When workmen broke up the concrete pathway at the bottom of Main Street in Jamestown St Helena, they uncovered an 18th century pavement that would have been the perfect finishing touch to the Island’s new hotel.
Here was a historic feature almost as old as the hotel structure itself: a row of East India Company buildings soon to welcome the kind of high-end tourists who appreciate a bit of heritage.
Robert Midwinter, overseeing the work for Enterprise St Helena, was very excited. “When the contractors were breaking up the concrete, I was actually there,” he says. “I ran straight over to Jeremy.”
That’s Jeremy Harris of the St Helena National Trust. He contacted Adam Sizeland at the museum, who raced up with a camera to photograph the discovery.
“It was beautiful,” says Robert. “We got the chief engineer over and got in touch with the chief planning officer.”
They were asked if the planning consent for the hotel could be varied to incorporate the newly exposed stone slabs as a feature. They’d have to be raised up to the new height of the pavement, but it was all agreed.
The slabs provided an unexpected chance to complete work started by the former planning chief, David Taylor, to bring back the old look of Georgian Jamestown.
So far, so smooth. Unlike the stones, it seems. “Unfortunately, when the contractor started relaying them, they couldn’t get an even surface. They’re quite ripply on top.
“The contractor did a section, and the chief enginer came out and had a look and called out Jeremy, and it was agreed that for public safety couldn’t use them. We couldn’t get approval.”
Nick Thorpe, long-time champion of St Helena heritage, had been appalled to see the slabs replaced with modern concrete blocks.
“Could be a trip hazard, they say. ‘Visit historic St Helena is a sad joke.”
And Rob’s smooth explanation failed to satisfy Nick, who produced a picture of the freshly-exposed slabs looking not exactly bumpy.
“The surface of the original pavement was perfect, as good as any you would encounter in Bath. My original comments still stand.”
The modern concrete paving blocks that have been laid are considered an improvement on the concrete, but they’re very obviously not historic. “They’ll weather over time,” says Robert, hopefully.
“It would have been so nice to incorporate the originals but unfortunately, we can’t. We had to try.”
And it wasn’t all disappointment. “Under that concrete was also the original kerbstones. They will be part of the project. That’s a continuation of what we’ve got in the rest of Main Street. We’ve put new pavement down but we’re using original kerb stones, so it looks almost the same.”
The hope had been that the pavement would be as pleasing as the cobblestones on the other side of the street that had also been covered by concrete and later brought back into the light… only for some of them to be dug up to make way for high-speed computer cabling.
At least these days, he says, there is an understanding of the importance of heritage features. “In the old days people didn’t show that level of care. People are getting on the ball now. We stopped the work. The National trust came over. There is a record of what was uncovered.”
As for the ancient slabs, they will be stored and preserved by the National Trust. “If they are able to be used in some heritage project somewhere, they will be.”
That’s as long as no one nicks them.
Far be it for us to suggest that the heightened concerns about safety might be something to do with a new breed of hotel guests, rich enough to sue for injuries…