History in the remaking

St Kitts and Nevis are leading the way in not only preserving heritage sites, but also making them more productive. Simon Lee paid a visit

  • Wingfield Estate. Photograph courtesy the Estate Houses
  • The sugar cane windmill at Rawlins Plantation Inn, now the honeymoon suite. Fairview Estate. Photograph courtesy the Estate Houses
  • The Golden Rock Inn in Nevis. Photograph courtesy the Estate Houses
  • Fairview Estate. Photograph courtesy the Estate Houses

Clayton Perkins first came here for family holidays while still a schoolboy in neighbouring Montserrat. Now he moves nimbly, directing operations with a sense of urgency dictated by the deadline for completing the restoration of one of the region’s earliest examples of French Caribbean architecture: Fairview Great House, on the outskirts of Boyds Village, three miles out of Basseterre, St Kitts.

Perkins is a man possessed. His mandate is to restore Fairview “with meticulous care and attention to detail, as well as tremendous effort to minimise damage to the historic buildings…no modifications are being made to its former design…No modern synthetic construction material will be incorporated in this historic gem.”

Many of the structures on this six-acre property in the shadow of Ottley’s Level have survived more than 300 years of hurricanes, earthquakes, and neglect. They include an old military battery; several outbuildings, one of which may have been a chapel or hospital; the old courtyard with its Norman-arched storehouse doors; the original cellar and bathing room (where the water was heated with volcanic stones); and the kitchen, complete with its original huge stone oven.

Besides serving as residence for the French military commander in the days of the French/English partition, Fairview was home to the local Boyd and Manning families and such luminaries as the humanitarian New England lawyer John Gardiner; abolitionist lawyer James Stephen, who drafted legislation for the abolition of the slave trade in 1807,   and who was the great-grandfather of English novelist Virginia Woolf; and, in more recent times, the local Lam family, who ran one of the island’s first full-service hotels here –  Fairview Inn.

On completion, Fairview will feature the fully restored great house, with its dining and living rooms, ladies’ parlour and gentleman’s study, and master bedroom, with colonial-era furnishings and décor. An interpretive “history room” and a gift shop in the old cellar will enhance Fairview’s role as a visitor centre, while the sea-facing verandahs and the restored swimming pool and kitchen will make it a superb event venue or wedding location. The old estate hospital will see new life as a conference centre or meeting place.

Already hardy zoyzia grass has been planted in a stand-alone two-acre botanical garden, bordered by a serpentine bougainvillea hedge. Along with its orchard of lime, pawpaw, sugar apple, and mango, the fully planted garden will feature signs on all the trees and plants. Soon visitors will be able to buy homemade Fairview honey, as the bees in the adjacent apiary join the prevailing productive mode.

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Fairview owes its enlightened restoration to the vision of adopted Kittitian and Indian-born entrepreneur Kishu Chandiramani, who floated the idea to Clayton Perkins only back in 2008. For Kishu, as he’s affectionately known, it was a project of the heart, a way to give back to St Kitts, which has been so good to him, and to preserve Fairview for the country. For Perkins the challenge has been to make it a viable project. He freely admits that his inspiration has been the example of the Wingfield Estate, brainchild of Maurice Widdowson, the Caribelle Batik man and another adopted Kittitian, who’s been at the forefront of a one-man heritage preservation programme for several decades.

Widdowson acquired Romney Manor, right next to Wingfield, in the 1970s, establishing his highly successful batik business there and eventually stumbling across a major monument of European construction and early industry in the process. His curiosity piqued, Widdowson’s research revealed that Wingfield was the first land grant made in the British Caribbean: 1,000 acres, to Sam Jefferson (ancestor of America’s third president). Wingfield became the island’s first working estate, initially producing tobacco and indigo from 1625 – 40 and subsequently sugar and rum, right through to 1924.

Below the sugar-factory chimney and the aqueduct that powered the water wheel before the introduction of the steam engine, hidden amid the tangle of undergrowth were many of the original estate buildings and parts of the original milling equipment. Widdowson began clearing and unearthing these buildings, in collaboration with visiting archaeologists and local volunteers.

Widdowson’s plan to make Wingfield an interpretive site and museum, chronicling the processes of converting sugar cane to sugar and sugar to rum, like Clayton Perkins’ Fairview restoration, marks a revision of the whole concept of heritage and heritage tourism. Rather than merely preserving the past, this new initiative gives a whole new lease of life to old properties, making them productive, integrating them into local communities, expanding employment, and creating attractive and educational visitor and event sites.

Another Englishman, Kevin Horstwood, an award-winning designer of everything from car showrooms to sailing boats, is putting his expertise and passion for heritage into two other well-known St Kitts properties: Rawlins Plantation Inn and the Golden Lemon Inn at Dieppe.

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If Old Road and environs are the heart of early English settlement in St Kitts, then Dieppe, first settled by Huguenots fleeing religious persecution, is the French contender.  If Horstwood is correct in his contention that the Golden Lemon, originally a trading post, was established in 1610, then this predates the arrival in 1625 of the privateer Sieur Belain d’Esnambuc, credited with establishing France’s Caribbean Empire.

An avid sailor, after four years of searching the Caribbean “from Bermuda to Tobago” for the right spot to buy real estate, Horstwood made landfall in St Kitts and stayed. He was offered Rawlins six years ago, and the rest is history in the remaking.

Crossing the crest of a slight undulation, the estate spreads out below, its 12-acre gardens planted with more than 60 species of tropical plants and 20 kinds of fruit.  Royal, coconut, date, and traveller palms provide shade, along with coral, flamboyant, mango, and breadfruit trees. Starfruit, plum, orange, tangerine, naseberry, ackee, sarsaparilla, sugar apple, soursop, guava, golden apple, cherry, banana, avocado, bible fig, cashew nut, pawpaw, pineapple, passion fruit, and bel apple all flourish in the grounds.

Besides the lush gardens, Horstwood is justifiably proud of the old estate and its buildings, boasting: “This is the only plantation where you can follow the sugar-making process.” The only cattle mill on the island, dating from the late seventeenth century, is one of the first sights to greet visitors to Rawlins. The restaurant is sited in the old boiling house, while Mill Cottage has become a love nest for honeymooners.

Tropical romance is the key to Horstwood’s other property in Dieppe, the Golden Lemon Inn, whose solid walls and elegant French colonial-style décor and furniture have made it a popular beachside wedding destination. Horstwood has plans for developing historic buildings in the Golden Lemon grounds, and in the future the French heritage of the north coast could become as much of an attraction as the English heritage of the south.

Across the Narrows in Nevis, nestled in the hills above the sea, is another heritage project which puts the federation at the cutting edge of sustainable, eco-friendly tourism development, providing a model for preserving the past with the better aspects of modernity. The Golden Rock Inn, with its solid, natural-disaster-defying stone buildings, dates from 1801, but the Huggins family, responsible for its construction, has been in Nevis since 1680, when two blacksmith brothers of Scots-Irish descent arrived to help in the reconstruction of Charlestown, which had been wiped out by a tidal wave. Is it synchronicity or fate that the current owner of Golden Rock, Pam Huggins Berry, is a direct descendant of the same Edward Huggins who laid the 1801 foundations?

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Raised in America after her grandfather George emigrated there in 1897, Pam decided on her first visit, when she was only 16, that she wanted to make her home in Golden Rock, and subsequently returned with her new husband in 1969. They started with a small craft shop, tanning sheep- and goatskins in their backyard, before becoming shareholder/managers at Golden Rock in 1975.

Berry has imbued the new-look Golden Rock with much of her artist’s sensibility and innate gentleness. Besides maintaining the original stone buildings, she’s created one of the most stunning modern restaurants and landscaped gardens in the federation. With its nature trail and cottages with their locally handcrafted furniture and welcome absence of any technology, Golden Rock is the fulfillment of one woman’s vision of heritage development. As Berry explains: “We’re not business people. We want to keep it green – and as an example.”

Heritage projects like these can provide models for developing tourism sites in ways that protect or even enhance their natural beauty and historic value. Besides creating employment for local communities and interaction with visitors, these sites ensure that the priceless patrimony of the Caribbean’s past is preserved for all.