A walk on the old side

 Once you are living in Cayman for a while it is easy to forget its uniqueness in terms of history and culture.
   Taking one of the National Trust’s walking tours gives you the benefits of a local guide’s knowledge and an insight not just into buildings and places, but how people lived and  those who were important in Cayman’s history.
   The George Town walking tour starts at Fort George and our guide is  Denise Bodden, historic programmes manager with the National Trust.
   The harbour front is teeming with cruise tourists but gradually as Bodden speaks, they start fading into the background and a picture of old-time Cayman starts emerging.  
   The National Trust took Fort George over in the 1900s, when only the centre wall and guardhouse remained. The guardhouse was originally a fortified tree house situated on the silk cotton tree and, sadly, both cotton tree and guard house are now gone.
   The fortification was built in 1790 by Caymanians after the British passed a law that Cayman needed to have defences. By the early 1800s, the fort had been erected, but was then destroyed by the Spanish and had to be rebuilt.
   The fortification looks like any old wall until Bodden makes us look closer and explains, “Looking closely, you can see that it contains star and brain coral. It  was originally cemented using  daub derived from coral.
   “The daub was made by putting it in a lime kiln and firing it until it became ash, then adding sand and water, and it works like cement”.
   Not much else remains to tell about life at the fort. There was some archaeological digging on the shore front before the cruise ship terminals were built and finds included ceramic, pottery and glass. A dive also revealed metal from guns off shore.
   In the 1940s, the site was again used for a war effort. This time, it was the Home Guard who took charge of the fort and the old lookout post in the cotton wood tree came back into its own.
   Bodden explains how the Home Guard were posted around the island in lookout posts equipped sparsely with a bunk, binoculars and a field telephone.
   The next bit of the tour is across the road to Elmslie Memorial Church. The first stop off is at the graves of Scots teacher and minister Cyril Simpson McTaggart and his son Dr. Roy McTaggart.  The minister died in 1891 and inside the church a photograph of him reveals a very Victorian looking, upright Scottish preacher.
   Dr.Roy McTaggart became a politician and was vocal in the crucial issue of whether Cayman seceded with Jamaica from Britain in the 1960s. Dr.Roy was adamant that Cayman stay with Britain and the rest is history, as they say.
   The church was built between 1920-1922 by two brothers, Captain Rayal Bodden and Roland Bodden, and was the first cement block building in Cayman
   It is actually the fourth church to stand in that spot, three others were destroyed by hurricanes.
   Inside, the ceiling   especially impresses with its arched mahogany spars. Bodden explains  that the design was apparently in the shape of an upturned boat.
   Outside, at the rear of the car park, there are more graves. These are different though, like a little street of disparately sized houses. Bodden says “House-shaped graves are found in other parts of the Caribbean, but no explanation has been found why they are shaped like this, though there are Jewish ones in cemeteries that are similar.”
   Leaving the church and walking along the harbour, we come to Hogsty Bay – a self explanatory name because it was where the hogs were kept. It was also where ships anchored to load up on phosphate or calcified bird droppings. The phosphate, dug up locally, was used as an explosive.
   We push on through tourists and onto Shedden Road where there are three original buildings dating from the late 1800s -1900s – Kentucky Fried Chicken, Gift and Souvenirs and Far-Away-Places.
   The facades have changed but the wooden structures are original and, in an interesting twist in conservation at Gift and Souvenirs, the old building has been stuck on top of the more modern lower storey.
   At the national museum, Bodden urges us to look closely at the walls which show the old method of building using wattle and daub.
   She explains how the walls were made. “The wattle was made with ironwood that is harder than mahogany.They then would weave wattles with softer wood in-between and cover with daub.”
   Bodden saves the best till last, with a visit to the step well at the back of Bay Shore Mall. Now housed in a building, the well is viewed through glass, somehow making it more impressive and atmospheric; especially when you realise the rock from which the steps are carved is part of an ancient reef.  The well itself contains natural spring water that gathers from rain water seeping down through the rock..
   Emerging back into the 21st century and the crowds of George Town, what remains from the tour is a sense of how resilient the old Caymanians were in the way they used their environment to work for them.

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