Written by Sarah Venable
Let’s get this straight right off the bat: Barbados’ St. Nicholas Abbey has
nothing to do with Christmas or monks. Instead, it’s a rare and beautiful
Jacobean mansion, one of only three in the hemisphere. Fronted by formal
gardens, backed by forested gully, flanked by stone outbuildings, and
surrounded by rolling cane fields, the mid 17th century house recalls Barbados’
glory days as an exporter of sugar,molasses and rum. As for how it got
its name, that’s a twisted tale to be told elsewhere.
Even in the West Indies, a region so rich in stories, St. Nicolas Abbey’s
saga stands out for its Gothic aura. An early owner murdered his
partner, married the man’s widow, moved on to colonial America, and
helped to establish South Carolina. Later owners were illustrious for finer
qualities too numerous to mention. One of the oldest surviving sugar
plantations on Barbados and, in its heyday, one of the most successful,
St. Nicholas Abbey’s fortunes ascended and declined with the
shifting price of sugar. In 1834, another love affair sent the Abbey
into the hands of the Cave family, which eventually opened the
gardens and ground floor to the public. Upkeep was hard, and the
final Cave’s death in 2003 looked like the end for this relic. Real estate
developers began circling. Never mind the house, the history, and the
fertility of the land, it was nearly 400 acres of beautiful property.
Enter the knight in shining armour, architect Larry Warren, whose loving
vision looked beyond meticulous restoration and into the realm of
possibility. What if they kept planting cane, got the old steam mill going,
and began producing boutique rum? In the meantime, while it ages,
what if they had some made to order – full strength, like a brandy –
and sealed it in hand-etched French bottles, right before your eyes?
Wouldn’t it also be fun to let people see the canes crushed and sample
the juice fresh from the rollers? Why couldn’t those grand old mango
trees provide fruit for a cottage industry making jams and chutneys?
How about a proper cafe, featuring afternoon tea on traditional English
china, all served on a ballast-brick terrace, shaded by magnificent
trees? There was already a rare film of plantation life in the early 20th
century. What if a little museum told you more? What if the entire staff
were competent, and happy to add value at every step? And all of
those dilapidated outbuildings – couldn’t they be fixed up and put
back to use? ‘No’ is not a word you want to tell Mr. Warren! His heroic
accomplishment is the happy ending to the saga. St. Nicholas Abbey is now one of
the finest heritage attractions on the island, where you can indulge a
range of interests. Architecture buffs will admire the house’s elegance
and stylistic rarity, plus the subtle details that adapt it to the tropics.
Antique hounds might salivate over the furnishings, china, and curios.
The historically inclined will enjoy evidence of how people lived here
over the centuries. For engineering aficionados, there are
farm implements, the steam mill and the distillery. Rum connoisseurs
can learn the fine points and savour a sampling. Those who
thrill to gardens, flowers, and exotic trees will find plenty of
marvels. And anyone who just wants a pleasant excursion will
discover delightful surprises.
It’s a fine, scenic drive to get there, through fields and
villages that hug the hills, far from the attractive artifice of the
tourism infrastructure. You feel you’ve gone
someplace. And you have. It’s called back in time, but with a future.