The Friendly Isles: in the Footsteps of Patrick Leigh Fermor by Robin Hanbury-Tenison

Wake up. Stretch. Open eyes and look around. We’re in the most comfortable bedroom imaginable, physically and aesthetically. A great bed, soft sheets, pastel grey woodwork, white upholstery. Through the open French windows is a dream beach: a perfect crescent of pristine sand lapped by clear blue water and shaded by tall palm trees. A barefoot 50 paces across tightly mown grass and we are in the warm sea. It doesn’t get any better than this.

How different it was for Patrick Leigh Fermor and his companions 56 years ago. With Joan Eyres-Monsell, the woman who was to become his wife 20 years later, and Costa, the great Greek photographer, spent six months travelling through the Lesser and Greater Antilles. Then, the many islands they visited were thoroughly run down. The great buildings of church and state and planters’ wealth were mostly ruinous and rotten. The future in the depressed economic climate just after the Second World War looked bleak and, indeed, “King Sugar” was about to die, as it had on the abolition of slavery – only this time as a victim of sugar beet and the macro politics being played out between America and Europe.

Yet, Leigh Fermor still managed to reveal the romance and the magic of the archipelago and so start the obsession so many have since had with visiting the “Friendly Isles”. His vision saved them by helping to create a climate in which tourism could grow, and tourism has been the salvation of the Caribbean ever since.

In those immediate post-war days, the few hotels and boarding houses were grim. The tourism industry was embryonic and only when they stayed in some of the grand privately owned great houses, built by rich planters, “were we redeemed from the usual squalors of our island sojourns”. Most of these have now become hotels or “plantation inns” and they are delightful places to stay, combining old-world elegance with modern luxury.

Earlier this year, my wife, Louella, and I decided to follow in Leigh Fermor’s footsteps to see how much the islands had changed. Our pace was less leisurely than his and we were able to visit only 10 of the 15 islands he saw, but with his books as our vade-mecum we found our eyes, ears and all our senses opened and enhanced.

We started in Antigua and headed straight for the Carlisle Bay hotel. There, Gordon Campbell Gray has achieved the same understated excellence on a Caribbean beach as in his highly regarded One Aldwych in London.

Antigua has changed radically since Leigh Fermor’s day. Then, Nelson’s dockyard was in ruins. “The timbers were so eaten away,” he wrote, “that we had to step from beam to beam, for the boards between them had fallen to powder, or still hung from rusty nails in rotten fragments.” English Harbour, the great 18th-century naval base favoured by Rodney, Cochrane and Nelson and perhaps the prettiest and safest harbour in the whole Caribbean (the view of it from Shirley Heights is without equal), had no facilities whatever.

Today, the restoration is almost complete and a stream of visitors from the nearby yacht marina throngs the buildings. The first charter yacht arrived a year after Leigh Fermor’s visit. Then it was a sad and dreamy place. Now there are small hotels, shops and delightful quayside restaurants to serve the booming tourist industry upon which Antigua depends. And the corruption that has dogged development over the years may be on the way out. The Bird dynasty, which has controlled the politics since independence, was voted out two months ago. The Prime Minister, Lester Bird, lost his seat and government to the new United Progressive Party.

Our taxi driver, Eric Limerick, whose great grandfather had been a slave to an Irish family on Montserrat, which is visible to the south-west, told us about the two American Air Force bases on the island. “Our liking of the US and the UK is purely monetary,” he said. “When the dollar is high, no one wants to know the UK. When it is low, like now, then everyone is praising the pound.”

He took us to Falmouth parish church to look for the grave of Charles Pitt, who died here in 1780 aged 20 and whose brother, William, was Prime Minister at 24. We searched among the gravestones and found many sad memories of young men who died from drowning, fever or warfare, but Pitt’s tombstone, which Leigh Fermor describes, had gone.

Nevis came next, and we were lodged again beside the sea, this time in the huge Four Seasons hotel, which has taken over the best beach on the island. In the old days people would stay in the old plantation inns and were driven down to the coast each day. We felt we had the best of both worlds, being able to walk into the sea for a swim before breakfast and to dine each night in the elegant restaurants on the terraces of the 17th-century Hermitage and 18th-century Montpelier inns, cooled by a light breeze, while the coastal lights flickered far below.

Prosperity is returning to Nevis, reflecting the days when, as Leigh Fermor describes it, staircases existed “with the iron banisters so shaped that three ladies in panniered dresses could descend them abreast”.

Across a narrow, choppy channel, bustling St Kitts caters for a different market. Cruise liners call regularly and passengers’ needs are catered for with tours, including a ride around the island on the newly renovated sugar train, a narrow-gauge railway that passes over a series of alarmingly deep gorges but gives wonderful views. For once I found myself out of sympathy with my hero when he dismissed the pre-Columbian petroglyphs he saw on St Kitts as “button-eyed, stick-limbed scribbles… attached to a lozenge-shaped body… this perhaps by a four-year-old. Poor old Caribs!”

My own respect for early Amerindian art was bolstered when our guide, Troy, took us some way up the gorge inland from Bloody Point. Here, where the sides felt as deep as the Siq on the way in to Petra, and may even have been roofed over to make a hidden sacred site, he showed us some recently discovered carvings of heads with traces of feather head-dresses and other strange designs.

The Caribs, who had fought fiercely against settlement since the days of Columbus, were finally slaughtered here in their thousands in 1626, having been betrayed to the French and British, who for once worked together to eliminate them.

The next day, on a side trip to the tiny Dutch volcanic island of Saba, I saw more artefacts created by people who passed through the archipelago long before the Caribs: exquisitely carved stone fish and other figurines. When I spoke to Leigh Fermor just before we left, and told him what we planned, he said we should not miss Saba, as he had found it a most exciting island. It, too, has changed since he was there. Still sleepy and with a population of only 1,349, it has a quietly prosperous feel.

The population, more than half of whom are white, the descendants of early Dutch, English, Irish and Scots settlers, are still courteous, and their white-walled, red-roofed houses are still immaculate; but they did not quite behave in the exaggeratedly rustic fashion described in 1947: “the fair-haired, pale-skinned islanders lowered the hoes with which they were working their potato-patches, and cried good-afternoon over their garden walls”. Instead, they stopped to give me a lift, ignoring me as I sat in the back, and they continued talking in their strange, gentle, dulcet accents. There is no need to hire a car on Saba as it is accepted that no one will be left to walk the six-mile road over the mountain.

It is the only island I know of where a marine park has been created around the entire circumference; it is a Mecca for serious divers, while the rich and varied rainforest all the way up the well-named Mount Scenery provides walkers with a network of trails that let you believe you are deep in Amazonia as you stroll between yellow butterflies and motionless iguanas.

It rained in the night and I woke early in my comfortable b&b (Juliana’s) to a dawn chorus of a million tree frogs. With the full moon scudding between the clouds, it felt like the inside of a music box. It is a tranquil gem where there are no resort hotels, no unemployment, no cruise liners – and the shortest commercial runway in the world: 440 yards.

I hitched a lift from Hell’s Gate, which Paddy described as “perched, like a Thessalian monastery, on the very lip of the crater” to Bottom, in the centre of the island “like the inside of a rotten tooth” and back to Windwardside, “perched like a guillemot’s nest high on the rim”. There I bought Louella, who had stayed in Nevis, a linen bun warmer with drawn-thread lacework from an 81-year-old lady called Helen Peterson. It’s known as “Spanish work” because a Saban woman was sent to a convent in Venezuela in the 19th century and brought back the skill.

The other island Leigh Fermor insisted we visit was Dominica. Here, through a happy introduction to Mrs Napier, Paddy and his friends were able to relax for a time in highly civilised surroundings and meet the last surviving community of Caribs. With living Amerindians, he swung from disdain of their art to reverence for their bloodline. He seems to have been overcome by the significance of his meeting with them, finding it “as stirring and impressive in its way as if the encounter had been with Etruscans or Hittites”.

As president of Survival International, which has helped these last 2,000 survivors of the once millions who occupied almost all the islands of the Caribbean when Columbus arrived, I had good introductions. We were able to spend some time talking to their chief, whose predecessor, Garnet Joseph, Leigh Fermor called “King of the Caribs”, and others.

They eke out a meagre existence on the small area of land, some 3,700 acres, which they were granted in 1903. Beside the country road, which passes through their territory, they sell excellent basketware bags and hats, “woven into complex angular patterns that give the effect of mosaic. The fineness of the mesh makes them completely watertight.”

Roseau, the gloriously scruffy capital, made a refreshing contrast to the neat, modern towns we had been seeing. There are few hotels on Dominica and, blessedly, no large resort ones, and so we stayed at Tina Alexander’s excellent b&b. With its rich soil, high rainfall, innumerable unique features such as the world’s biggest boiling lake, huge waterfalls and some of the best diving, it should be the richest island in the Caribbean, yet it somehow manages to be one of the poorest. The people are a delightful mix. They speak two quite distinct patois, of French and English origins, depending on which part of the island they come from.

We hired horses and rode, as Paddy did, between tall forest giants, listening to the jungle buzz and background twitterings. Suddenly, a beautiful, melodious note rang out. This was followed after a moment by three more notes of startling clarity and sweetness and the theme, a bit like the opening bars of Beethoven’s Fifth, was repeated every few minutes. It was a rufous-throated solitaire (Myadestes genibarbis), which Leigh Fermor describes as making “a noise so melancholy that it seemed the perfect emanation of these sad and beautiful forests. It haunts the high woods of Dominica and nowhere else in the world.”

From Point Baptiste, we could see the low outline of the French island of Marie Galante. It was near here that Leigh Fermor was to set the scene of his next book – The Violins of Saint-Jacques, his only novel – which brings alive the glamour and the passions of the planters in their heyday.

This tale of a whole rich island being destroyed by a volcanic eruption in the middle of a splendid planters’ ball is based on the true story of the annihilation in 1902 of St-Pierre, the old capital of Martinique, which we were to visit next. There, 26,000 people died instantly in the New World’s Pompeii, the sole survivor being the town drunk, who was incarcerated below ground in a cell. He spent the rest of his life as an exhibit in Barnum and Bailey’s Circus.

Martinique, birthplace of the Empress Josephine, is a full part of France, like all French islands. We suddenly found ourselves transported into the world of the euro, good roads and excellent food. Except that things go on that are not allowed in politically correct Europe.

On a country road we stumbled on a crude arena where crowds were gathering. Old men in Panama hats with wizened, knowledgeable faces of every hue from ebony to pink occupied the front row of tiers around the ring. It was a cockpit, the famous Pitt Clery, and these were the judges. One was a leper, with no fingers.

As the first cocks were brought in, the tension rose and the old men began to nod and wink and shake hands. Wads of euros were collected by a harassed young man; the average bet looked to be between 50 and 100 euros. The cocks were revolting, almost naked creatures with plucked legs, tummies, backsides and backs, but they were treated with reverential care. Publicly weighed on scales hung from a rafter, their weights chalked on a blackboard, long and pointed spurs were laboriously attached to their heels and they were anointed all over with white spirit before a last dram was poured down their throats.

The fights lasted five or 10 minutes and consisted mostly of dejected head-pecking with occasional flurries when they leapt in the air to use their spurs. At these moments the crowd went wild, urging the seemingly indistinguishable birds on until one gave up and rolled on to its back.

Later, there was a fight between a mongoose and a 6ft-long fer de lance (Bothrops atrox). This was much more interesting, if equally nasty. The most poisonous of South American snakes was introduced to Martinique from Venezuela to discourage slaves from escaping and hiding in the sugarcane fields. Indian mongooses (Herpestes auropunctatus) were introduced in the 19th century to kill nocturnal rats, which were devastating the fields.

They are well matched as gladiators and the outcome of a fight is far from certain. When a mongoose was first introduced into the cage, the snake struck so fast that the movement was invisible – and there was blood on the rodent’s face. “Celui va mourir,” said my neighbour, dolefully, as the young fight promoter reached in carefully and grabbed it. It all seemed rather pointless and we left.

Finally, we flew to Jamaica, an island we already knew well. Good Hope is one of the finest great houses in the Caribbean and today it is run as a hotel by the Hart family, who have lovingly restored it. Overlooking the Queen of Spain’s Valley, its 2,000 acres are almost surrounded by the clear blue waters of the Martha Brae River, along whose banks lie the romantic ruins of long-abandoned water wheels, aqueducts and great sugar factories. They emerge from the luxuriant foliage like lost Mayan temples. Here we stayed for a week and rode fine horses, as I have so often done since the early 1950s, through groves of giant bamboo and across open fields of fruit trees and coconut palms.

We also rode into the Cockpit Country, the last true wilderness in the Caribbean and home to the Maroons, the descendants of escaped slaves. Leigh Fermor was fascinated both by the peace treaties they had signed with the British, as with the Caribs in Dominica, and by the extraordinary limestone country, the “Land of Look Behind”, where Redcoat soldiers had from time to time been sent to hunt them.

And so, at last, to Goldeneye, the ultimate bolthole, where all the Bond books were written. Leigh Fermor’s description of the house, as so much of his writing, stands the test of time: “Here, on a headland, Commander Ian Fleming has built a house called Goldeneye that might serve as a model for new houses in the tropics. Trees surround it on all sides except that of the sea which it almost overhangs. Great windows capture every breeze, to cool, even on the hottest day, the large white rooms. The windows that look towards the sea are glassless, but equipped with outside shutters against the rain: enormous quadrilaterals surrounded by dark wooden frames which enclose a prospect of sea and cloud and sky, and tame the elements, as it were, into an ever-changing fresco of which one can never tire.”

In 1956, Sir Anthony Eden, as Prime Minister, spent three weeks recuperating there after the Suez crisis. In 1976, some 12 years after Fleming’s death, my old friend Chris Blackwell, the founder of Island Records, persuaded Bob Marley to buy it. But he found it “too posh” and so Blackwell changed the name on the sale document and bought it himself. Now he has made it into the most comfortable and romantic place to stay in the whole of the Caribbean, with its private beach, swimming pool and even a cinema.

When I lunched with Ian Fleming in 1959, on my first honeymoon, with Marika, he told me that every day he swam out to the reef off Goldeneye and gave two octopuses a live conch each. The next day he would collect the empty shells, like a milkman, since they alone of all creatures were capable of cleaning them properly. He said this had given him the idea for the title of a future Bond book, Octopussy, but he hadn’t worked out the story.

We swam out to the reef with Ramsay, who had worked for Fleming. He said he knew where the octopuses were, but we couldn’t find them. “They must have gone,” he said, “no one feed them no more.”

How does everything about a place change in 50 years, and yet the place itself remain the same? It is because of that unique mixture of cultures that is the Caribbean – and no one has captured and evoked the extraordinary differences between the islands better than Paddy Leigh Fermor did in his first book, The Traveller’s Tree. As Paddy says: “Each island is a distinct and idiosyncratic entity, a civilisation, or the reverse, fortuitous in its origins and empirical in its development.” And then again, quoting an old Jamaican: “We’re always going somewhere. But we never get there.”

Originally published in Travel Intelligence.

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One thought on “The Friendly Isles: in the Footsteps of Patrick Leigh Fermor by Robin Hanbury-Tenison

  1. Pingback: Tales of a literary traveller: Sir Patrick Leigh Fermor « Patrick Leigh Fermor

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