Named in 1660 after in honour of the Duke of York, later James II of England, to celebrate the restoration of the Monarchy in England. Jamestown is built on igneous rock in a small enclave, sandwiched between the steep cliffs that form James Valley, habitation is limited to the valley floor and thus is rather long, thin and densely populated, with tightly knit, long and winding streets. Shrubs and trees decorate some of the street corners. The surrounding terrain is rough and steep, and rockfalls are an occurrence, in the past damaging buildings and causing loss of life, though extensive netting in recent years has almost eliminated any risk. The town is commonly divided into Lower and Upper parts, depending on the distance up James Valley, though with no precise boundary between. There is a resident population of around 700.
You disembark via a tender or ferry which lands you on the wharf steps. After clearing customs and immigration you walk out onto the “seaside”, a long strip of land with the wharf at one end and Donny’s Bar at the other. You can see evidence of the island’s fortifications as you walk along.
Passing through The Arch, constructed in its present form in 1832, you arrive in Grand Parade. The Castle is on your left – the current seat of Government and formerly a fort – along with other administrative buildings, including the Police office, courtrooms and library. On your right you will find the Museum of St Helena and the foot of Jacob’s Ladder.
Also on Grand Parade is St. James’ Church, the oldest Anglican Church in the southern hemisphere. In the centre of Grand Parade is the memorial to Dr. W. J. J. Arnold, “the greatest friend St. Helena ever had”. The Grand Parade is where many island events take place. Normally mostly a car park, on special days it is cleared and turned into a market area, performance stage, or whatever.
There are some excellent examples of British Georgian-era colonial architecture, having been largely un-modernised, and has been proposed as a UNESCO World Heritage Site. You will find these as you move from the Grand Parade you enter Main Street. Notice first on your left the Castle Gardens – a quiet place to stop and sit, even on the busiest days. In Main Street you will find shops, offices, the Post Office, etc. At the top of Main Street is a mini-roundabout (one of only two on the island) with the Tourist Office behind and also “The Trees” where, in former times, auctions were held (including those of Slaves).
On the left you have Napoleon Street, so named because it is the road to Longwood, where Napoleon Bonaparte stayed during his exile here, and also the route to his tomb, via Side Path Road. In Napoleon Street you will find shops and houses.
On the right the road leads onto The Bridge; another area used for public events, especially at Christmas, where you will find shops, pubs, The Market and the Bank. Next to The Market is the Bridge Memorial Clock. The road now becomes Market Street, and continues right up through to the top of town, passing shops, churches, meeting rooms and many houses.
At the top of town you will find China Lane, so named because the imported Chinese labourers lived there. If you go up to the right you are on Ladder Hill, the main route to the heart of the island, via the top of Jacob’s Ladder, Ladder Hill Fort and Half Tree Hollow.
If you continue to the left you reach the hospital, and passing to the left of there you reach Constitution Hill, the oldest route out of town; a narrow winding road which connects at its top with Side Path Road leading to Alarm Forest.
On a normal weekday it’s busy from 8am-9am, when everyone is heading to work; from Midday-2pm, for lunch break; and again from 4pm-5pm when everyone is heading home. Saturday nights are also lively, with the shops open from 6:30pm until 8:30pm or 9pm, and then the various pubs and clubs operating until 1am. At other times it is quiet; on Sundays, with everything closed.
History of Jamestown
James Bay is the most practicable anchorage on St. Helena, and so what is now Jamestown is where all the earliest explorers landed. The history of Jamestown is therefore inextricably linked with the history of St. Helena itself. Fernão Lopez, the island’s first exile almost certainly lived in James Valley.
The town as we have it today is of largely Georgian construction, representing the time when St. Helena had defeated the Dutch invasion and was being actively settled and developed by the East India Company, up to the end of their Charter and direct rule by The Crown. Development since has been mostly in-filling, most buildings remain largely as they were 200 years ago.
The larger District of Jamestown
The district of Jamestown also includes Rupert’s Valley, to the north of Jamestown. Rupert’s is designated for industrial development and should become the island’s main port for goods (cruise ships will continue to offload in Jamestown). Unearthed during this development were slave graves of 325 bodies in individual, multiple and mass graves. The site is estimated to contain a total of about 5,000 bodies, but these seem likely to be left where they lie, revealing a dark part of St Helena’s history.