Off the rails in Bermuda

By Simon Calder

The ill-fated Bermuda Railway has received a new lease on life thanks to its popularity as a walking and cycling path, writes Simon Calder.

Gibb's Hill Lighthouse is a landmark for mariners and pilots - and a place for bikers and hikers to refuel, with a restaurant at ground level. Photo / Thinkstock
Gibb's Hill Lighthouse is a landmark for mariners and pilots - and a place for bikers and hikers to refuel, with a restaurant at ground level. Photo / Thinkstock

Agreed, the Trans-Siberian Railway and the Bermuda Railway are unidentical in scale. One traverses 9656 kilometres of the least hospitable terrain in the world; the other tootles for 35.4km through a gently beautiful mid-Atlantic archipelago. Yet when it opened in 1931, Bermuda's line fulfilled the same purpose as Russia's: stretching across much of a nation and binding together communities unconnected by car.

As an engineering venture, the Bermuda Railway was bold and brilliant, snaking most of the length of the archipelago. As a business venture, it proved a disaster: one of the most unprofitable and short-lived lines in the world.

Happily, as a walking and cycling path, it is a triumph.

George Fergusson, who was sworn in last week as Governor of this mid-Atlantic territory, will soon discover the joys of hiking and biking (presumably in Bermuda shorts) through a serene and beautiful land. You can't do that in Siberia.

The place to start your journey is where Bermuda's first community grew: the Town of St George - known as St George's.

All the early human inhabitants of Bermuda tried desperately, but failed, to avoid the archipelago: they were shipwrecked there while trying to travel between Europe and the Americas.

Most of the wrecks actually took place on the way back from the New World: Bermuda was a landmark for mariners, signalling the point at which they turned to head due east, but if it appeared on the wrong part of the horizon then prevailing winds could mean the ship could not avoid being driven ashore.

Bermuda's first recognisable community was the result of the westbound sinking of the Sea Venture, which came to grief en route to its intended destination of Virginia. The sailors - as was the habit - ensured they brought the carpenter's tools ashore with them, and found enough native cedar on Bermuda to build an entirely new ship, the Deliverance, to take them finally to Jamestown.

But the notion of a settlement had taken root, and gradually St George's blossomed. It is dominated by the oldest Anglican church outside the British Isles: St Peter's, recently rededicated by the Queen as "Their Majesties' Chappell". (Bermuda may be independent enough to field its own team in the Olympics, but over the Jubilee weekend it was more British than Britain.)

St Peter's is notable for its roof, in which the hand of ship-builders can be seen, just as the ghostly Unfinished Church up the hill is notable for its lack of a roof.

The cottages and churches of the town are Unesco-protected, but this deliverance came too late for the old station. Just beyond the sign that says 'Town Centre' with arrows pointing in opposite directions, track down the start of the trail.

The adventure begins here, scything across to the jagged north coast that devoured so many ships. The shoreline is pocked with beautiful bays, almost all empty (the best beaches, and the pinkest sand, are on the south coast).

The line follows the curves of the shore, sometimes threading through trees but mostly clinging to the coast. The exposure to the Atlantic was one reason why the line failed: one year of battering by oceanic weather equates to perhaps 10 years of wear and tear in Britain. On this stretch, you sometimes must divert where the trail has dissolved into the sea.

This was a trans-Atlantic railway, since the line crossed from one atoll to another several times during its course. Old pillars salute the builders, but today's users have to make do with a couple of stretches of road.

At Flatts Village the trail shifts subtly inland, and the character changes. You feel you are walking or cycling through the outskirts of a village, each house is painted a pastel colour, wrapped in a profusion of sub-tropical flowers, and has a roof painted white - the latter to do with the intricate rainwater-recovery programme, which extracts the maximum from this precious resource.

A short way off the trail, you can find the (horti-) cultural heart of Bermuda. The Botanical Gardens spreads eloquently down a hillside towards the south shore, with the Masterworks Gallery at its heart. This year sees a celebration of one of Bermuda's most renowned temporary residents, John Lennon, who found inspiration for his final album, Double Fantasy, in an orchid of that name.

Bermuda's capital, Hamilton, is well worth exploring - but you won't be able to do so if you stick rigorously to the Railway Trail. The line flicks an "S" in the middle of the archipelago, with the top left of that shape the closest it gets to the city. A railway that failed to serve the capital was perhaps doomed to fail.

The lower part of that "S" takes you to a third incarnation of the trail: burrowing through woodland, with opportunities to divert and explore the beaches of Bermuda. Elbow Beach is closest to the capital, but if you feel at all crowded just wander further to Warwick Long Bay.

A little further, Gibb's Hill Lighthouse is a landmark for mariners and pilots - and a place for bikers and hikers to refuel, with a restaurant at ground level.

The line fizzles out in the village of Somerset, but you can continue to the end of Bermuda. The archipelago and the railway are both 35.4km long, so why is the terminus not at the natural end of the island? The answer lies in the S-bend thrown in the centre of Bermuda, which adds 4.8km to the trail. And so there remains more to explore.

Pause as you cross Somerset Bridge and note the groove in the centre; this is raised to allow yachts' masts to pass through, making it the narrowest drawbridge in the world. Then follow the road that now curls from westbound to northbound towards the far end of the archipelago. The Royal Naval Dockyard, which used to serve as a repair-and-replenish station for the Queen's fleet, has been reinvented as a cruise port.

The massive complex has been converted into shops and restaurants, aimed at passengers who will get only one precious day in Bermuda. Few of them make it to the the highest, furthest, most heavily defended point, on which stands the handsome Commissioner's House. It now houses not a handsome Commissioner but the National Museum of Bermuda, telling an enthralling story from accidental settlement to financial acumen.

A modest chapter is devoted to the Bermuda Railway, which - as it records - survived only 17 years. The decision in 1946 to allow locals (but not tourists) to drive private cars sealed the line's fate. From the verandah outside the Commissioner's House, you can survey almost all of Bermuda - and plan more excursions by ferry and bus, but not train.

The railway was lost to a Bermuda triangle of lost passengers, squeezed public finances and crumbling infrastructure. But it had had one more journey in it. The rolling stock was taken some 3200km south to British Guiana. For a time it shuttled along the coast before nature reclaimed the railway.

In Bermuda, the old line is helping visitors, locals and the Governor to reclaim nature.

- INDEPENDENT

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