Little Stone Top
Little Stone Top, seen from the summit of its bigger brother, Great Stone Top.

Date completed: 25th January 2023.

Weather conditions: The island of St Helena lies in the tropics at around 16ºS, but it is not as hot as this might suggest. Its climate is significantly moderated by the million or so square miles of ocean that surround it. In addition, not only can the weather on the windward south-east of the island (where this walk takes place) be quite different from the leeward side, it invariably is different. At this time of year, while Jamestown, the capital, bathes in pleasant sunshine, the higher regions are frequently shrouded in cloud. On the other hand, when the sun does come out, it can quickly bake you. For walks here I would plan for just about anything: wear sunscreen, but also, bring a sweater or a waterproof jacket.

What I actually got today was fairly pleasant walking weather: dry, cloudy with sunny intervals, a breeze, probably about 20ºC.

Great Stone Top
Great Stone Top, and the only other walker seen today.

Summits bagged: Great Stone Top is 1,621 feet/494m above sea level — and that means right above it, as a cliff drops sheer down to the ocean from the summit.

Two other named summits are also bagged on this walk: Boxwood Hill at 1,424 feet/434m, and Little Stone Top, which does not have a surveyed height but is approximately 1,510 feet/460m. I could not quite reach this last summit, for reasons explained in the route notes below.

None of these are actually the summit of the walk, which is in fact the starting point, at around 1,772 feet/540m.

View from Levelwood
View from Levelwood, with the two Stone Tops visible right of centre.

Start and end point: I walked from the house at which I am staying, but to avoid complicating matters, I will describe the walk as starting and finishing in Levelwood village: specifically a bus stop next to a sign pointing to the ‘Bellstone’ (see route notes), which is on the road from Levelwood to Sandy Bay. In theory you can get a bus here from Jamestown but the schedule is so convoluted that, in practice, public transport won’t permit a walk. So you either need to be staying in the area as I was, or you will need to use a car to reach this point.

Distance: Excessive data charges meant I didn’t Strava this one. Mathieson and Carter’s guidebook (see below) states it is 4km each way from the bus stop; I’d be inclined to increase this somewhat to allow for the bagging of the additional two summits, and it certainly felt longer. Let’s say about 6¼ miles/10km approximately to and from the bus stop, a distance that took me about four hours.

Little and Great Stone Top
Little Stone Top on the left, Great on the right. The route can be seen traversing the slope of LST.

Total ascent: 1,400 feet/430m approximately.

Pub at end: There is a pub in Levelwood, the Silver Hill bar, but this only opens on Fridays and Saturdays, and I have yet to experience it. However, I did manage to get cans of beer at Marcus Fowler’s grocery store, which is only a couple of minutes’ walk downhill from the bus stop: and as Marcus (like almost all Saint Helenians) is an extremely nice guy, he let me drink them on his verandah.

Map: A good, up-to-date 1:25,000 map of St Helena is available on the island for £10 — I bought mine from the Post Office in Jamestown. You don’t need it on the walk, however, as signposting is entirely adequate, and the path is amply cairned in the rougher parts.

Signpost at Levelwood
One of the many signposts on the walk, with the houses of Levelwood behind.

For a walking guide to the whole island, try to find a copy of Ian Mathieson and Laurence Carter’s Exploring St Helena: A Walker’s Guide, published by Anthony Nelson in the 1990s. In some ways it’s now a little out of date but it’s still the only comprehensive reference work for walkers. The 2020 edition of the Bradt guidebook to St Helena is also worth picking up for more general information.

Route: There is great hiking to be had all around St Helena. The island is the uppermost part of an extinct volcano that sits on the bottom of the ocean three kilometres below, having erupted out of the mid-Atlantic ridge some eight million years ago. The coastal parts are almost entirely barren, but inland it is lush and green, rising to the summit of Diana’s Peak at 2,690 feet/820m.

Cairn at the bottom of the final climb.

Around the island are about 20 waymarked trails known as ‘Post Box Walks’, as at the end of each is a box containing a stamp that you can use to confirm you have completed each one. These are basically the walks listed in Mathieson and Carter, with a couple of exceptions where the airport (completed in 2017) has rendered old routes inaccessible.

The Post Box walks are graded on a scale of 1 to 9, with 9 being the hardest. This walk to Great Stone Top gets a 5, making it moderate in St Helenian terms: which makes me wonder what the 8s and 9s are like (in fact there is only one 9, the walk to Powell’s Valley), as it’s certainly got some awkward sections, particularly the climb up to Little Stone Top (although that can be bypassed). Wear proper boots, bring enough water — I got through 2 litres today and it wasn’t even all that hot — and take your time over it. But as long as you proceed sensibly there is no need to be fearful. It’s an enjoyable walk with superb scenery and views.

On the saddle
On the saddle that is the lowest point of the walk.

With the start being the highest point of the walk, you begin with a long and steady descent, past a few houses (don’t wander into their driveways) and then past the Bellstone, a lump of volcanic rock beside the path that, when struck, produces a definite ringing sound. Continue down a track through eucalyptus trees — easily identifiable if you break open their leaves and sniff, as I’m sure we’ve all had Vick’s Vapo-Rub administered in our time.

After a mile or so, this path bottoms out at a saddle, with views down to Deep Valley Bay on the right. Most of the vegetation has petered out by this point, reduced to tough creepers hugging bare, cracked earth (see picture above). At this saddle, the signposted route (not all that easy to spot, in fact) bears to the left, but a fairly clear track also heads up the slope of Boxwood Hill ahead.

Boxwood Hill summit
The trig point on the summit of Boxwood Hill.

Mathieson and Carter suggest giving this summit a miss, but I saw no reason not to surmount it, and doing so does avoid repetition on the return journey. The climb is a bit slippery, but short. At the top is a little trig point (pictured), but this doesn’t seem to stand on the actual summit: and in any case, Boxwood Hill has a double rise, and the way onward lies over the hump to the left (north). The path peters out a bit as it goes up and over this second top, before descending to the col between it and Little Stone Top.

This is definitely the toughest of the day’s three potential tops. The path rises up a narrow arete with steep drops on both sides, and I’d avoid it in high wind. But the ground is not as crumbly as it initially appears so if you stick to the crest of the ridge the climb is safe — at least until just below the topmost rocks, where some small trees have taken hold and make access to the summit difficult. I had a poke around for a minute or two but busting through this vegetation looked more trouble than it was worth, particularly bearing in mind the general precarity of the situation (see picture). Morally I felt I’d made it.

Little Stone Top summit
No way through to the summit of Little Stone Top.

Even in the absence of these trees you couldn’t go over Little Stone Top and come down the other side, so don’t try. Instead, return to the col and then bear left along a path that, again, offers more secure footing than may seem the case at first. This traverses along the southern slope of LST and heads for Great Stone Top ahead. There are several sections of white and weirdly-eroded rock: although I’m no geology expert, this must be tuff, that is, rock formed from ancient deposits of volcanic ash. The path crosses a barren little plain then ascends the rocky slope of GST on a fairly clear and well-cairned path.

Immense drops open up on both sides — to your right, the ocean, and to the left, Sharks Valley with the airport runway beyond (an incredible piece of civil engineering). But as long as you stick to the path, all will be safe. At the top there is a navigation beacon for the airport, the aforementioned ‘post box’, and plenty of rocks on which I sat and consumed a well-earned lunch.

End of runway
One end of the airport runway, on its considerable plinth. Folded dykes of old lava nearer the camera.

The return is the outward route in reverse, except that there’s no reason to go up and over Boxwood Hill again. Instead, bear to the right at the col below Little Stone Top. This path is quite level, but there are some areas of slippery ground above a steep drop, so don’t get distracted by the scenery and keep your eyes on the path ahead.

This track returns you to the saddle below Boxwood Hill — the lowest point of the walk, meaning that (you had remembered this, right?) you have to end with a significant ascent, of over 500 feet. I certainly did not spring up this hill like a young gazelle. The top, and thus, the end of the walk, was reached with great relief.

A tern. They reside here to avoid the northern winter, an approach with which I can sympathise.

Island Exile Commentary: In my whole life I had probably never given a single thought to St Helena before about October 2020. Around that time I met Gareth Drabble, who was the ICT teacher at the island’s high school, and had come over to Manchester to study on the Master’s course on which I teach. Poor bloke had won a Chevening scholarship (these are quite prestigious), left his wife and kids behind, and then found himself locked up in a state of house arrest while we all lived through stage 2 of The Great Fear. It was little surprise when in February 2021 he finally got fed up and went back home.

However, in the short time that he was allowed (by the grace of Bojo the Clown and his Troupe of Comedy Trousers) to get out and about in Manchester, he introduced me to the idea of trying to get some research money that was available to study the impact of the arrival of high-speed broadband internet on his home island: originally scheduled for summer 2022, now due to happen imminently (March 2023). We put a bid together, and happily won it, giving me access to a pot of cash that has allowed two visits to St Helena so far.

Sea cliffs
The summit sea cliffs.

The first of these was in November 2021, and although I had to spend ten days in quarantine on arrival (possible longish rant about Paranoia redacted….), first impressions of the place as a natural environment were extremely good. This is a spectacular island, populated by friendly people — shame it’s been treated like shit by the British government for the last 190 years. Until 1834 it was run by the East India Company who at least tried to invest capital in the place: but since then, Whitehall have mostly treated it as one would a small pimple on some hard-to-reach part of the body; that is, ignored almost totally, until the yet-to-be-defined point in the future at which it can be cut off and left to die.

I wander off on one again, sorry. And I have to accept that one major investment, the airport, has made this magnificent landscape far more accessible to me. On my first visit I did climb to the topmost point, Diana’s Peak, but that seems almost permanently shrouded in cloud, meaning I didn’t get any particularly good photos from that walk. I hope to return later on this present trip, should the mists ever disappear: if I do I’ll blog it on the County Tops site, where it would seem to more appropriately fit. But today’s walk to Great Stone Top can happily sit here. Should you ever feel like getting out this far — 1,200 miles from the nearest continental land (in Angola) — I highly recommend it.

Sharks Valley
Sharks Valley, looking down from the summit of Great Stone Top.
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