Philanthropy & preservation, part 5: Final flourishes! | Henry Fraser

Chimborazo-Great-House

Chimborazo Great House (Credit: island-villas.com)

 

“The time has come” the walrus said,
“To talk of many things –
Of shoes and ships and sealing wax,
Of cabbages and kings.” (Alice in Wonderland, by Lewis Carrol)

Sir Henry Fraser

BRIDGETOWN, Barbados, Sunday March 1, 2015 – Every Wednesday from January through March, the Barbados National Trust Open Houses provide a splendid party at a historic house or site (or maybe a magnificent West Coast villa) as a fund raising event, to maintain the Heritage properties it looks after. Our hosts are the generous owners willing to share a bit of history and culture and the craftsmanship of our great artisans of the past with locals and visitors. And with the libations provided at the bar, the range of the best art and craft in Barbados, the “Lively lectures” and the great company, for everyone who goes it’s unforgettable!

And Wednesday’s Open House at Chimborazo, compliments of Richard Eames of Island Villas and Chimborazo Great House, WAS unforgettable. It was a rich feast of history, natural beauty, art and much else, although no cabbages or kings …

First of all, Chimborazo is ALMOST the highest point in Barbados at 1,105 feet. It’s beaten only by Mount Hillaby at 1,115 feet and Castle Grant at 1,106 feet (See A – Z of Barbados Heritage, by Carrington, Fraser, Gilmore and Forde). And that means that by 5 o’clock in the afternoon the temperature drops to nearly 20 degrees Celsius, and Bajans want to find a sweater!

Chimborazo Great House is believed to be the highest residence in the island, and in fact it’s named after Chimborazo in Ecuador, their highest mountain at 20,700 feet. But we Bajans used to like to “think big”. We named Pico Teneriffe after the 12,000 feet mountain in the Canary Islands … and we claim the Barbados almond, the Barbados cherry and the Barbados aloe all as our own …

I was delighted to see in the brochure written by Sarah Venable some lines from a famous poem on the original Chimborazo – Romance, by Walter James Turner (1889 – 1946). The first and last verses of this “childhood romance” go like this:

When I was but thirteen or so
I went into a golden land,
Chimborazo, Cotopaxi
Took me by the hand …

The houses, people, traffic seemed
Thin fading dreams by day,
Chimborazo, Cotopaxi
They had stolen my soul away!

And I was almost blown away when Dr. Kerry Hall, historian and tourism consultant, arrived and said: “Has this got anything to do with that famous poem?” And she proceeded to recite: “Chimborazo, Cotopaxi, stole my soul away!” Wow! She’d learnt it at school.

The house suggests a late 18th century or early 19th century origin, as the un-plastered coral stone structure is much more regular than earlier rubble stone construction but not yet the standardised coral blocks of the 1830s and later. It may have had a third storey over the deep basement and first floor, because houses of such a scale in that era usually had an upper floor for the bedrooms. And the stone work above the windows, and a string line immediately under the narrow eaves suggest a possible upper floor destroyed by hurricane.

What’s almost certain is that hurricane damage must have been severe in the 1831 hurricane, because there are ingenious hurricane vents alongside the windows. In that era, following the devastation of the Great Hurricane of 1780, most “better off” Bajans would have owned barometers as the only warning of a hurricane – the sharp drop in atmospheric pressure. When a house is barricaded with hurricane shutters, the pressure difference between inside and outside can cause the roof to lift off and walls to collapse. And Chimborazo House has a unique feature that I’ve seen nowhere else – air vents, six inches in diameter, that are revealed in the window reveals when the storm shutters are closed, leading through the wall to the outside – to provide fresh air and equalise the pressure. What a clever, scientific device of 200 years ago. The moral? Build with jalousie windows or “crack” some windows open slightly in a hurricane. Or build “Chimborazo Hurricane Vents” … they could even be patented …

The house sits on a sugar loaf hill, surrounded by magnificent bearded fig trees (Ficus citrifolia, our “National tree”, incorporated in our coat of arms) and many other beautiful trees and shrubs. And it must be the coolest place in Barbados. It’s actually for sale now, and “it can steal your soul away …”

The famous Captain Harry Niblock, tourism leader, cruise ship agent and tour operator, and son of James Niblock, O.B.E., first president of the Tourist Board, bought the house some fifty years ago, with bush in the roof and leaks everywhere, and restored it. It was upgraded by Gay Taafe, a Scottish yogini (yoga practitioner) and further enhanced with the eclectic art and furnishings of Richard Eames of Island Villas.

There’s a magnificent photo of Captain Niblock, with Paul Foster, Michael Martinez and Peter Morgan, by a car with a poster in London, on the first Barbados Tourist Board marketing foray 50 years ago, in Island in the Sun: The Story of Tourism in Barbados (by Henry Fraser and Kerry Hall).

Which leads me once more to the issue of preservation and philanthropy. There are more than a dozen beautiful historic houses going to ruin around Barbados. Some are owned by Government and some by private folk, who seem to have no interest in them. Victims of the CLICO legacy in St. John – Wakefield, Todds, Pool, Bowmanston and Villa Nova – are outstanding examples. These and many others could be economically restored and put to profitable service in the growing business of heritage tourism.

Bouquet: To Andrew Bynoe, Patrick Frost and Andy Armstrong, for reminding us all that the widely recognised vote buying bribery of the last election must not remain brushed under the carpet. All ethics and honesty is not yet lost in Barbados. There is hope, brothers and sisters.

Notice: Don’t miss the National Trust Open House on Wednesday at the classic Caribbean Georgian residence of the Governor of the Central Bank – Newlands on Pine Hill, opposite St. Winnifred’s School (Parking next to Belmont Funeral Home on Belmont Road). Dr. Karl Watson will give the lively lecture, and there will be a splendid range of art and crafts – locally crafted items offered for sale each Wednesday – originals in batik and tie-dye, beach glass and seed jewellery, African print bags and stationery, photographic and painted canvasses, indigenous pottery, authors with their latest writings, artists with their latest paintings, flowers, mahogany carvings, and of course libations and edibles!

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henry-fraser-150Sir Henry Fraser is past Dean of Medical Sciences, UWI and Professor Emeritus of Medicine. Website:  profhenryfraser.com