Bermuda: a cycling tour of its colourful landscape and history
Saturday 18 March 2006
As pastel peach and pink and yellow drifted past, I realised what a bicycle ride through Bermuda constitutes: a journey through a sweet shop. Against a backdrop of deep green land and bright blue skies, the view is a confection of elementary colour. Strange, I might have mused, that so sophisticated a territory could comprise so blessedly simple a palette. But instead, my mind mulled over Bermuda's history: a rich tale of accident, fragility and intrigue.
As you meander through the exposed tips of an extinct volcano, the big picture begins to emerge. And a good course to set is a triangle: starting right in the middle of Bermuda. Sweep south-west to the elbow of the territory; arc north to the furthest tip, then cut smartly across the turquoise sea back to where you started.
The scientific method I used to determine the centre of Bermuda was to see where the fold lay on the official visitors' map and estimate the point midway between the north and south coasts. As geometric good fortune would have it, the answer lay in the Bermuda Arboretum - and specifically, I fancied, a young cedar tree.
Native cedar was the salvation of Admiral Sir George Somers and his unhappy shipmates when they ran aground in Bermuda in 1609 (see Trail of the Unexpected, opposite). Besides dry land, Bermuda - as it had been christened a century earlier by a passing Spanish mariner, Juan de Bermudez - offered a ready supply of wood ideal for building ships in order to continue the journey to the American mainland. Another marvel: thanks to swine that had escaped earlier shipwrecks, it was populated by wild and nutritious pigs.
Somers and his party of sailors and settlers eventually built a ship called Deliverance, a replica of which can be found in the town of St George, and continued to Jamestown - leaving two people behind to claim Bermuda for England. It proved a more durable colony than Jamestown. Indeed, because the mainland settlement perished, Bermuda claims many of the New World "firsts". What it no longer claims, though, is a healthy covering of cedar. The tall, slender tree thrived for millennia until the second half of the 20th century, when a pest was accidentally imported and proceeded to devastate the woodland. At the arboretum, cedars have been planted - but are still decades away from maturity.
Spiral down Corkscrew Hill (many road names in Bermuda are joyfully descriptive) and along Trimingham Road to the Railway Trail - an artery for two legs or two feet that runs for much of the length of Bermuda. This is a relic of a heroic 20th-century failure. A railway was carved almost the entire length of the archipelago, and opened in 1931. Within 16 years it closed; business was never very good, partly because the line bypassed the capital, Hamilton, and the growth of the automobile put paid to the age of the train. These congested days, many locals wish it were reincarnated. But the line has become a fascinating thread through the land, and furthermore allows the cyclist a gentle coast over unchallenging gradients.
I wanted to see a less gentle coast, so I left the Railway Trail for a while and headed over some challenging gradients to Elbow Beach. This is the closest long stretch of sand to Hamilton, yet on a sunny day last weekend barely a handful of bathers were experiencing the joy of pearl-white sand and implausibly turquoise water (one reason could be that the ocean this far north in March is not quite as balmy as the Caribbean in its caresses).
The setting, though, with regulation palms on the shore and a sprinkling of decorative rocks offshore, is simply seductive. Resisting temptation, I carried on along South Road to Bermuda's longest series of strands. The highlight of the South Shore beaches is Jobson's Cove - a piece of natural sculpture that seems organic, and is ideal to scramble over while you capture a dazzle of images from different perspectives.
For a wider panorama - well, let's follow Lighthouse Road. This winds up to a fine 1846 specimen of maritime safety, made from cast iron. Were it not being refurbished, you could climb the 185 steps to the top. Even without this added stature, you get excellent views the length of Bermuda. After dark, the lighthouse is a handy visual navigation aid for pilots flying from Florida and the Caribbean to Europe. Shunning superstition, they use the territory as a waymark rather than giving the Bermuda Triangle a wide berth.
In the excellent Lighthouse Tea Rooms, you can order a Bermuda Triangle sandwich, comprising salmon, tuna and shrimp (prawn); similar combinations with the same name are on offer elsewhere in the territory.
Time to continue around this Bermuda Triangle, which is about to turn the corner to head north - and to cross the smallest drawbridge in the world. By now, Middle Road is the only thoroughfare along the spine of the archipelago, and the only surface link to Somerset Island. That connection is broken when a vessel needs to cut through the channel, and the drawbridge is raised. In fact, it is barely more than a plank that is removed to allow the mast of a sailing vessel to pass through.
Immediately beyond this engineering curiosity, you reconnect with the Railway Trail. The engineers here faced more substantial challenges: they had to dig impressive cuttings through the rocks, and steer a course around Somerset Island to avoid Fort Scaur. This stern redoubt proved about as useful as all the other fortifications on the territory - ie. it saw no action - but after the American War of Independence, Bermuda took on great strategic importance. It was (and remains) the closest British possession to the main cities of the US.
Fort Scaur was finished in 1860. For much of the 19th century, tensions between America and the UK were running high, and Bermuda was seen as a vulnerable outpost of the Empire. A year after the fort was completed, the American Civil War broke out, and the territory became central to the fortunes of both the American South and the North-west of England.
When the conflict between the pro-slavery Confederates and the anti-slavery Yankees broke out, the main occupation of slaves in the Southern states was to pick cotton that was processed in the mills of Lancashire. One of the first acts of the Northern Federals was to blockade the Confederate ports in a bid to starve the rebels of funds and arms. This was enough to plunge North-west England into an economic depression. Bermuda was pivotal in breaking the blockade: small, fast "blockade runners" ran risky but rewarding missions from here, taking in weapons and ammunition, and bringing out cotton. The operation proved ultimately futile, but in Bermuda fortunes were made and considerable enmity generated from the victorious North.
As you meander towards Bermuda's conclusion, through placid countryside speckled with homes that seem to have been left out in the sun too long, conflict seems impossibly distant. But soon you reach the business end of the archipelago: silos, tanks and the "correctional facility" are based here, as is a huge former Royal Naval dockyard. The largely Victorian structures have been converted into shops and one of the finest museums in the Americas.
Bermuda is an extremely rich territory; government expenditure for each of the 65,000 men, women and children who live here is £20 a day, which gives you some idea of the tax revenues and, in turn, the financial productivity of this speck of land. Just one statistic: more than half the companies quoted on the Hong Kong Stock Exchange are incorporated in Bermuda.
Some of the surplus cash is spent on creating world-class tourist infrastructure, such as the Bermuda Maritime Museum. Within the vast 19th-century dockyard keep, a collection of buildings has been transformed into the story of land that keeps reinventing itself.
Time to cash in on another bit of Bermudan benevolence. For a mere $4 (£2.50), you can hop aboard a high-speed ferry that in 15 minutes will complete the final side of the triangle. It whisks you across the Great Sound, past the detritus of an old floating harbour at Spanish Point, and on through Two Rock Passage (one guess about how it got its name). By now, Hamilton should be basking in a comfortable late-afternoon glow, looking less like a multi-billion-dollar financial centre than a sleepy backwater. The pastel shades remain, though they look like melting in this warm, golden light. A trip through a sweet shop? More a journey through a storybook.
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