Description of the Island{16}{l} ‘Curious Little World’{17}, 2007{13}{m} On Social Media{n} Oswell Blakeston, in his 1957 book ‘Isle of St Helena’{o} Copyright © 1962 Film Unit, used with permission{p} Posting on www.tripadvisor.co.uk, 2015{13}{q} www.leonneal.com/‌albums/‌TyuVD/‌the-island-of-st-helena-1, 2017{13}{r} Oswell Blakeston, in his book ‘Isle of St Helena’, 1957{13}{s} Robert Stephen, a serviceman stationed here in World War 2, from his memoirs ‘Around the Atlantic’, reproduced in ‘Wirebird’, the magazine of Friends of St Helena{18} #46, 2017{13}{t} Copyright © South Atlantic Media Services Ltd. (SAMS), used with permission.{u} Manfred Rippich/Radio St Helena


{1} In the Museum of St Helena, shown with creator Clive Stewart.{2} A higher resolution but monochrome version of this map exists.{3} Should we paint ours in rainbow colours too? What would the St Helena Heritage Society say?{4} The rest of Ladder Hill Road - down to China Lane - wasn’t built until much later - see our page Roads.{5} the first web magazine about funiculars.{6} John Melliss’ father.{7} Published in the UK Railway Philatelic Group Journal, March 2016.{8} These are based on the dimensions stated in this 1975 description by Percy Teale. We would love to confirm these using a modern GPS-enabled device, but we don’t have access to one. If you can help please contact us.{9} 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!.{10} In fact, probably the sort of ladder that was originally at the top of Ladder Hill, as described above.{11} Other finishers were: Tom Crowards, 2nd, 5 mins 46 secs; Tony Peters, 3rd, 6mins 38secs; and Peter Young, 4th, 7 mins 18 secs.{12} This timing is disputed. Records conflict. An alternative time of 5 miuntes 11.28 seconds would mean thar Schlect’s record still holds.{13} @@RepDis@@{14} Not to be confused with the St Helena Archives.{15} Download the full map.{16} …including the Geology, Fauna, Flora and Meteorology, by John Melliss, published in 1875.{17} ‘Curious Little World - A Self-Imposed Exile on St Helena Island’, by Rex Bartlett. Toppermost Books, ISBN 978-0-9783927-0-3 2007.{18} The four ‘Wirebird’ publications should not be confused.