BY AMANDA CUMMINS
The Great Houses in Barbados and other parts of the West Indies were attached to estates, primarily sugar estates. Some houses were greater than others, many are now dilapidated shells and sometimes their previous existence only lies in the name of whichever estate they were at the heart of. The areas one drives through have names such as Friendship and Harmony Hall.
Whatever they represented in the past, these old houses hold immense history within their bricks. The history is sometimes unpalatable when viewed with hindsight; the history is there ever thus.
Great steps have been taken to preserve and restore some of the houses. St. Nicholas Abbey in Barbados, one of the oldest buildings in the West Indies, a Jacobean house, is a case in point. Built in the 1630’s, and one of only three remaining houses of that period in the Western Hemisphere, it had a somewhat chequered career in its ownership passing through direct inheritance, marriage and financial misadventure. Ultimately owned by the same family for 200 years, on the death of the last member of the Cave family the future of St. Nicholas Abbey was uncertain.
There was every chance the house and estate would fall into a crumbling heap. However, St. Nicholas Abbey estate was rescued by a Barbadian architect and his family. It is a triumph of vision, determination and investment. The new owners, bit by bit, are returning the house and its buildings to their former glory. They are financing a wonderful job of preservation and restoration.
The house itself, despite its name, is not massive. Nor is it particularly grand. The estate lies in St. Nicholas Parish. “Abbey” is a fanciful nod to one of the owners being married in Bath Abbey – its previous name, with murderous family associations, was changed.
Walking into the restored rooms downstairs is to take a step backwards. The gardens, once a wonder of the island, are also being brought back to life, including a potager on the sheltered west side of the house. This will replicate the herb garden created centuries ago; the herbs then used for mostly medicinal purposes rather than culinary.
One can walk through the house on a guided tour, having mooched about in the updated sugar and rum processing system. St. Nicholas Abbey still produces its own label of rum, one of the few remaining independent producers on the island. One is invited to taste. And buy. The aged rum is beautifully mellow. And eye-wateringly expensive.
Rum production amounts to just 45 barrels a year. It is not available to buy just anywhere. I understand that it can be found at Fortnum’s.
A café has been created in an ancillary building adjacent to the Great House. One sits outside on decking which overlooks a cutting in the landscape. Green monkeys abound. Sometimes a lone chap on a steel drum plays outside the café. Children from schools all over the island flock to the place: part of St. Nicholas Abbey’s purpose nowadays is for education about Barbados’ past, as much as the location being a favoured backdrop for wedding receptions and corporate events.
When I took friends there, to do a bit of Bajan Culture, we wandered hither and thither. We walked up to some of the cane fields, looked at the sugar mills, the antiquated (and now restored) machinery used to create the home-brand rum and did the tour of the house.
There was an opportunity to watch some old cine films of the house and estate in the 1920’s and 1930’s. My friend’s husband, by this time enthralled by all that he’d seen walking around the house, spent the 45 minutes of grainy film with what he called “a gaping mouth”.
A battalion of school children appeared, each with a notebook, led by a St Nicholas Abbey guide and with teachers dotted about. I was interested to hear what the guide had to say and what the response of the children might be. Was this place, its history and heritage, an anachronism? A place which should not be restored and made available? A place which, essentially, represented something in the history of Barbados which should be brushed beneath a bit of symbolic coconut matting?
The reaction of the children to what they were being told was an eye-opener. The guide did not pretend that the St. Nicholas Abbey Estate was nirvana for all who worked there back in the mists of time. But there was a thread of good woven through the history being imparted. The children, without exception, were enthralled.
There’s a shrub known as Pride of Barbados. What has been achieved in resuscitating something that might have fallen into decrepitude carries, I think, a lot of pride.