Great Houses, Great Hikes

My introduction to “da bush” came with a phone call from our friend Rusty one morning many years ago.  At that time he was the founder and organizer of the Negril Fat Tyre Festival, a week-long mountain biking event held every year at the beginning of February.

Our help was requested in marking the trail for both the cross-country and downhill races.  The cross-country race started at the Good Hope Athletic Field and wound through the surrounding bush in a loop, a race course that totaled five miles.  So we walked those five miles; Rusty with his machete, chopping his way through cow and goat trails marking the turns as we went along.

Farm Animals on the Trail

Deep in the bush you’ll find cows and goats – even pigs.  We found them as we walked the prospective bike trail and the riders will find them as they executed their bikes over the rock, rubble and tree stumps.  Farm animals are not the only things you’ll come across in the bush.

At one point we looked up and saw smoke.  Alarmed at first, Rusty calmed our nerves and explained that we were near the “charcoal guys”.  As we approached we found several men feeding branches into a fire, making charcoal.  At that time you could call these guys, place your order and have charcoal for your barbecue delivered right to your door from the bush.

Art from Trash

In another clearing we came upon THE trash pile.  Not litter – trash.  This appeared to be the place where old household appliances came to die.  The remains of old washing machines, clothes dryers, refrigerators and stoves surrounded us.  We made some good use of it.  We collaborated on an art piece that resembled the skeleton of an ATV, honoring the “bike” tradition.  Rusty made a structure to try to fend off the cows from the trail – he dubbed it a “Scare Cow”.

Scare Cow

The Parkinson Great House

My first visit to the Great House in Whitehall coincided with my first experience at the Negril Fat Tyre Festival.  For the nine years that the festival took place, The Great House served as a gathering/viewing point and the starting point of the Downhill Race.

The Parkinson Great House

The Great House (known as the Parkinson Great House, the Spice Factory and the Whitehall Great House) was built around 1790 by Robert Parkinson who was a successful sugar plantation owner in absentia and retired in Jamaica.  The estate boasted fine carved Georgian Mahogany archways and paneling as well as elegant black and white marbled floors.  Robert died at the age of 42 leaving the estate to his brother Ralph.

The Parkinson Great House/Estate

While Ralph was living there he followed the “custom of the country” in which the British Planters kept a bi-racial mistress (known then as “a housekeeper”).  Her name was Betty Grant, a “freed coloured woman” whom he’d bought from the Tryall Estate and then set free.  Together Betty and Ralph had four children.  When he died in 1806 his will stipulated that Betty receive 50 pounds per year for the rest of her life as well as seven house slaves and all the furniture from his bed chamber.  Each of the children were left 2,000 pounds and sent to England to be properly educated.  It was Ralph’s wish that the children never return to Jamaica.  Because they were three-quarter white, he knew they would “pass” for 100% white in England where in Jamaica they would be outcasts.  Because Ralph and Betty were never legally married, he was forced to leave the estate to his nearest living white relative.  His brother Leonard has made a great fortune in Jamaica and chose to use that fortune to further is success in England.  Ralph thus passed over his successful brother and left the Great House and the estate to his favorite nephew Matthew who was already living in Jamaica at that time.

It was only upon Matthew’s death in 1815 that the estate passed from the Parkinson family into other hands.  It somehow “fell” into the hands of John Altham Graham.

Inside the Manor

And this friends, is where the Google trail goes cold.  Subsequent searches and research unveiled that the Jamaican Government took over the property in 1971 from William Cargill.  It had a brief life as a disco in the early 1980’s and the last ownership recorded in cyber-space had it belonging to an American from Cincinnati, Ohio.

The Great House

In 1985 the Great House was gutted by fire.  Today what remains is the stone shell of what was once a most elegant manor.  In parts of the “building” you can still see where the marble floor tiles lay.  As you walk through the ruin you can almost feel the splendor of what it once was.  Now it is a “ruin”, a monument to the British Colonial days two hundred years ago.

View from The Great House

When I was last there the property looked to be maintained.  The lawn was mowed and there used to be a picnic table and rope swing from where you could take in the view.  It is one of the best views in the Negril area; sweeping across the Great Morass, Great Morass, Long Bay and Negril’s famous white sand beach.

Cottonwood Tree

On the other side of the building stands a Cottonwood Tree that is reported to be 900 years old.  Of course, no one knows for sure – I’ve been told it was anywhere from 600-1200 years old.  Splitting hairs really – that tree has borne witness to the construction of the house, all of its life and inhabitants, its disco, its fire and now stands over it like some huge guardian angel, branches spread wide ready to give the visitor a bear hug.

Sadly, visiting this quite interesting place just a few minutes outside of Negril is no longer an option for me.  While the tree wasn’t looking a group of friends we’d sent up there to check the place out were robbed at gunpoint, the thieves using the stoic ruin as a hide-out to ambush them.  I’ve not sent anyone else there, nor have I returned since.

In Search of a Cave

A friend of ours has property between Orange Bay and Green Island that measures roughly one square mile.  Included in that acreage are a Great House, remnants of the three-hundred year old windmill, a couple of acres of beach front…and a cave.

The cave was last explored in the 1970’s and our friend remembers climbing into and around it as a child.  Since then though it has “gone back to the bush”.  Locked within, according to our friend, are artifacts belonging to the Arawak Indians, also known as Taino, who were wiped off the face of the earth by the Spanish in the 16th Century.

Les has been dying to get into that cave since he’d first heard about it, anxious to photograph it and its contents.  The discussion had been going on for a couple of years and our friend assured him that he’d have “his man” go out to find it, clear it and get it “ready” for exploration.  Unfortunately, “his man” was getting on in years and was not nearly as excited at this prospect as our friend would have hoped.

Great House, Green Island

The property has been in our friend’s family for four generations.  His people came over from Scotland as indentured servants and worked their way into ownership of this estate.  Like many others, it was probably originally a sugar plantation and with each generation evolved into different types of agricultural concerns.  The Great House, nearly four-hundred years old, has been built upon and updated and inhabited throughout up until recently.  It is there that our very own Lewis and Clark met early one morning in February 2011.  It was from there that they embarked on their adventure to find this cave.

Windmill Entrance

Not far from the Great House they came upon the old Windmill, the only other structure standing from the original plantation.  It is imposingly large with a series of steps reminiscent of an entrance to an ancient temple.  Les explored its innards – the archways and stone and bush growing in and around it.  On a wall, in bright red was a reminder literally set in stone of the savagery of the days of bondage.

Eery Reminders

From there the pair slogged through bush and more bush.  Armed with a machete and a distant memory, our friend led the way, walking carefully, chopping through thick bramble pausing to ponder and get his bearings.  Both are wearing “bush-gear”:  Covered from head to toe, they are wearing long pants, socks and shoes, long-sleeved shirts trying their best to prevent picking up those tiny tics that are everywhere in the jungle.  As they battle through acres of elephant ear plants that are as big as their head they had a sense of adventure that must have surely served as a distraction for the fear of being hopelessly lost.

House Plants Gone Wild

At one point they approached a clearing.  There appeared to be a small shack, a fence and the remnants of a wood fire.  Our friend proceeds in to check things out, cautioning Les to stay back until he sees what’s up.  If it were squatters, things could get dicey.  After a brief inspection it is determined that the place has been abandoned for sometime now, so Les comes in, they both sit down, chill and plan their next move.

In A Clearing

Just before sunset our two weary explorers show up at our door.  They are dirty, hot and exhausted.  I poured our friend an Appleton and Pepsi, Les relaxed himself with a spliff.  Tired as they were they told their tale and were quite excited.  While they never did find the cave, they came close.  They are certain that now that they know where they are going and have made some head-way in clearing the trail, their next excursion would certainly uncover their “holy grail” and what lies beneath it.

To be continued….

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2 Responses to Great Houses, Great Hikes

  1. Audrey Wright says:

    Love these stories…makes me seem like I am right there with you. Very interesting.

  2. John Robert says:

    When I stayed at Whitehall in 1970, it was owned by the Mitchell family, related through marriage
    to the Parkinson family. At that time, it was managed by Hunter Mitchell.

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