When I was no more than four, I accompanied my mother to the Farmers’ Exchange in our semi-rural town of Bloomfield, Connecticut.
This farm and garden co-op was situated for the convenience of its deliveries on the freight rail line which still ran through town. I was a railroad fan, and on this particular outing, I was wearing my engineer’s cap. A diesel locomotive was idling out back when we arrived, and as I was appropriately attired, my mother asked the real engineer if he’d give us a short ride. He said sure, and she handed me up to him in the cab. As she walked around to the ladder to board herself, he pulled the train out of the station. My mother watched in silent horror as the train disappeared in the distance with me aboard. (The engineer eventually reversed and handed me back, and we are more or less certain that I wasn’t switched for another child during the ride.) That’s my earliest train memory, and ever since then, I’ve found travel by train to be the most agreeable method of transport.
The island of Barbados has only had one railway, which first ran in 1881 and was closed for good in 1937, so generations of Barbadians were denied such childhood experiences. Now, with the undertaking of the Saint Nicholas Abbey Heritage Railway, they are getting a second chance.
Saint Nicholas Abbey is well known to rum aficionados as one of four distilleries in Barbados, as well as being a seventeenth-century plantation house museum (one of only three surviving Jacobean designs in the hemisphere). It has a long and dramatic history intertwined with that of the nation itself. Since 2006, it has been owned by prominent Barbadian architect Larry Warren and his family.
Warren’s entire approach to Saint Nicholas Abbey has been driven by his passion for preservation. “There is only one Saint Nicholas Abbey in almost every regard,” Warren told me, “from its curvilinear gables to its location in the remote—by Barbados standards—highlands looking over both coastlines.” To keep the house and its grounds in authentic context, the distillery was rebuilt and its cane fields replanted, restoring sugarcane and rum production along with the façade.
While the creation of a railway where none was found before is not precisely an act of preservation, the larger concept, of rail returning to the island, is the recovery of a lost piece of Barbados history. Since the closure of the original rails, “Barbadians have developed a mania for the railway legacy and, at all ages, they have immediately supported the project,” Warren said.
The Abbey’s singular location near Cherry Tree Hill, a spectacular lookout point, made the railway’s route planning “inevitable,” Warren said. From grounds near the house, the train will make its way around an artificial lake, across a field, through a hidden valley, between royal palms, through a quarry, and up the iconic hill. From that height, the lush greenery of the region and distant ocean waves are a thrilling sight. As visitors take in the view, the luckiest railroad nerds among them will be invited to help rotate the train on its turntable for the descent.
The train’s arrival at the existing point of beauty on Cherry Tree Hill may be the inevitable apex of its journey, but the rest of the ride is through an entirely new landscape created for that purpose, adding to the total allure of the grounds. Other attractions, such as an outdoor amphitheater, are planned to round out the this giant-sized model train set realized from Warren’s imagination.
The railway and its meticulously crafted environs should be exciting additions to the already powerful combination of vistas, history, and (lest we forget) rum offered by Saint Nicholas Abbey. “Train, lunch, heritage tour, distillery, and then tea!” Warren suggests, which sounds like everything needed for a proper day out.
Construction has been ongoing throughout 2018, with a projected opening in January of 2019. There are many fine and honored train lines in the world, known for their luxury, speed, or great feats of engineering. However, few, if any of them, offer rum punch to departing passengers. Rail fans and rum fans both should look forward to the continuing contributions of Saint Nicholas Abbey.