Ann George learns new driving skills on St Helena
For an island in the middle of nowhere, inhabited by about five thousand people, St Helena is well supplied with Church of England churches: at present eleven, if counting the chapel at Bishopsholme. All are open and have regular services, although some are tiny; I remember going to a patronal festival in one which seated 18, where a goodly number of the congregation had to stand outside the door as a matter of course, quite unselfconsciously and good-humouredly. Knowing Fred and our normal entertainment of church-crawling, I was certain that he would find St Helena very congenial; his skills were quickly recognized on the island and in due course he was made Archdeacon, also becoming an active member of the St Helena National Trust. Naturally he also acquired a series of cars in varying states of disrepair, in which he tackled the island’s roads, which are tortuous, narrow, sport no road-markings and are checked every morning by the fire service for damage from the constant rock falls. Fred loved St Helena and its people, and after his tour of duty finished he decided to retire there.
Sadly, my first visit to the island was because Fred had become very ill, nearly dying, and I went out by ship via Cape Town, a 6 day voyage there and 6 days back, allowing me 1 week on the island, all done during my August holiday from school. By the time I arrived Fred had rallied and had just been discharged from care, so both of us had a holiday, staying at Wellington House in Jamestown in an amazing Georgian building, beautifully restored.
On my first full day Fred wanted me to take him on a church crawl in my hired car. Now I know the island well I am dumb-struck at his choice of route, considering that I had never driven on the island before: he wanted to go to Rupert’s Bay to show me St Michael’s, built as recently as 1995, only a few years before Fred had arrived on the island. Now to get to Rupert’s Bay, which is only the next settlement along the coast from Jamestown, one has to climb out of one steep “gut”, drive along a ridge, then descend, snake-like, down the next “gut” (the islanders’ name for a steep, very narrow valley running into the sea). In my little white saloon car I managed these manoeuvres, going no higher than 2nd gear during the entire journey (maximum speed over the whole island, except in 2 short places: 20 miles an hour). Fred was able to let us into the church; as Archdeacon Emeritus he either had the keys of every church on the island or he knew where they were kept. From my point of view it was an interesting, although hair-raising, trip, but my main concern was how we were going to get back out of the gut “The way we came in, of course,” said Fred, totally unperturbed.
The car didn’t like it, but managed it, just. We were on the top road when I realized that I couldn’t get into gear. Fred said comfortably. “Well, I can’t help you,” and settled back in the passenger seat. With a deep breath I took off the handbrake, and allowed the car to roll forwards, and we coasted all the way down the gut (a good couple of miles), to the outskirts of Jamestown, not meeting any car on the way up, fortuitously (on St Helena all upward traffic has the right of way). I then managed to turn the corner onto the forecourt of the garage, (rather ominously crammed with damaged vehicles) which was, conveniently for us, situated before the centre of town. We were then surrounded by a bevy of amused mechanics, made much of, then presented with another, identical little white saloon car, which to my amazement behaved impeccably for the rest of the week. The Rupert’s Bay experience was a baptism of fire, but at least I knew almost the worst the island could offer of hair-raising journeys!
So why does St Helena have so many churches? Historically, it is because travel was very, very difficult until recently, and small communities were very isolated, with many of the population having to walk to church, either through poverty or because of the difficult terrain. The church was, and still is, very active in the community and much of the social life of the island is arranged through the church. As well as all the CofE churches there is a Roman Catholic church, 2 Baptist churches, a branch of the Salvation Army and a non-aligned evangelical church! If you were wondering, there is a small Baha’i community, a Seventh Day Adventist church and also Jehovah’s Witnesses!
In his garden Fred erected a little hut, which he made his oratory. It is a small, beautifully clean and well-organised (Fred would have called it “decent”) chapel which can seat 16 at a pinch, and Fred was given permission to say a weekday mass there. He was soon joined by a group of elderly people, and the last time I visited him when he still living at home I attended their service. The oratory was full to bursting, we sang 5 hymns lustily and unaccompanied, a local deacon gave the sermon and Fred celebrated the mass. It was a moving and unique experience.
This is my last article about my brother, Fred, and I want to ask you a question. You have now read quite a lot about the person our mother always used to call Poor Fred. But was she right? Was he Poor Fred, really?
Ann George worships at St Magnus the Martyr, London Bridge.