TRAVEL: Bowled over by the West Indies

Antigua, more English than England, appealed to Geoffrey Wheatcroft - and not just because of the cricket
OF COURSE, I had an ulterior motive. When I said we should go to the West Indies, there were several possibilities discussed. The old Fleet Street saying has it, if you're going to an under- developed country , be sure to go to one that was under-developed by the French. Martinique and Guadeloupe had their attractions, not only gastronomic. But they had a drawback: they don't play cricket.

Without coming quite clean about my reasons, I suggested Barbados (which I know) and Trinidad (which I don't), but the dates which I gnomically said were essential did not quite fit. Eventually we lighted on Antigua in the first week of February - just when, as it happened, the England touring party was playing a four-day match against the Leeward Islands in St John's. Whatever the base or abstruse motives, it turned out to be a happy choice.

Antigua has many charms. There are its 365 beaches (one for every day of the year, as you are told about every day of the year), there are the fish and the rum punches, there is the winter sunshine, though fierce storms can blow as well. But its particular fascination is as a fragment of British colonial history whose relics are some of them sad and some happy. Happiest of all, needless to say, is cricket.

Like other colonies which ended in our hands, Antigua has a Spanish name. Columbus sighted the island on his second voyage in 1493 and named it after the statue of Santa Maria della Antigua in Seville cathedral. By the time a party of English settlers landed in 1632, the original inhabitants, the Carib Indians, had vanished. Soon plantations were established, first tobacco, then sugar, and African slaves were brought to work them. Betty's Mill is one survival of that period, a cane-crushing plant now being restored on its forlorn little hill-top. The Antiguan people are another: almost all 65,000 of them are of African descent.

There is no point in trying to pass over the plantation years, especially if, like me, you live outside Bath in Somerset. Large parts of that grand Georgian city were built with West Indian sugar money, notably Beckford's Tower which overlooks Bath and which was built by the eccentric William Beckford, who also built Fonthill in Wiltshire with his sugar fortune. So is the magnificent Codrington Library at All Souls College in Oxford, named after a planter and governor of the Leeward Islands.

The historic centre of Antigua isn't St John's, the little capital where the vast cruise ships from Miami dock, but English Harbour on the south of the island, a fine natural harbour of two lagoons whose 18th- century buildings have been happily preserved. The best view of the harbour is from Shirley Heights, a great headland overshadowing the lagoons, where 200-year-old barracks have been converted into a hotel and bar. It was presumably at English Harbour that Sir Thomas Bertram landed when he went out to inspect his Antiguan plantation in Mansfield Park. Driving around and across the island (which I'm fairly sure Jane Austen never visited), I wondered where Bertram's plantation might be. On the north-west, near St John's, a county of flat fields and sand? Or in the much damper and lusher south-west, with its dense foliage and banana palms? Or on the north-east, where we stayed at the Long Bay Hotel, with its long beach on one side of a spit of land and on the other a lagoon where I attempted to sail baby boats?

Jane Austen's novel has become contentious because of the Antiguan reference. In his recent book with the self-explanatory title Culture and Imperialism, Edward Said devotes a good deal of attention to the book. It doesn't occur to him that the Antiguan plantation is a device in the plot designed to remove Sir Thomas from the action at a critical moment, and may have no political or economic significance.

What's for certain is that Bertram's plantations, had they existed, would have decayed and fallen. The years after the emancipation of the slaves were bleak ones for the West Indians: they were paid a pittance by land- owners who were no longer obliged even to feed and clothe them. What is strange is how much of England the islands retained, Antigua more than most: it is in some ways more English than England. At Willikie's on a Sunday morning you see something you will never see from Land's End to Hadrian's Wall: an Anglican church with standing room only, packed out on to the porch.

The hotels and restaurants are also curiously reminiscent of home. Around English Harbour there are several Italianate or seafood eateries which might be found in the Home Counties. Although St John's is little more than an overgrown village, whose buildings are still mostly only two-storey, it too has something of the air of an English seaside town.

And there, on the edge of the town, was one of the things we - or I - had come for. The attachment of the West Indians to cricket is a fascinating oddity. It was introduced some time in the last century, presumably by British soldiers and sailors. By 1895, when a touring English side found that it was the national passion of the island, a member of the touring party kept a diary in which he artlessly recorded that "in Antigua they get severely offended if they are addressed as `Niggers'. Blacks is the name they like to be called"; and described how a match had been watched by a crowd of 7,000, which must have been a fifth of the population of the island then. He recorded an Antiguan cricketer who said that "although some of his team were physically puny, if they had the same food as we, they would readily have beaten us."

You cannot say he was wrong. The Antiguans ate better, grew bigger, and they beat us. I watched the tour match between the MCC (as I still think of them) and the Leewards, which is to say effectively Antigua. It says something that an island with a population of 65,000 can give England a close-run game. But then this tiny island has produced Viv Richards, Andy Roberts and Richie Richardson, and on a good day a best-of-Antigua XI from the last 25 years could take on any Test side in the world.

So several happy days were spent like this: early swim, breakfast, read and swim again, then to the cricket, leaving my wife contentedly on the beach where I rejoined her after close of play for a last swim, a rum punch and then (perhaps) a drive to dinner near English Harbour.

I was restless after a week and needed something more than a diet of sun, sea and sport. But to escape the English February, there are few better places than Antigua for a break. !