Notes from a very small island: wonderful, eccentric Ascension

For its 200th birthday, this strange and marvellous place is finally getting direct flights from St Helena

17 October 2015

8:00 AM

17 October 2015

8:00 AM

‘This is one of the strangest places on the face of the earth,’ wrote a Victorian naval officer. Another early visitor called it ‘the abomination of desolation’ — and to this day, on the 200th anniversary of the British occupation, Ascension remains decidedly odd.

The summit of an extinct volcano, it pokes up out of the Atlantic eight degrees south of the Equator, and although the latest eruption is thought to have taken place 70,000 years ago, most of it still looks raw. Vegetation cloaks the summit and shoulders of the 2,800-foot Green Mountain, but steep ravines and petrified lava-flows — jet-black, grey, brown and white — plunge away towards the coast. From this desert rise brick-red cinder cones, several topped with the gleaming domes and dishes of space-watching installations.

Spirits are high this weekend among the 800-odd inhabitants, for they are celebrating the bicentenary with a succession of junketings: a cricket match, a treasure hunt, dances, a concert by the Royal Marines Band, speeches, a church service, a flag-raising, fireworks, and party after party. The culmination will be the unveiling of a memorial made by a gifted itinerant metal-worker, Nick Tayler, in a newly created little park.

Yet the greatest cause of jubilation has been the announcement of an air-link between Ascension and its neighbour St Helena, 700 miles to the south-east. The Royal Mail ship which served the islands for many years will cease next July, and without it the 600-odd St Helenians (known as ‘the Saints’) who work on Ascension would have had great difficulty in returning home. Now they will be able to fly direct.

The Saints came as manual workers, but many have achieved much higher status — witness Jacqui Ellick, one of the seven councillors who advise the Administrator at monthly meetings. Stedson Stroud, who believes that his great-great-great grandmother Sarah Bateman was a freed slave, is now warden of the national park on Green Mountain.

The British seized Ascension at 5.30 p.m. on 22 October 1815, when two young officers went ashore and, finding the place uninhabited, ‘took a formal possession of the island in the name of His Britannic Majesty’ — the aim being to deny the French any chance of rescuing Napoleon from St Helena. The great heap of lava became HMS Ascension, the Navy’s only stone frigate.

Strenuous efforts — first by the Navy, later by the Royal Marines — were needed to make the place habitable. Water had to be found, dwellings and defences constructed, a landing-pier built for the main settlement, named Georgetown. In time, handsome buildings of hand-cut stone went up.

When Napoleon died in 1823, the marines’ role became to support the ships fighting to suppress the slave trade on the African coast. Ascension was never seriously attacked, and much of the garrison’s energy was taken up by the struggle to grow food and create a balance of nature. Rats — the survivors of shipwrecks — and land-crabs swarmed, but the only edible animals were goats, dropped off by earlier mariners to sustain castaways. The answer to rats was cats; so cats were imported, only to escape into the lava plains, where they feasted on sea birds. The answer to cats was dogs, so dogs were brought in, and cat-hunting became the garrison’s pastime. Donkeys also escaped — 30 or 40 of their feral descendants lurk about the island today.

At the start, Green Mountain supported only grasses, mosses and ferns, but imported seeds and plants established vegetable gardens and pastures, and a sub-tropical forest grew around the upper slopes: ginger, bananas, eucalyptus, prickly pear, palms. Rooks, pheasants, partridges, guinea fowl and mynahs were imported to control insects, but successive gardeners were driven to their wits’ end by what they called ‘the grub’.

In 1899 a new era began when the first submarine cable, from the Cape and St Helena, came ashore. Transatlantic cables soon followed, and when the marines departed in 1922, they left their successors, the Eastern Telegraph Company, in sole command of an important relay station.

The next major change came in 1942, when the 38th US Engineer Combat Battalion arrived in force and blasted a runway out of a valley between two ash cones to create Wideawake Airfield, an invaluable stepping-stone for American planes between Brazil and West Africa. In 1982, when the Falklands war broke out, that runway proved a godsend to Britain. Without it, the RAF could never have mounted the Black Buck raids, on which fleets of air-tankers nursed Vulcan bombers 8,000 miles to their targets and back. Without the air-bridge, we would have extreme difficulty in servicing the Falklands garrison. The RAF’s big Air Tanker transports refuel at Ascension twice a week.

The airfield is equally indispensable to America, since Ascension gives the US Space Command the chance to monitor the heavens over the Atlantic. As the commander of the American base, Major Skip Sheehan, puts it, ‘the arms race has moved way up into space’, and Nasa is continuously tracking debris orbiting the earth, as well as searching for possibly hostile satellites.

There are now 120 Britons working on the island — some for the government, some for the BBC World Service Atlantic Relay station, some for the Ministry of Defence. Life is strange but agreeable. There’s still no harbour: cargo from ships is partly unloaded by hand onto barges, and passengers have to grab a rope as they jump onto the pier.

Nobody may come here without a permit. People working here have no right of abode. There are no taxis, and only one public bus. Nobody bothers to lock car or house, and if you meet another car on the road, you and the other driver both wave. Fresh food comes from South Africa, but housewives order dry stores from Tesco in Bristol, and get delivery six weeks later.

For all the difficulties, everybody is devoted to their eccentric island. ‘When I came here, I felt a great weight had been lifted off my shoulders,’ said Glenda Schutgens, wife of the doctor. ‘Here, I can walk around at night without fear of being threatened — and where else can you do that?’

Marc Holland, who took over as Ascension’s Administrator last year, is worried about the financial future. Annual income of nearly £7 million comes mainly from the British government, but Ascension is sliding towards the red. Much of the island’s infrastructure is rundown. ‘We’re in an East German situation, in that we’ve inherited a degraded estate,’ says Mr Holland. ‘The trouble is that we have no West Germany.’

The island feels a long way from its political masters in Whitehall, and sheer distance makes it difficult for them to understand. But, even if it will not bring huge income, tourism could certainly be increased, particularly with the new air link. All year round the temperature hovers in the upper twenties. There is one small but comfortable hotel, the Obsidian, and the island has some of the world’s best sport-fishing and diving. Walking varies from easy to hair-raising — and the place is an ornithologist’s paradise. Some 400,000 sooty terns (known as ‘wideawakes’ from their continuous screeching) nest on the plains. Boobies (a form of gannet) do not move as you walk by their nests, and huge frigate birds soar effortlessly on long, angular wings.

Strangest of all the island’s creatures are the giant green turtles that come to breed between January and May. Once exploited for their meat, they are now protected, but still mysterious. How do they navigate the 1,400 miles from the coast of Brazil? Wind? Scent in the water? Magnetism? Instinct? No one is sure — but no one lucky enough to witness it will ever forget the sight of these primeval monsters lumbering up the beach, with the moonlight glinting off their shells, to lay their eggs in the sand, while the hilltop radars keep watch on space above.

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Duff Hart-Davis’s books include Ascension: the Story of a South Atlantic Island, The House the Berrys Built and Fauna Britannica.

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