Monday, 21 September 2009

The Briars - 50 Year Anniversary

It is now 50 years since the Briars was added to the French properties on St. Helena.

I had forgotten this, but on return from a short internet-free holiday in Turkey was surprised to find a number of new postings commemorating this event on Michel Martineau's blog.

I know this property means a great deal to Michel, and he has devoted a large part of his life to it so that it can be enjoyed by future generations. I have provided a short synopsis on each of the postings. An English translation of all the French quotations is in the notes at the bottom.

The postings I have previously made on the Briars and the Balcombe family are as follows:

20th February 2008 - The Briars, Napoleon's 1st Home on St. Helena
2nd March 2008 - Maldivia to Francis Plain, St Helena
2nd September 2009 - Betsy Balcombe, Napoleon and the Briars

Together with Michel's postings these should provide a fairly complete guide for anyone who is interested in this part of St Helena, and in Napoleon's short and rather surreal stay with the Balcombe family.

17th September - from the beginning to the time of Napoleon

This covers the early history of the Briars: its various owners until it was bought by William Balcombe in 1811; the acquisition of its name because of the wild roses that grew there; the favourable climate,

A vrai dire, le climat y est idéal : très rarement les températures excèdent 35°C et fort peu souvent passent sous la barre des 18°C. Les pluies sont rares et les brouillards exceptionnels. (1)

which is contrasted with that of Longwood.
Nous pouvons, sans trop nous avancer, dire que les Briars sont le contraire de Longwood ; ils ne semblent n’exister que pour mieux souligner l’inconfort et l’insalubrité du plateau choisi pour loger l’Empereur. (2)

16th September - The Briars in Napoleon's Time

This covers the well known story followng Napoleon's arrival: his first two nights on board the Northumberland because no accommodation had been prepared for him; his first night ashore at Porteous's lodging house in Jamestown; his visit the next day to Longwood; his request to stay at the Briars when he caught sight of it on his return journey.

Napoleon's stay at the Briars is portrayed in dramatic terms as a mere interlude in which nothing of consequence happens, before the final act of the drama which is to unfold at Longwood.

Les espiègleries d’une des enfants, Elisabeth – plus connue par son diminutif Betsy – deviennent les seuls tracas d’un homme fatigué par plus de deux mois passés en mer. L’épisode des Briars est, dans la vie de Napoléon, un entracte où rien ne se joue et où tout est prétexte à la détente avant d’entamer le dernier chapitre, celui durant lequel le drame final va se dénouer. (3)

18th September - The Briars after Napoleon

This provides an account of the Briars after the Balcombe family had left.

For those who would like to visualise the setting in which Napoleon played with the Balcombe children, there is an excellent photograph of the Balcombes' home.

The house itself no longer exists. It was neglected, became unoccupied after December 1913, continued to deteriorate, and was finally demolished in 1947.

The pavilion in which Napoleon lived would also have disappeared in the 1950's had not one of William Balcombe's descendants, Dame Mabel Brookes, come to its rescue.

14th September - The Acquisition of the Briars

This provides an account of the intervention of Sir Norman and Dame Mabel Brookes who visited in 1957 and were shown the Briars by Gilbert Martineau.

His account is quoted in this posting:

Cette visite, et la nouvelle que je leur avais communiquée sur la disparition du Pavillon, allaient faire naître chez eux le désir de sauver le bâtiment et de l'offrir en France. Pour en devenir propriétaire, Dame Mabel s'entremit activement, mettant à contribution ses relations au Foreign Office et au Colonial Office et dut payer un prix élevé, sans rapports avec la valeur réelle de la propriété, attaquée par les termites. (4)

So ironically, much of the property which Betsy Balcombe claimed that Napoleon wished to purchase but was prevented from doing so for political reasons, now came into French hands. (5)

15th September - The Restoration of 1990

This posting provides information which was totally new to me.

There are pictures and a description of the total rebuilding of the Pavilion in 1990-1992, after the original building had become too dangerous to be opened to the public.

Michel accounts with justifiable pride the ongoing efforts to safeguard the Briars for future generations, and makes a dig at the unsightly Cable and Wireless site which adjoins the Briars.

Nous sommes parvenus à y replacer le mobilier mis à la disposition de Napoléon par les Balcombe. Les Briars retrouvent peu à peu leurs jardins en terrasses. La vallée qui va de la cascade en forme de cœur jusqu’à Gordon Post est maintenant protégée et ne subira aucune nouvelle implantation immobilière. Seule ombre à ce tableau : les visiteurs doivent encore traverser l’entrepôt – et dépotoir – de la compagnie de télécommunication "Cable & Wireless" pour accéder au musée. Toutefois ce hideux spectacle de rouleaux de câbles téléphoniques laissés à l’abandon et d’un entrepôt en ruine ne fait qu’accentuer la beauté et le charme de la propriété française. (6)

Finally as he notes,
Même si l’allée de banians que Napoléon empruntait n’existe plus, la magie des Briars est intacte et opère toujours. (7)

1. To tell the truth, the climate there is ideal: the temperature rarely gets above 35°C and very seldom goes below 18°C. Rain is rare and fog is exceptional.

2. We can, without getting too far ahead of ourselves, say that the Briars is the opposite of Longwood; it seems to exist only the better to underline the discomfort and the insalubrity of the plateau chosen to house the Emperor.

Perhaps it should be pointed out that the weather at Longwood can be a matter of controversy. Some of Napoleon's strongest critics have been known to claim that it is the healthiest place on the island. It should be pointed out that Michel Martineau has lived at Longwood and from choice now lives at the Briars - in fact he has lived considerably longer at both places than Napoleon did - so he seems uniquely placed to comment on this issue!

3. The pranks of one of the children, Elisabeth - better known by her Betsy diminutive - become the only annoyances of a man tired by more than two months spent at sea. The episode of Briars is, in the life of Napoleon, an interval where nothing happens and where there is a pretext of relaxation, before the last chapter begins, in which the final drama unfolds.

4. This visit, and the news that I had communicated to them about the disappearance of the House, were going to give birth in them the desire to save the building and to offer it to France. To become owner, Lady Mabel lobbied actively using her relations with the Foreign Office and the Colonial Office, and she had to pay a high price which bore no relation to the real value of the property, attacked as it was by termites.

5. Smaller additons have been made in recent years, and larger amounts surrounding the Briars have been donated to the St. Helena National Trust.

6. We managed to replace there the furniture placed at the disposal of Napoleon by Balcombe. The Briars finds little by little its terraced gardens. The valley which goes from the heart shaped waterfall until Gordon Post is now protected and will not suffer any new building. The only shadow on this picture: the visitors must still cross the warehouse - and dump - of the telecommunication company " Cable & Wireless" to reach the museum. However this hideous spectacle of rolls of telephone cables left abandoned and a warehouse in ruins simply accentuates the beauty and the charm of the French property.

7. Even if the avenue of banyan trees that Napoleon used does not exist any more, the Briars is intact and always works its magic.

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