Our week in Antigua in March 2020 was one last shining beacon of beachlife bliss before the world changed.
And, like so many visitors to this beautiful Caribbean island, the emphasis was on rest, relaxation and the recharging of our batteries.
But in the usual Rosemary and Pork Belly style we did resist the siren call of blinding white sands and sapphire blue seas long enough to fit in a little road trip.
But we barely scraped the surface of Antigua’s life, culture and history. So of course we’re planning to return one day.
Halfway through our hedonistic week we set off in a hired car, negotiated the unmarked junctions, steered around vertiginous potholes and began to explore.
We wanted to see the sun go down at Shirley Heights and discover the southern shoreline including the famous English Harbour area.
There were three ways to reach the southernmost coast from our resort in the north – all about the same distance, all (because of the aforementioned potholes) taking much longer than you’d think.
We chose the most direct route on this occasion, skirting the capital St John’s and joining the nearest thing Antigua has to a commuter route, down the centre of the island.
Our prime destination? A place that had piqued my interest – Nelson’s Dockyard.
I’m not much of a seafarer and maritime history’s not my strongest point but this was a fascinating place.
Part of the UNESCO World Heritage site which includes English Harbour, Clarence House and Shirley Heights, it’s perfect to stroll, idle and feel the fresh sea breeze.
The National Parks Authority offers a combined ticket which gets you entry to the Dockyard, The Dow Interpretation Centre with wonderful views over the harbour and Shirley Heights itself.
History of Nelson’s Dockyard
Admiral Lord Nelson. He of the one arm and one eye who famously (if erroneously) declared he could ‘see no ships’.
The one who confidently stated England expects that ‘every man will do his duty.’
You know. Norfolk boy made good. Hero of Trafalgar.
But not so much of a hero on Antigua.
Nelson’s tour of duty in the Caribbean came early on in his career. He was rising rapidly through the ranks but hadn’t yet made his mark.
England had acquired colonial British Antigua and Barbuda in 1632 and long before Nelson’s arrival English Harbour had become the focal point for all naval activities.
It was the best bay on the island, sheltered from the regular hurricanes, easily defended and the perfect vantage point for keeping an eye on the neighbours in French-ruled Guadeloupe.
Soon a ring of 20 forts was established around the whole of Antigua with Fort Berkeley the main one responsible for the defence of English Harbour. By the 1700s naval ships were regularly using the bay to re-stock and repair and the dockyard began to grow.
Life was tough, for both the sailors on the visiting ships and the army of slaves forced to provide the labour and services for their colonial masters.
The naval hospital cemetery is well documented – and its records make grim reading.
Then a hurricane in 2010 exposed another horror story – a mass burial ground on Galleon Beach for the British sailors who’d fallen victim to yellow fever outbreaks.
All types of tropical diseases were rife, the work hard and often dangerous but before long the dockyard became the centre for skilled craftspeople in every imaginable trade.
In 1784 Horatio Nelson, was sent to Antigua as captain of the H.M.S Boreas, to enforce British laws in the colonies.
Not that he was a fan of the place, referring to it in his letters home as an ‘infernal hole’ where he was ‘most woefully pinched’ by mosquitoes.
The locals weren’t overly fond of him either. Not just the enslaved workers drafted in from the nearby plantations but also the merchants trying to make a living who found his enforcement of the trade laws (i.e. nothing to go to the newly formed USA) draconian.
Despite this, when the restoration of the dockyard began in the 1950’s, it was renamed Nelson’s Dockyard in honour of the three years he spent making himself unpopular.
Nelson’s Dockyard today
The slaves, merchants and trades-folk of the 18th and 19th centuries wouldn’t recognise the place nowadays but many of the old buildings have been sensitively restored.
The original sail loft pillars remain, the 1789 Copper and Lumber Store is now a hotel and there are officers’ quarters, a guard station and even a small bakery dating back to 1772 which still holds the three ovens that once supplied the compound with fresh bread.
The former Naval Officer’s house is a small but fascinating museum, well worth taking time to stroll its wide white verandah, study its artefacts and imagine life as it was in Nelson’s time.
Don’t expect whistles, bells, interactive displays or hands-on exhibitions in The Dockyard Museum, but it’s packed with well-presented, thoroughly researched items. And a wonderfully fancy four poster bed which everyone believes to have been Nelson’s.
It wasn’t of course.
Nelson, hounded and harried by those unhappy merchants, slept on board ship, and never used the Officers Quarters in the dockyard. The style is also Regency, so dates from a few years after Nelson’s departure from the island. But it was once in the so-called Admiral’s House in the dockyard and after restoration and long periods abroad it is now back where it belongs.
I found the most moving display was the project which is underway to to identify and name (with their real names, not their slave names) a group of Antiguans who died there when a powder store blew up.
Nelson’s Dockyard in the 21st century is as an oasis of laid back style with plenty of spots for a cool drink in the shade, places to pick up a few elegant essentials for life on board or to enjoy fine dining in one of its many restaurants.
Whether you arrive on your own private yacht, take a tourist tour or, as we did, just amble around, Nelson’s Dockyard in Antigua is a great place to eat, sleep and relax.
Yes there are still a few mosquitoes but it’s a far cry from Nelson’s ‘infernal hole’.