A shining example of the British colonial legacy in the Caribbean, Antigua’s Nelson’s Dockyard is a national treasure that only received its UNESCO rubber stamp a couple of years ago, though its naval heritage status has always been clear. The chocolate-boxy Georgian dockyard is the only one of its kind to survive in the world and, as its name suggests, it was once home to British naval hero Lord Admiral Horatio Nelson.
It was here that the British colonials first settled on the island, creating a naval base between the naturally-protected inlets of English Harbour on Antigua’s south-east coast. From the vantage point at Shirley Heights Lookout, the landscape around English Harbour is almost an amalgam of Antigua’s south-west and north-east with rolling green hills and deep bays streaked with white sand that provided the perfect shelter for colonial ships.
Exploring Nelson’s Dockyard National Park almost feels like an exotic botanical garden in Cornwall, and today the dockyard itself oozes Cornish village charm with lamp lighting, low-slung roofs, wooden rafters and stone cottages lining its cobbled lanes. For British tourists, the dockyard’s architecture is at once strange and familiar with restored structures such as Clarence House and the Officer’s Quarters showing how English Georgian architecture was modified to include storm shutters and verandas to suit the hot tropical climate of the Caribbean.
As Antigua’s chief historical attraction, the Georgian dockyard is an absolute must-see for travellers visiting the island, stuffed with nautical artefacts, such as enormous old ship’s anchors and 18th-century canons that dot the lawns and waterside. Exhibits housed inside the Dockyard Museum, located in the former Naval Officer’s House, offer some insight into the history and archaeology of the area and include salvaged ship’s figureheads that bring the past to life.
Built by enslaved Africans, many of the dockyard’s existing structures were constructed between 1785 and 1794 including the Engineer’s Offices and the Pitch and Tar Store, which now form part of the Admiral’s Inn hotel. The dockyard was abandoned in 1889 due to the decline of the Caribbean sugar industry, but some of the buildings still retain their original functions.
You can see the wet dock of the former Boathouse and Sail Loft, which lost its roof in a hurricane in 1871, but kept its fat rotund pillars that in modern times have given rise to the neighbouring Pillars restaurant. Immensely quaint, the old Dockyard Bakery, has been reopened to serve its original function.
Other structures such as the Officer’s Quarters, old store houses and repair shops have been sympathetically restored and turned into restaurants, bars, shops and hotels. Dating to 1792, the Copper and Lumber Store hotel and restaurant, for example, preserves the building’s original use in its name.
A peaceful place of meandering lanes and dockside greens, the area’s ambience is much changed from Lord Nelson’s day. Stationed there early in his career from 1784 to 1787, the admiral described it as a “Caribbean hell-hole” crammed with galleons, refuse and drunken sailors simmering in the humid tropical air. At the strategic naval installation, British ships would stop for repairs on cross-Atlantic voyages or shelter from storms in the long narrow natural harbours that slice between the surrounding highlands.
The UNESCO-listed area includes the walled dockyard as well as the former military buildings and defensive fortifications in the encircling hills at Shirley Heights and the Blockhouse, all of which were created to protect British sugar interests in the Caribbean at a time when colonial powers were competing for control of the Eastern Caribbean.
Dow fort, which has been converted into the Interpretation Centre telling the story of Antigua, is also included within the protected area, as well as Galleon Beach where human remains and colonial artefacts have been unearthed in recent years. Exploring the area on foot is made easy thanks to a series of hiking trails radiating from the dockyard site into the surrounding hills.
Room at the inn
As well as a visitor attraction, the dockyard is also a great place to stay and eat. The five-star Copper and Lumber Store offers beautiful Georgian suites and gourmet food in its restaurant, while Admiral’s Inn and Gunpowder Suites has 23 rooms and suites housed across four restored 18th century buildings, plus two acclaimed restaurants, Boom and Pillars, next to the former Boathouse.