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Published: August 25th 2011
Saturday 14th August
A very warm send-off this afternoon. Awash with gifts and generous farewells we boarded RMS St Helena and left the island with very mixed feelings. Of course, I am looking forward to being back home and have missed Di and family very much. However, the visit has been a real adventure and most probably a trip of a lifetime. Professionally the visit has been an enormous success and I am very pleased with the quality of the work carried out – as I informed the Governor yesterday. We had a most interesting meeting. First and foremost you call him ‘Governor’ but without the intonation used by Dennis Waterman when addressing his superior (John Thaw) in the ‘Sweeney’. He was visibly shocked by the content of our report and he has apparently (as we found out later at the seaside bar) taken immediate action and control of education until a new Director has been appointed. Both Alun (the secondary team leader) and I have been asked to consider the position – this will need some serious thought once I get home!
The journey to Ascension has been mercifully brief as we are all keen to get the journey over with. We left Jamestown with appropriately somber, grey and damp weather – Pathetic Fallacy is what this is called apparently. The weather as an echo of the mood – lots of sorrow about leaving this beautiful and isolated spot which I may never visit again.
The weather soon warmed up and I saw spectacular showing offs by flying fish leaping from the prow of the ship. Do you know how far they ‘fly’ through the air. I spotted groups of them flying through the air for about 50 yards. What is the collective name for a group of flying fish? I am informed that we should call them a shoal of flying fish – but I prefer the more alliterative ‘flock of flying fish’. So spectacular and so surprising – how can I be seeing such magical creatures that I read about in the Eagle comic so many years ago?
Monday 16th August
Crikey – no one told me that Ascension was like this. The most surprising, ugly, disturbing and fascinating place that I have ever been to.
Let’s start with the capital, Georgetown. Not much more than barrack blocks that have been converted into houses, hotel rooms and a couple of shops. Quite a picturesque church set in a square of dark shingle – with a reminder on the front door to shut it to keep out the wild donkeys. Now, I know that you think that I’m making this up but I promise that it’s true!
With a couple of hire cars we toured around the island. I repeat myself – crikey! Scarcely a blade of grass to be seen, the island is really a mix of ancient lava (from the 44 volcanoes that it is made of – actually, not many people know that!), grit and grey dust. There is one high green hill (imaginatively named Green Mountain), the major conurbation (ha, ha!) is called Two Boats. We actually passed on the main road an upturned boat surrounded by a plethora of sporting trophies – this seems most unlikely that it almost seems like part of a dream – I believe that this is the area known as One Boat – yes, in the middle of the island.
We stopped off at a most beautiful sandy bay (one of very many on the island) and swam in the mid-Atlantic with shoals of colourful fish. However, even this seemed unlikely as we were surrounded by radar dishes, pylons, radio masts and large liquid (oil?) containers. Not only is the island an important strategic base used by US and GB military forces but it is the home of the BBC Atlantic Relay Station. No, I don’t know what this means either and a visit to a charming but unintelligible local museum run by volunteers didn’t do much to enlighten me either.
The most unlikely part of the island? It’s a close run thing with everything else that we saw but Ascension Island golf course must take the biscuit. Famous for being the ‘world’s worst gold course’ one would need to be unimaginably fascinated by the game to get your clubs out – anyway, why would someone lug a heavy set of clubs all the way here? The fairways are shingle, the ‘rough’ areas are ancient lava trails and the ‘greens’ are ‘greys’ – being stamped down grey dust. Nine holes for £2.50, a full 18 holes for a fiver – if you give it a try, don’t blame me and complained that you were being robbed! Actually nobody was on any of the tees and the ‘upper nine holes’ were out of action. Absolutely crazy, on a seriously disturbing island.
The final part of our trip home was uneventful. Rather disappointing that we weren’t being strapped in with parachutes in a military aircraft from the American base. Rather more prosaic I’m afraid – a fairly normal Boeing aircraft (albeit with a hospital area to the rear) but under the flag of Seychelles Airlines – now does anyone understand how the contract for flying British soldiers and workers from the Falklands to Brize Norton via Ascension gets to arrive at the door of such an airline. Some of this trip has become more like an unseen chapter of ‘Catch 22’.
So, home at last after a wonderful and astonishing journey – so much happening in only a few weeks. St Helena is entirely dependent on tax benefits from the UK – I have heard the sum of £28m per annum mentioned – but don’t quote me on that. Is that a disgrace or is it just a small price to be paid for having somewhere so remarkable and remote existing on our ever-shrinking planet? I know what my answer would be.
So this is the final entry of this travel blog of a journey of a lifetime. I would love to return but the cold light of day (well it is a Shropshire summer) tells me not to apply for the post suggested by the Gov’nur – but I will surely be looking out for any tales that I hear of this splendid island in the mid Atlantic. Thank you for sharing with me this summer of 2011 adventure.
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