35 years on, ebony hero Charlie gets his name on the map

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Walkers return from Charlie’s Ebony Revival Ledge. Picture by Derek Henry

A strong wind blew over the party that had gathered above St Helena’s wildest cliffs to honour Charlie Benjamin as an island hero. And nearly 5,000 miles away in London, a heavy drizzle blattered against the windows of the elegant room at Kew Gardens where his daughter was getting married.

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Rosie Peters and Gavin Ellick (Eddie Duff). Charlie climbed down the cliff to the left of the picture (image courtesy of Derek Henry)

Speeches at both locations recalled the perilous climb Charlie made, 35 years and one day earlier, to bring back the St Helena ebony from apparent extinction. No living specimen had been seen growing for more than a century: now there are thousands of them.

The famous George Benjamin had spotted the unfamiliar plant on a near-unreachable ledge, but he declined to risk climbing down to it. But his brother was reckoned the best climber on the island; it was his bravery in bringing up cuttings of the plants that was finally, belatedly celebrated on Saturday 14 November 2015.

The spot where the two last surviving plants were sighted has now been given the name Charlie’s Ebony Revival Ledge. It will appear on island maps.

The ceremony came two and a half years after his daughter Wendy – now Mrs Duncan – decided it was time his bravery was formally acknowledged.

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Quentin Cronk took a single photograph of Charlie’s 1980 climb


George received the British Empire Medal for his years of work to revive the fortunes of St Helena’s precious endemic species, she said, but Charlie had died in 2007 without ever receiving official recognition for risking his life.

Various ideas emerged, including reviving the past campaign for the ebony to become the island’s national flower, in place of the arum lily – a beautiful but invasive alien species. Then it was realised that the cliff Charlie climbed had no name: perhaps it could be named in his honour.

On the island, Councillor Gavin Ellick – better known as Eddie Duff – took up the cause, holding a competition for school children to come up with a name for the cliff.

In the UK, Wendy was making plans for her wedding to fellow Saint Cambell Duncan when it was suggested she could marry at Kew, where botanists invented a new technique to propagate seeds from the ebony. Staff helped to make it happen when they heard about her connection with the plant, which grows in the Temperate House at Kew.

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Rosie Peters and grandson Taylan planted ebony seedlings

The date for the wedding was set for the Saturday nearest to the anniversary of Charlie’s first climb (he actually made two – but declined to go down a third time). The ceremony on the island would take place on the same date.

Out in the wind at Blue Point, ebony seedlings were planted by Charlie’s step-daughter, Rosie Peters, and her grandson Taylan. They also planted one on behalf of half-sister Wendy, to mark her marriage to fellow Saint Campbell Duncan in London.

The deputy governor, Sean Burns, and the island’s chief secretary, Roy Burke, also planted seedlings.

And then most of the 23-strong party of adults and children ventured down to stand at the spot from which the botanist Quentin Cronk had taken a single photograph of Charlie’s climb, hundreds of feet above the waves that crash against the wildest part of St Helena’s south coast.

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Rebecca Cairns-Wicks gave a speech about Charlie’s climb. Picture by Derek Henry

Derek Henry, deputy director of the environment directorate, noted that the setting was one of the most spectacular on the island. “The weather was a little blustery,” he said, “but that did not dampen the spirit of the event.”

In 1980, Rosie Peters drove George Benjamin and Quentin Cronk round the island when the botanist – now a world-renowned professor – visited St Helena to investigate its plants. She watched Charlie climb down to the ledge with just a rope round his waist.

“As for Saturday and me standing on that cliff,” she wrote after the commemoration, “it was very emotional but I was also very proud that I could actually show my partner and my grandson where I was on the day that my stepfather retrieved the ebony slips.

St Helena Ebony 300 by Colin Clubbe

St Helena ebony. Picture: Dr Colin Clubbe

“I had flashbacks of that actual day as I stood there surveying the cliff. I remembered the climb as my stepfather Charlie descended and then later reappeared with the ebony flower in his mouth.”

Charlie carried cuttings up the cliff in a bag, but gripped a single flowering stem in his teeth – keeping his hands free for climbing – so Quentin and George could confirm it was the ebony.

Dr Cairns-Wicks said after the ceremony: “A wild, windswept  and breathtakingly beautiful landscape, this was a rather special pilgrimage for both those connected personally to Charlie and his historic climb and also to those who had never been out to Blue Point before.”

In her speech, she told how the island had benefited from the recovery of the first ebony cuttings.

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Wendy and Charlie Benjamin, in later years

“It inspired commitment from the local and international community to fight to save the ebony and the island’s other rare and endangered endemics, securing for the first time in the island’s history a dedicated section for conservation, which was very successfully set up and run by George Benjamin.

“Sean Burns also gave a short speech, followed by Father Dale who gave a reading and blessing and dedication to Charlie’s Ebony Revival Ledge.” Good wishes were also sent to Wendy.

“It was a touching ceremony and one that was particularly poignant for Rosie.

“But also it felt special and good, to give recognition to a silent local hero by making an indelible mark in the history of the island, naming the spot 35 years ago where Charlie climbed down the ledge in search of what turned out to be a very special flower.

“There are thousands of ebonies on the island today, and perhaps one day there will be thousands thriving around Charlie’s Ebony Revival Ledge. I am sure that would make Charlie and George Benjamin very proud.”

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Bride Wendy has her flower on her cake – and eats it

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Kew for a wedding: Campbell and Wendy

The St Helena ebony, rescued from extinction by Charlie Benjamin, has found a place in UK national ceremonial – and on his daughter’s wedding cake. Simon Pipe of St Helena Online was honoured to give a speech telling Charlie’s story.

Wendy Benjamin would have liked to have living ebony flowers at her wedding to Campbell Duncan. But they’re classed as critically endangered, and it just wasn’t going to happen.

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Mary Benjamin decorated the wedding cake with icing ebonies

No matter. She had them on their cake instead, crafted in icing by her aunt Mary – Charlie Benjamin’s sister.

It was given pride of place in the fine Cotswold barn where more than 150 people, mostly Saints, gathered to celebrate both the wedding, and Charlie’s unique role in St Helena’s natural history.

Most guests knew of George Benjamin BEM, the man who spotted two surviving ebony plants growing on a treacherous cliff.

Fewer knew how his brother Charlie risked his life to climb down and take cuttings from those surviving plants.

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Campbell and Wendy led the dancing

His brave act spurred a conservation effort that has brought St Helena international recognition.

Charlie did not live to give away his daughter. He died in 2007. It was Wendy’s son, Bronwyn Joshua, who took that role in the marriage at Kew Gardens, where ebonies grow today.

But through the telling of his story, Charlie could be part of the occasion.

Wedding guests were told of the ceremony that had taken place earlier in the day on St Helena, to name the site of Charlie’s brave act in his honour.

But his climb had left another legacy in UK ceremonial, they heard.

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Wendy’s wedding day was doubly special

“At about this time of year, you might also see the ebony on national television” they were told. “Because here’s a coincidence: Charlie’s climb was made on the 13th of November, 1980. But Georgie actually spotted the plant on the 11th of November – the anniversary of the ending of the First World War.

“On Remembrance Sunday, the nation’s leaders mark that event by laying wreaths of poppies at the Cenotaph in London. But the Foreign Secretary lays a wreath that’s crafted at Kew, made up of plants from the UK’s overseas territories, including – very often – the St Helena ebony.

“There can be no finer tribute for Charlie Benjamin than that.

“But he has one other legacy, in his children, and their children, and as of now, his new son-on-law. And if he were with us today, he might well say that was the legacy that gave him the most joy.”

SEE ALSO: 35 years on, ebony hero Charlie gets his name on the map

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Island crews ‘ready’ for Comair-style crash on runway

Plans are in place to deal with a blocked runway at St Helena’s airport in the event of an incident like the Comair crash at Johannesburg’s OR Tambo airport on 26 October 2015.

Comair plane by Warren Mann 660Click the pic to read the Comair crash story (picture: Warren Mann)

St Helena Government (SHG) gave the assurance after a 737-400 tilted over on to its wing when landing gear failed.

The incident raised questions about what might happen if the same thing happens once Comair begins flights to St Helena in early 2016.

An obstruction on the runway would close down the airport and leave the island cut off while it was cleared.

Richard Brown of Atlantic Star Airlines – which announced its first UK-St Helena flight the same day – said aviation rules mean only one aircraft would be allowed to be in-bound towards the island at any time, because of the danger of an obstruction preventing a landing.

An SHG spokesman said: “First of all, we are very glad that no-one was injured and that the incident was effectively managed.

“This type of incident is precisely why so much is invested in emergency planning and preparedness at airports – including at St Helena Airport.

“We have a highly trained and qualified Rescue & Fire Fighting Service, supported by our regular local emergency services – and  the public will already be aware of the emergency exercises conducted as part of our airport certification programme.

“As part of this, a Disabled Aircraft Removal Plan (DARP) has been drawn up for St Helena Airport. Appropriate equipment to deliver the DARP will be in place before we begin airport operations, and staff are currently being trained in its use.”

The major incident exercise on Friday, 23 October 2015 saw the airport emergency services working alongside “local” crews for the first time, tackling a simulated emergency.

Chief of police Trevor Botting said: “This exercise was challenging and whilst there are a number of points that will help us to improve the way we work, it demonstrated that the emergency teams from the airport and from St Helena more generally can work together in an operational context.”

Aerodrome manager Nigel Spackman said: “These exercises are an essential part of the airport certification process and are designed to give the regulator confidence in our ability to operate the airport safely and to identify areas for improvement. 

“It was clearly proven that SHG emergency services and the airport teams can work together effectively, albeit that there are – as expected – areas where we can improve.”

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Foxy, you’re needed at the airport (bring a spanner)

How would St Helena cope with a damaged aircraft blocking its runway? The question exercised some of the finest minds on the island after a plane operated by Comair – which will fly the Johannesburg-St Helena route from 2016 – toppled on to its side at OR Tambo airport (see story here). With no one hurt, there was free rein for some Saint humour – not least in the closing comment below, from Joy Lawrence:

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The secret is out: St Helena makes Lonely Planet world top ten

Lonely Planet's guide promises

Lonely Planet’s guide promises “a year’s worth of travel inspiration to take you out of the ordinary.”

St Helena may have to change its “Secret of the South Atlantic” slogan: it has been named in the top ten regions to visit in 2016 by the world-renowned Lonely Planet guides.

The accolade brings “significant global tourism profile” just in time for the scheduled opening of St Helena’s first airport, said the island’s economy chief, Dr Niall O’Keefe.

But global recognition may have come too soon for the island, which will not have anywhere near the number of new hotel beds that island leaders hoped would be in place by the time of the airport opening.

“The wider world can now access the adventure, heritage and natural beauty of St Helena by air,” said Dr O’Keeffe. But he admitted that “much work remains to be done to develop our accommodation and tourism services in the years ahead”.

The Lonely Planet website says: “One of travel’s last truly remote destinations will become a little less so in 2016. St Helena, now accessible only by ship, will gain a long-mooted airport.

“Tourists are unlikely to overrun this speck in the South Atlantic Ocean, but the islanders are building a 32-room hotel just in case. Whatever happens, it won’t change the relaxed pace of life here, nor lessen the lure of a place as curious now as it was when Charles Darwin swung by in 1836.”

Screen Shot 2015-10-27 at 21.54.31St Helena ranks number ten on the list of top regions, which is headed by Transylvania, West Iceland and Cuba’s Valle de Viñales. New Zealand’s Waiheke Island also features on the list, but it doesn’t match St Helena’s remoteness – it’s only 35 minutes by ferry from the city of Auckland.

All ten feature in Lonely Planet’s new Best of Travel 2016 book, along with the world’s top ten countries, headed by Botswana, Japan and the USA.

Lonely Planet describes the 11th edition of the annual publication as a “collection of the hottest trends, destinations, journeys and all-around best travel experiences for the year ahead… a year’s worth of travel inspiration to take you out of the ordinary and into some unforgettable experiences.”

It adds: “Each destination featured has passed through our agonising selection process to win a place on Lonely Planet’s hallowed Best in Travel list.”

Governor Mark Capes welcomed the international plug for the St Helena tourism industry, which could bring “enhanced quality of life” for residents.

He said: “This recognition from Lonely Planet once again underlines how St Helena continues to achieve tremendous success on a global scale with limited resources and the challenges that our remoteness bring.”

Lawson Henry, the councillor in charge of economic development, paid tribute to all those involved in the island’s tourism industry for helping to achieve the top-ten listing.

Dr O’Keeffe will attend an award ceremony in London on Sunday 1 November 2015, along with Enterprise St Helena marketing manager Chanelle Marais, London representative Kedell Warboys MBE and Mairi McKinistry of the Foreign and Commonwealth Office.

It coincides with the World Travel Market.

  • The Best of Travel guide may be right to highlight the attractiveness of St Helena as “the Galápagos of the South Atlantic”, but the lead-in time involved in publishing a book has led to it being slightly out of date in one respect. It says: “…the airport will doubtless change St Helena eventually, but it won’t make it any less exciting or curious as a destination in the short term. Mobile phone reception will remain a rumour…”

Last chance: to St Helena on the RMS – Lonely Planet travel article

Top 10 Regions in Lonely Planet’s Best in Travel 2016

  1. Transylvania, Romania
  2. West Iceland
  3. Valle de Viñales, Cuba
  4. Friuli’s wine regions, Italy
  5. Waiheke Island, New Zealand
  6. The Auvergne, France
  7. Hawaii, USA
  8. Bavaria, Germany
  9. Costa Verde, Brazil
  10. St Helena, British Territories
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Comair plane collapse highlights St Helena safety needs

Fire crews stood by after a Comair plane collapsed after landing. Click the image to see Warren Mann's picture in full.

Fire crews stood by after a Comair plane collapsed after landing. Click the image to see Warren Mann’s picture in full.

An aircraft operated by Comair collapsed on to its side after landing at the OR Tambo International Airport in Johannesburg.

The operator – which is due to commence flights to St Helena in early 2016 – reports that all 94 passengers and six crew were safely disembarked with no injuries after one of the plane’s front landing wheels gave way.

The main runway had to be shut down with flights diverted to an alternative – raising questions about what would happen if a similar incident occurred at St Helena’s airport, with its single runway.

The Comair plane rests on one side after collapsing following landing. Picture: Warren Mann

The Comair plane rests on one side after collapsing following landing. Picture: Warren Mann

The Boeing 737-400 had already safely touched down and was performing landing procedures on the runway when crew noticed an unusual vibration. The left landing gear then collapsed and the aircraft came to rest on its wing.

The extent of damage was not clear from pictures.

If a similar incident were to happen on St Helena, removing a plane with a damaged wing would be a major challenge.

Britain’s Daily Express website reported the incident under the sensationalist headline,
BA flight emergency after landing gear collapses and wing ‘BREAKS OFF’ – above a picture showing the wing still clearly attached.

It quoted passenger Warren Mann, who took the pictures on this post, describing sparks coming from the wing as it appeared to come away from the aircraft.

Picture courtesy of Warren Mann, a passenger on the aircraft

Picture courtesy of Warren Mann, a passenger on the aircraft

The airline issued the following statement:

Johannesburg, 26 October 2015: Comair confirms that flight BA6234 a 10:35 departure from Port Elizabeth, with 6 Crew and 94 Passengers on board, was involved in an incident on landing at OR Tambo International Airport today.

We can confirm that all passengers and crew safely disembarked with no reported injuries. Passengers have been taken to the terminal building where staff are currently on hand assisting them and Comair offered all passengers counselling following the incident.

The incident involving a Boeing 737-400, registration ZS-OAA experienced a failure with the landing gear shortly after touching down. The aircraft was on the runway for a short period performing standard landing procedures when the crew noticed an unusual vibration which was followed shortly by the collapse of the left landing gear. ACSA emergency services were dispatched and responded to the scene immediately and assisted passengers and crew to safely disembark.

After the relevant authorities did their preliminary investigation, Comair received clearance to remove the aircraft and will be delivering all baggage to the passengers.

Comair would like to extend an apology to affected passengers for any undue stress and inconvenience. The safety of or passengers and crew is our top priority and Comair and the relevant authorities will be conducting the necessary investigation over the coming days.

Britain’s Express newspaper misreported the incident as a “terrifying” emergency landing:

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200 years on, Napoleon steps ashore once again

Two centuries have passed since Napoleon Bonaparte stepped ashore on St Helena on the evening of 17 October 1815, bringing the island global fame that has endured ever since.

In the early evening of 17 October 2015, that transforming moment was re-enacted by island actor Merrill Joshua, decked in full imperial costume: the culmination of a series of celebrations and commemorations.

The week’s events have chronicled by photojournalists Sharon and Darrin Henry on their What The Saints Did Next website. See their piece here.

More reflections – in French and English – can be found on the Île de Sainte Hélène – Atlantique Sud page on Facebook.

A highlight of the week was the visit by HMS Lancaster and the RFA Gold Rover. A story and pictures appear on the St Helena Government website, here.

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PICTURES: Royal Navy’s Wildcat helicopter on St Helena

Wildcat Prepares for Take-off 660One of the Royal Navy’s new Wildcat helicopters flew several sorties over St Helena during commemorations for the 200th anniversary of Napoleon’s arrival on the island in 1815.

On Wednesday 14 October 2015, it became the first helicopter to land at the islands airport – nearly a month after the arrival of the first aircraft ever to land.

The attack helicopter has deployed with HMS Lancaster, which visited the island along with the RFA Gold Rover for the commemorations.

Click on the thumbnails to see larger images, kindly supplied by St Helena Government and the UK Ministry of Defence.

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Party spirit grips ‘HMS Ascension’ as island sails towards the red

The people of Ascension have been marking the 200th anniversary of Britain claiming possession of their island with “a series of junketings”, reports The Spectator magazine.

But the party spirit may give way to gloom over the prospects for “this strange and marvellous place”, says writer Duff Hart-Davis.

“Marc Holland, who took over as Ascension’s Administrator last year, is worried about the financial future,” he writes.

“Annual income of nearly £7 million comes mainly from the British government, but Ascension is sliding towards the red. Much of the island’s infrastructure is rundown.”

As Mr Holland is quoted as putting it: “We’re in an East German situation, in that we’ve inherited a degraded estate. The trouble is that we have no West Germany.”

A new park has been created to mark the bicentenary, with a centrepiece created by metal-worker Nick Tayler. Celebration events include a cricket match, a treasure hunt, dances, a Royal Marines Band concert, and “party after party.”

The greatest cause of jubilation, says Hart-Davis, has been the announcement of an air-link between Ascension and its neighbour St Helena, 700 miles to the south-east.

It is not clear whether this will bring a boost to tourism on the island, as the writer suggests, with only one flight between St Helena and Ascension per month.

Two naval offices went ashore and claimed Ascension for Britain at 5.30 p.m. on 22 October 1815, a week after Napoleon reached St Helena. The island became HMS Ascension – a stone frigate – as a means to frustrating any attempt to use it as a base from which to rescue the captive emperor.

Notes from a very small island: wonderful, eccentric Ascension – The Spectator

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Breakthrough at last on Ascension-St Helena flights

Monthly flights between St Helena and Ascension Island have been negotiated, after months of discontent over the vital link being excluded from the original deal with winning contractor Comair. Each month, of the the airline’s Saturday flights from Johannesburg will land at St Helena and then continue on to Ascension for an overnight stop, before a return flight on the same route. Executive councillor Lawson Henry had led angry calls for a way to be found for Saints working on Ascension and the Falklands to be able to fly home without expensive detours of many thousands of miles. Ascension Island Government acknowledge support from Governor Mark Capes and Enterprise St Helena in applying pressure for the link to be provided.

Read more here.

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