Caribbean day trip #3 St Nicholas Abbey
This week we took our visitors to St Nicholas Abbey - a beautiful 17th century plantation house with expansive gardens, a 400 acre sugar plantation and a working rum distillery.
We joined a tour and were shown around the house, taking in the grand display of art work, furniture and curiosities that included a set of Minton china, a quirky gentleman's reading chair on castors complete with fold-out dining tray and an original Thomas Crapper toilet - the height of luxury in the 19th century.
Built by by Colonel Benjamin Berringer between 1650 and 1660, the house has a chequered history which began when it was taken over by Berringer's neighbour, John Yeamans, following a duel which resulted in the original owner's death. Yeamans then married Mrs Berringer and took over the Abbey (it is even said that she was the cause of the feud). But the property was later returned to Berringer's children and was eventually named after Berringer's grand daughter, Susanna, who married George Nicholas.
After the tour we wandered around the abbey and grounds. And I was reminded of the numerous English stately homes I've visited whose opulence and considerable wealth were like an echo to St Nicholas Abbey across the Atlantic Ocean.
Although it was wonderful to see a piece of Barbadian heritage being so beautifully maintained I couldn't help but think of the generations of slaves who had been brought there to work the sugar plantation since the 17th century.
Like all plantation houses, of course, there are many dark and untold stories within it's walls. Looking at a list of the plantation's slaves in the 1800's showing each person's monetary value, I wondered what their day-to-day lives must have been like. And gazing up at the facade of the grand Jacobean building with it's three distinctive gables, it was hard not to imagine how these lives contrasted wth the existance of the priviledged few who ran the island from the 17th century.
As I watched Lila weave her way through the herb garden like a young Jane Eyre, the legacy that colonisation has left behind felt palpable. How must it have felt to arrive by boat to this tropical island, thousands of miles from home? How stranded and isolated so many hundreds of thousands of people must have felt. For so long.
The loud squawk of the two caged cockatoos in the courtyard brought me back down to earth and as we wandered into the shop at the back we were given a chance to try the Abbey's delicious 10 year rum, produced today by current owners, the Warren family, who bought the property in 2006, in a delicious rum punch.
Drink in hand we then sat on benches to watch an original black and while film made by Charles Cave on a family visit to the plantation in 1935 which showed servants forging cart wheels and carrying bales of sugar cane after the abolition of slavery.
The Abbey's white ten year old rum is currently produced in the on-site distillery using a traditional pot still method - a hybrid of a copper pot and copper single column - which we could view in full flow through the glass windows of the column.
Next door, in the stables, stacks of oak bourbon casks used to age the rum were stacked against the walls. And upstairs we witnessed the fully functioning steam mill in full flow - apparently it was crushing the sugar cane grown on the plantation.
Before heading home, we visited Cherry Tree Hill, a mahogany tree lined avenue planted by Sir John Gaye Alleyne, who aquired the Abbey and lived there between 1746 and 1801, for a stunning view of the east coast. It was wonderful to get a sense of perspective there, a sense of how although history had shaped the landscape, so much of Barbados, particularly the wild east coast, still remains unchanged.