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Destination: Caribbean

In the English Manor

Beyond Babados' beaches, a wealth of historic homes

March 16, 1997|BETTY LOWRY | Lowry is a Wayland, Mass., freelance writer

BRIDGETOWN, Barbados — The West Indian island of Barbados is so British, it had its own Trafalgar Square with a statue of Lord Nelson in 1813, predating London's square by 16 years. Of course, the islanders had a special interest: Nelson came here to ready his fleet for the famous battle at Trafalgar, where he defeated Napoleon. Locals say that without Barbados, there might not have been a victory.

Unlike other Caribbean Islands where the "don't worry, be happy" attitude celebrates the joyful present and history means pirate lore, Barbados appreciates its past. The preservation movement and an active National Trust have saved not only the plantation estates (referred to locally as great houses), churches and forts of the colonials, but the heritage of black national heroes, as well.

For people like my husband and me, who arrived by cruise ship and had only a scant day in port, the problem quickly became one of so much to see, so little time. We skipped the canned excursions offered by the cruise staff and after walking into the capital city of Bridgetown for a bit of shopping, we hired a taxi to take us precisely where we wanted to go. Our nearly four-hour excursion came to roughly $45, or half the cost of a pair of tickets on the three-hour tour offered by the cruise line.

Because most of the restored properties lie in the southern part of the 21- by 14-mile island (east and northeast of Bridgetown), you can easily see several in half a day.

Our first stop was Ronald Tree House, site of the Barbados National Trust Headquarters in the Belleville district of Bridgetown. The old Barbadian house has gingerbread trim on the side porch and shutters to seal it against sun and storm. It is open for house tours and is also the starting point of a tour to historic and modern private homes that explores a different property each Wednesday from Jan. 15 to April 9. These are sponsored by the Barbados National Trust and the cost of the three-hour tour is $17. Alas, our single day was not a Wednesday.

But we did visit St. George parish (one of 11 districts on the island), to the east of Bridgetown. English nobility-style manor houses there were built as early as the 1650s, copying the architectural styles and whims then popular in England but using such construction materials as mud and cornhusks. Brighton Great House and Drax Hall are examples of this faded but beautiful genre waiting to be revived.

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Francia Plantation, also in St. George, is less spare and more reflective of West Indies prosperity. The house--built in 1913 for a Brazilian farmer of French extraction married to a Barbadian woman--is occupied by the original owner's descendants.

Some of the furniture was made by mid-19th century Barbadian craftsmen. Like other great houses, it had planter's chairs. These testaments to West Indian ingenuity had reclined backs and armrests extended to hold the planter's feet aloft until the day's swelling subsided and his boots could be removed. The chairs are remarkably comfortable. Other pieces such as the Waterford chandelier and James McCabe bracket clock, were imported. Francia's walls are hung with a collection of antique maps and prints, including a map of the West Indies, printed in 1522 and based on information contained in the journals of Christopher Columbus.

The louvered windows and doors open the house to the trade winds and make it comfortably temperate year-round.

Next to the house is a pavilion covering a set of original dripstones once used to supply the house with clean drinking water. From the top of the garden you can see Gun Hill Signal Station.

Gun Hill sounds more like a fortress than it looks or ever was. The 19th century military station was one of a series around the island set up to keep an eye on incoming and outgoing ships.

The view is wonderful, but the thing that has given Gun Hill its identity is a whitewashed outdoor sculpture of the British lion with its front paw resting on the world. This was carved out of a single rock in 1868 by British Col. Henry Wilkinson and few things so exemplify the self-confident spirit of the day. The inscription in Latin reads, "He shall have dominion from sea to sea and from river to river unto the ends of the Earth."

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Two of the finest plantation houses, closed since 1995, are being rebuilt. Sunbury House and Museum, constructed in 1660 in St. Philip parish, was destroyed by fire but is being reconstructed. Villa Nova, built as a sugar plantation great house in 1834, was the winter home of the late Sir Anthony Eden (Earl of Avon) and his wife, Clarissa Churchill. Former British Prime Minister Eden hosted Queen Elizabeth and Prince Philip, as well as U.S. Secretary of State Dean Acheson and other world notables.

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