Jacob’s Ladder is a run of 699 steps, up from Jamestown in the floor of the valley to the fort at Ladder Hill on the western valley slope. It is one of the 7 Wonders of St. Helena and one of the first things you see when arriving into James Bay.
Incredible as it may seem, the first route from the valley floor direct to Signal House was a rope ladder, up and down which soldiers would climb travelling to and from the barracks at the top.
The rope ladder was replaced in the 1820s by an ‘inclined plane’ – a horse-powered machine for hauling goods to the top of the hill on rails using pulleys (see diagram opposite from Mechanics’ Magazine of March 1834 – if you still can’t envisage it, there’s a working model in the St. Helena Museum. The “Ladder Hill Railway” was in service from 1829 to 1871, and was particularly useful for carrying the large quantities of manure which accumulated in stables, stockyards, etc., out of Jamestown for the use of inland farmers. It was even suggested it could carry passengers but that was considered too dangerous.
By 1871 it had fallen into disrepair. JC Melliss writes:
“It is very greatly to be regretted that the whole construction has fallen into disuse and bad repair, the woodwork being eaten by white ants. Indeed, it is said that these insects visited Ladder Hill through the medium of its longitudinal wooden sleepers.”
Having fallen into disuse it was dismantled by the Royal Engineers in 1871. (By the way, this wasn’t St. Helena’s only railway!)
When the inclined plane was broken up the steps remained and today it is either a short way up or down the valley, an exhilarating climb, or 699 steps of torment, depending on your point of view and level of fitness. The steps are around 11 inches (30cm) high and the same wide, giving it a 1:1 slope .
Some people skim down it, by putting their feet on one handrail, their upper back on the other and just sliding down – easy to get started, somewhat harder to stop. It’s said people carried hot food down from the barracks in the fort to soldiers serving down below, rested on their stomachs; how much got spilled isn’t recorded.
And if you think walking up would be hard, can you imagine running up? And yet, as part of the island’s Festival of Running, that’s exactly what happens. Experienced runners from around the world try to beat the ‘Ladder Challenge’. Want to give it a try? Contact the Tourist Office to find out when the next Festival of Running will be held.
WHY ‘JACOB’S LADDER’?
The answer comes from The Bible, in the Book of Genesis chapter 28 verses 11-19:
“Jacob left Beersheba, and went toward Haran. He came to the place and stayed there that night, because the sun had set. Taking one of the stones of the place, he put it under his head and lay down in that place to sleep. And he dreamed that there was a ladder set up on the earth, and the top of it reached to heaven; and behold, the angels of God were ascending and descending on it!”
Since then, in all the parts of the world where The Bible is a sacred book, any impossibly steep climb tends to acquire the name Jacob’s Ladder. And our 699 almost-vertical steps probably qualify as well as any, though at the top of ours lies Ladder Hill Fort and if that’s Heaven.
See what it is like to walk up the Ladder.