On the lovely island of Barbados for a week, we discover a Thomas-the-Tank-Engine-cute little train which huffs and puffs to the top of the hill and back.
The track has been laid and the train installed since we were last here a half dozen years ago and makes a splendid addition to the list of ‘things to do’ in Barbados. On our last couple of visits, we’ve not rented a car, but determined to explore more of the island this time, we braved the thought of driving on the wrong side of the road and signed on the dotted line. I’m glad we did, as we were able to venture out from our hotel daily and see more of the island than usual.
On a cloudy morning, when lazing around seemed off the agenda, we programmed St. Nicholas Abbey into the satnav (GPS) and headed out north east from our west coast base at the Cobblers Cove Hotel, of which more later. In less than half an hour we arrive at the gates to a shady avenue which leads up to the grand old plantation house. The gate attendant extracts a few dollars from us for the house and distillery tour and directs us to the train station to book for the extra ride.
We buy our tickets from a uniformed station attendant and have an hour and a half to meander down to the house for the tour. The mansion, we discover, was built in the Jacobean style in 1658 for its aristocratic owner. He must have purchased the plans in Europe, for fireplaces are included in many of the principal rooms, while chimney stacks decorate the roofline. Needless to say, fires are never needed on this warm tropical island where the temperature seldom dips below 20°C and in the summer can exceed 30°C.
The plantation was called Berringer after the original family, until a dispute led to a name change by Nicholas descendants. A few generations on, the estate had passed to the Cave family, and it is believed they added the “Saint” prefix and the “Abbey” postscript after St. Nicholas Parish, where ancestors had lived in England, and Bath Abbey where others were wed. The Cave family owned the plantation, which by now included rum production in its activities, for nearly 200 years, although several generations did not live on the island. Sugar cane and cane syrup production for rum distillation continued until 1947, when larger factories on the island made the small estate uncompetitive.
Lt. Col. Stephen Cave inherited the house in 1964 and moved to St Nicholas Abbey in 1978, the first of his family to take up residence since the 1800s. He loved the property and opened it to the public, making it one of the first heritage attractions on the island. He died without children and his nephew sold the property to a prominent local architect. Larry and Anna Warren bought the property in 2006 with the aim of restoring the house and developing it as a self-sustaining attraction. Both their children were married on the estate and now they have grandchildren to carry on the family story.
The house merges Tudor and Elizabethan styles with Flemish, Dutch and French influences, and is one of only three remaining examples of Jacobean mansions in the Western Hemisphere. Most of the rooms were updated over the years, but many of the antiques date from the 1800s. The Sheraton sideboard in the dining room is one of the few original pieces. Everywhere on the ground floor, which is all visitors can tour, are stunning articles of the families’ collections. Indoor plumbing was installed in the 1930s, and we admire the Thomas Crapper loo by the back door. Outside, in the courtyard, is a large outhouse with a four-holer, where gentlemen took their communal ease.
Although the visit to the house was brief, it was well narrated by our chatty and amusing guide. Then we were shepherded out into the garden for a quick rum tasting and a cursory tour of the restored steam sugar cane press and distillery, neither of which are in operation at this time of year.
Unlike other distilleries on the island, St. Nicholas Abbey grows and crushes its own cane, then distills the liquor in a traditional pot still, producing a superior light rum. Water comes from an ancient well on the property. The resulting product is aged in barrels and then hand-bottled as unblended liquor, producing a premium drink, best enjoyed straight.
Now it was time to walk back up the hill to the train station, where we surrendered our tickets and boarded the breezy open carriages. The train is not original to the island and was bought from a plantation in Indonesia and fully restored. But it harkens back to an age when there was a steam train line on the island, ferrying passengers up the rugged east coast. The narrated tour along the short line takes us through mature mahogany woodlands to the Cherry Hill lookout over the Atlantic, stormy on the day of our visit. Because of the impending rain squalls, I stayed with the train at the halt and chatted with the driver, who offered me the privilege of riding in the cab and blowing the whistle on the ride back to the great house. That was great fun and I learned all about the complexities of steam from the enthusiastic engineer and his coal-shovelling assistant. I blew the whistle several times, getting more and more practiced as the journey progressed, until we disembarked conveniently near the car park.
On a scale of 10, I would rate the whole St. Nicholas Abbey experience as 8.5. But the St. Nicholas Abbey Heritage Railway itself rates 11!
Back at our hotel, I realize that Cobblers Cove’s main building has an historic railway connection, built in the 1940s using steel from the island’s dismantled train tracks with solid island coral rock for the cladding. Originally the site of a protective cannon battery, the property was used as a family retreat and known as Camelot, remembered in the name of the hotel’s restaurant. In 1968, the estate was bought by Alan and Lady Elizabeth Godsal, who converted the building into a boutique hotel and named it Cobblers Cove, after the local name for the ubiquitous frigate birds which fish in the bay. Their son Hugh, and his wife Sam, still oversee the hotel which quickly established a reputation for luxury, fine food and absolute peace and quiet.
I’m glad to say that on this my third, and my wife Diane’s sixth, stay, we found the unique atmosphere unchanged. Will Oakley took over as general manager in 2014, and because he and I both went to Oundle School, he offered me a nice “old-boys” discount. (Are you paying attention Old Oundelians?)
We were at Cobblers Cove to celebrate our wedding anniversary, where we had been married on the terrace exactly a decade ago. “With the easy grace of an English country house transported to the tropics, this much-loved institution on the west coast of Barbados has had a complete overhaul under the stylish eye of Soane Britain’s co-founder Lulu Lytle,” says the Tatler Travel Guide 2020. I’ve written my own review on Trip Advisor, but I couldn’t agree more.
On our final posting of 2019, we would like to wish you all the best for a happy New Year and a prosperous and successful 2020.
This is Nigel’s 264th posting on Gentleman’s Portion. The search function works really well if you want to look back and see some of his previous articles.
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