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What's in a Town...Speightstown

What's in a Town...Speightstown

Driving up the west coast of Barbados, just before you come to the island’s northern tip, you will come to a charming town in the parish of St Peter – Speightstown. Named after the wealthy merchant who once owned the land in the 17th century, Speightstown is now over 350 years old and is Barbados’ 2nd largest town to be established on the island.

In its early days, Speightstown was home to a bustling port which facilitated commercial trade with Bristol in the United Kingdom and led to the town being nicknamed Little Bristol. In addition to its active trade activities with other Caribbean towns and ports, it was also well-known for being a highly fortified port of entry, with several military forts set up to protect against invasion. Such an invasion was attempted in the 1650s when Oliver Cromwell sent Admiral Sir George Ayscue to bring order to the uprisings against him (Cromwell) in Barbados. (These uprisings occurred because some prominent colonists in Barbados were loyal to King Charles, who was overthrown and executed in the English Civil War. )

The small forts along the coast of Speightstown countered the attacks, and Sir George was unable to successfully infiltrate from that side of the island. Remnants of these landmarks in Barbados can still easily be seen today, especially as several ancient cannons still dot the coastline.

Orange Fort was located at the site where the fish market is currently in operation additionally Coconut and Denmark Forts were nearby, in the area of the Speightstown Esplanade. The Esplanade itself is a favourite spot among residents and visitors in this Barbados town. With its stunning ocean view and shaded areas, it is the perfect place to relax after a stroll along the boardwalk or to enjoy the cooling breeze of the evening while watching a Caribbean sunset.

As you move through the town, the signs of colonial times of long ago are still very present, and this is especially obvious in some of the architecture. One such structure, and Caribbean landmark, is Arlington House which was constructed around 1750. Once home to a wealthy merchant, the three storey house is described as a ‘single house’ design. This type of architecture is said to have been exported to Charleston, South Carolina when many Barbadians migrated there in the 17th century to establish plantations which were based on the colonial model that they believed was working well in Barbados. The influences of Barbadian culture are still seen in the Carolinas today in their culinary traditions, art and music. It is especially prominent in the cultural practices and language of the Gullah-Geechee Nation, which has recently re-established ties with the island.

In recent times, Arlington House was restored into a modern, interactive museum, with each of its three floors representing different themes. On the ground floor, the Speightstown Memories exhibit allows visitors to virtually meet some of the people of Speightstown and northern Barbados, some of whom may still be seen walking the streets and plying their trade in the town. The old Speightstown is memorialised on the first floor in Plantation Memories, where you will find photos with details about the business which was once prominent there. A highlight of the displays on this level is the large map of Barbados which fills the floor of one room. This map shows names of early colonists, their plantations and places of interest as they were in the year 1820. The top floor has been transformed into a virtual jetty where ‘fish’ and ‘turtles’ appear to swim below, and visitors can ‘sail’ a ship through the islands. There is also a simulation of hurricane-force winds and the telling of the story of Stede Bonnet, ‘the Gentleman Pirate’ of Barbados. This floor is dedicated to Wharf Memories.

Another, one of Barbados’ famous landmarks and an architectural highlight in Speightstown is St Peter’s Parish Church. The first church on this site was built in 1629 but, like many others on the island, was destroyed and had to be rebuilt twice due to disasters. The church which currently stands on the property was built using local limestone in 1837, in a Georgian style of architecture with strong Gothic influences. There are also classical Greek structural elements, as seen in the use of columns. The medieval tower with ramparts suggests that the building may also have been fortified and used for military defence. One of the unique features of this church is the incorporation of the number 7 in its design. Considered to be a number of completion in Christian theology, the church has seven windows to the north and south; and it originally had seven columns on each side; there are seven sections in the roof, and the stained-glass window is also divided into seven parts. Although the church was rebuilt in 1983 after being significantly destroyed by fire, efforts were made to maintain most of its original style. However, one column from each side had to be removed to make adjustments to the balcony, and the bell had to be mounted on the outside of the church in a purpose-built gazebo.

While in Speightstown, visitors can enjoy some of the local restaurants and the experience of shopping with a village vibe. On a trip to the market, you can purchase fresh fish, fruits, vegetables and ground provisions from local vendors. With Barbadians coming from across the northern section of the island to shop for their produce, you are sure to have the opportunity to indulge in conversations about both the current happenings and histories of the town. A short walk away, you can browse around the small shopping centre and several roadside shops. And if you want to savour the taste of locally prepared meals, there are options available here as well. The ever-popular Fisherman’s Pub provides an authentic Bajan dining experience on the seaside. With the feel of a Bajan rum shop, they offer a range of the island’s finest rums and cocktails served along with reasonably-priced local favourites like rice and peas, macaroni pie, baked chicken and, of course, Barbados’ national dish – cou-cou and flying fish.

Art enthusiasts will find an enthralling treat in Speightstown. On the north wall of Jordan’s Supermarket facing the beach, there is a magnificent ‘trompe l’oeil’ (French for ‘deceive the eye’) mural. Measuring 80 feet long and 20 feet high, this special “3D” monument in Barbados, was designed and painted by Barbadian artist Don Small in collaboration with world-renowned muralist John Pugh and his wife, Annie. The mural features an illusion of gaping holes in the wall, with these ‘holes’ opening onto a beautifully constructed medley of representations of Barbados on a painting of a bridge. The entire mural incorporates realistic imagery of Harrison’s Cave, Indigenous People, green monkeys which are native to the island, chattel houses, symbols of independence and much more!

The most northern Barbadian town, Speightstown is one of the many areas in Barbados where you can find the old and new existing harmoniously. The colonial heritage resonates through the architecture and the artefacts of the old forts while the hustle of everyday, modern life continues along its streets. This relatively quiet town is a little distance away from the hectic lifestyle of other areas on the island, but the experience you will gain is guaranteed to be well worth the trip!

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