Bridgetown Literary Tour at the home of Frank Appleton Collymore

IT WAS Bridgetown as we’d never seen it before—a uniquely literary view of this centuries-old city. The signature event of Bim LitFest 2014, the Bridgetown Literary Tour took participants on a journey through Barbados' cultural history while celebrating the work of twelve of the island’s writers. Some of these writers have been widely celebrated; others have sunk into near obscurity. All had informative insights into the city at the heart of Barbados.

The tour was the brainchild of Esther Phillips, of Writers Ink, and ArtsEtc, whose co-founders Linda M. Deane and Robert Edison Sandiford see it as the first of what will become an ongoing educational, cultural and tourism resource. The inaugural tour of May 17 delivered on all three fronts. No matter what you thought you knew about the writers—or the city—you were bound to learn something new.

Telling the story of The City

Led by guides Jewel Forde and Victor Cooke, both gifted storytellers, the tour started at Independence Square facing the Fairchild Street Bus Terminal with a spirited reading of Winston Farrell’s “De Bus Man” by the artist himself. He hopped off, the engine started, and we were rolling through Bridgetown's literary history.

Hearing works read in the settings that inspired them gave us a new appreciation of the poem, story or essay from which they were drawn. That was true of Deane’s “Boats with Names that Rock,” read as we headed toward the Careenage, and the wharf-side reading of Clennell Wickham's column from the Herald—which also provided proof, if needed, that local writers have been covering the island for centuries. (Wickham was better known for his political activism but had a neat turn of phrase and founded as well his own literary dynasty.)

Literature is not just written but sung, so it was fitting that a recording of the Mighty Gabby’s “Bridgetown Market” accompanied the tour to Cheapside as we passed the market.

Just as interesting as the works of the writers were the tour guides’ anecdotes about the origin of the name Literary Row, the theatre where Samuel Jackman Prescod first worked, the arts scene near the now derelict Empire Theatre in the early 1900s, and much more.

We learned things about Bridgetown we had never known but were also struck by how little had changed in some parts of the city over the centuries. The images in H.A. Vaughan’s “To a Tudor Street Shop Girl” are still familiar, while the excellent social commentary in “Meeting in Milkmarket” by John Wickham (son of Clennell) reflected scenes witnessed in Bridgetown to this day.

Tour highlights

For most participants, the tour had two highlights. The first was the visit to the Round House, the Bay Street home of Kamau Brathwaite (which has been in the family since 1893 and is a Barbados National Trust building). There, we looked out at the beach that must have inspired him as a young writer and heard an excerpt from “South.” The sound of children's laughter and the sweet smell of frying fish added to the atmosphere.

The second tour highlight was the stop at Woodville in Chelsea Road, the home of Frank Collymore, where we heard “The Ballad of the Old Woman.” His widow, Ellice, shared some anecdotes about Colly, as he was affectionately known, and the group was able to see the workspace where he created Bim (and so many other Caribbean literary masterpieces) still as he left it—typewriter, books and all. This was a real treat for writers and book lovers alike.

The tour finished with Esther Phillips’ “Pebble. Crab. Iron.” (read alongside Pebbles Beach), an excerpt from Sandiford’s “Reckoning” (by the side of the now much improved Constitution River) and a section of Austin “Tom” Clarke’s “Easter Story” (read next to Church Village).

Literary tours—the future

As Deane puts it, the tour “allows the story of Bridgetown to be told through the writers. Writers have a different way of looking at their surroundings." She adds: “Tours like this can help strengthen the route between Bridgetown and the Garrison, adding interest and value to its recently acquired designation as a UNESCO World Heritage Site.”

There are big plans to do additional tours linked to the local cultural calendar, covering different writers and different themes. Not only will this appeal from a tourism and heritage viewpoint, but it will introduce young Barbadians to their literary history, something that is very important to the tour’s creators.

“Children know so little of our writers, so there will be a literary map of Barbados which you can download as a teaching tool,” says Deane. These literary tours also represent an opportunity for ArtsEtc to unearth little-known Barbadian writers. “It’s about shining the spotlight of discovery in both directions. And about storytelling.”

• Self-confessed word nerd and polymath Sharon Hurley Hall has the perfect job—as a professional writer and blogger. Sharon has worked as a journalist, a university lecturer (teaching Journalism, of course), an editor, and a ghostwriter in a career spanning more than twenty years.