Tucked away on Antigua’s south coast, English Harbour is home to the only working Georgian dockyard in the western hemisphere.
Nelson’s Dockyard began life providing a base for the fleet of British ships patrolling Caribbean waters in the early 1700s. English Harbour is a great natural harbour cut deeply into Antigua’s rugged coast line. It was used at the beginning of the 18th century by the British to careen their ships and take shelter from hurricanes.
At the entrance to the harbor, the remains of two fortresses, sitting opposite each other, guard the bay. To the west stands Fort Berkley, designed in 1704, it formed part of a strategic defense system supported by smaller forts. This fort was so well defended that it never faced attack.
To the east of the entrance and above the Pillars of Hercules – where hundreds of years of lapping waves have eroded the cliff face into columns – are the remnants of Fort Charlotte.
Overlooking both forts, and 490ft above sea level, are the remains of Shirley Heights Lookout. The observation post was built by the British around 1780 in an effort to protect the dockyard and Antigua’s prosperous sugar industry, Britain having recently lost their hold on other West Indian colonies and more importantly the newly formed United States. Today, Shirley Heights is best known for the Sunday night Steel Band and Reggae parties that are popular weekly events. People sway to the beat of the steel drums, feasting on sumptuous BBQ while looking down at the spectacular views of English and Falmouth Harbours. This is a Sunday night jump up not to be missed.
The Dockyard itself is a wonderful place to walk around and soak up the historical ambiance. Originally referred to as ‘His Majesty’s Antigua Naval Yard’, the dockyard acquired its new name ‘Nelson’s Dockyard’ in honor of Horatio Nelson who, ironically, is said to have taken a dislike to the island calling it a “vile place.” The young Nelson was stationed in Antigua between 1784 – 1787 on HMS Boreas, as the head of the Squadron of the Leeward Islands, where he was to oversee the development of the naval facilities and to enforce the new shipping laws, which prohibited trade with the newly formed United States. This made him unpopular at the time with the island’s merchants.
Today the dockyard is a trendy spot amongst tourists and the yachting community alike. The focal point of 15 square miles of national park, it encompasses many scenic walks, nature trails and historic remnants from Antigua’s turbulent past and the great age of sail. Beautifully restored colonial buildings are sign-posted with their dates and former uses. Cannon from a bygone era are dotted around the dockyard. The naval officer’s house, referred to as ‘Admirals’ House’ (although Nelson never lived there), is the dockyard’s museum. The museum displays many nautical artifacts and historical accounts depicting life at the time, including Nelson’s relationship with Lady Emma Hamilton. Many of Nelson’s belongings are on display including his telescope and a superbly restored four-poster Georgian bed that’s suggested he may have slept in, although the bed was dated from a slightly later period. Many of the buildings have taken on a new life such as the Copper and Lumber store, which is now a hotel, and the Pitch and Tar store; now the Admirals Inn. New life is breathed into old in the form of shops, bars, restaurants, galleries and gift shops as well as customs and immigration offices for visiting yachts. Out in the bay old hurricane chains, identified in Freemans Bay by a giant anchor on the beach, are still in place. They were laid down by the British Navy for ships to catch a hold of as they entered the harbour.
Nelsons Dockyard is not only home to a full service marina but also to prestigious sailing events including the Antigua Classic Yacht Regatta and Antigua Sailing week. The quayside is lined with some of the most famous and magnificent (and expensive) boats from around the world. Many shore side activities are laid on to complement the events and the dockyard is a hive of activity. Whether you are racing or visiting on a yacht or simply exploring this historic site, the picturesque dockyard is an evocative and charming place to get to know a little about Antigua’s sea-faring and colonial past. The working dockyard works on …
Sources: www.antigua-barbuda.org, www.nationalparksantigua.com
Rosie Burr and her husband Sim Hoggarth, both from the UK, have cruised the Caribbean and North America for the last seven years on ‘Alianna’ their Corbin39.