British forces overseas: Falkland Islands and Ascension Island
Forces are based in the Falklands to demonstrate the government’s continued commitment to the security of UK overseas territories in the South Atlantic. They include air defence assets, maritime patrol capability and infantry forces.
There are also regular naval deployments to the region and temporary deployments for routine exercises. The exact force levels are kept under constant review and are structured and maintained at a level consistent with this policy.
Pre deployment information
All Service personnel deploying to the Falklands are to do so in accordance with the Joint Individual Mounting Instruction.
Personnel deploying with their families are also to read the Families pre arrival pack.
Ascension Island: a short guide
First discovered in 1501 by Juan Da Nova, Ascension was called Conception before being renamed in 1503 by Alphonse D’Alberquerque. A stopping off point for ships, Ascension was not continually inhabited until 1815 when Napoleon Bonaparte was imprisoned on St Helena.
The British occupied Ascension to prevent the French from using the Island as an escape route. The Victoria Marines worked hard to make the Island habitable, introducing a variety of plants and animals. Buildings, which still stand today, were erected up the Mountain and in the Garrison, now called Georgetown. Although almost indefensible, forts were built but British sovereignty was never challenged.
Towards the end of the 19th century Ascension had gone into decline. In 1899 The Easter Telegraph Company (now called Cable and Wireless) found a new use for this speck of land. They laid telegraphy cable on the seabed, and soon Ascension became the centre of communications in the South Atlantic. Later NASA found another use for the Island and tested the moon buggy on the lava flows.
Originally called Garrison by the Victoria Marines, Georgetown houses most of the Islands public buildings. The Church of St Mary the Virgin can be seen within the Islands racetrack. The comer stone was laid in 1843 and it was finally consecrated by the first Bishop of St Helena in 1861. Fort Hayes can be clearly seen on the coastline. Built in about 1860 it is now used by the Heritage Society as a museum. The museum also boasts a splendid picture gallery as well as a large and varied number of artefacts from the Islands history.
The tallest peak on the Island, Green Mountain is often shrouded in mist. It was recognised as having the greatest potential for vegetation and the Marines had a farm up there. In Victoria times and well into the 20th century this provided all the fresh produce for the Island including milk and vegetables. Today, with the advent of the Airbridge from the UK, the farm is considerably smaller than it was. Still standing are several of the buildings including the Red Lion, which despite its name was never a pub in the UK sense. It was originally built to house farm workers.
Just below the summit of the Mountain, the Dew Pond is the highest ‘feature’ on the Island and can be found surrounded by a bamboo forest and a myriad of plant and wildlife. It was dug out in 1875 to act as an emergency water supply, although in practice it would never have been sufficient to provide water for the Island. The path to the top is often muddy and a rope is provided to help both the ascent and the descent.
Sister’s Peak is one of the most recently active volcanic peaks (500 to 700 years ago) of the island and dominates the skyline. A path was cut to the top in 1972 when it was opened as the Hannay Pass but is also famed as being the first ‘letter box’ walk to have been established on the Island. The solidified lava flows down the other side of the peaks can be clearly seen and there are fumarole caves which can be explored.
Two Boats Village
Two Boats was built to house the BBC workers when the South Atlantic Relay Station was opened at English Bay. It is so named after the 2 long boats, which were up ended and placed into the ground to act as shade shelters for the men that moved water from Green Mountain to the rest of the Island. The two boats can still be seen on the way to Dampier’s Drip from a stile at the top of Two Boats Village.
A beautiful cove and one of the only two places where swimming is safe when the sea is calm. A rope has been pulled across the entrance to the cove making it even safer. Ideal for snorkelling when the sea is calm you can see a variety of fish, including Blackfish, which are known as ‘the dustbins of the sea’. Throw in any food substance and it will be enveloped by a Blackfish pushing and fighting to get their share. Inedible and not useful for bait they are perhaps one of the most common sights in the sea especially around the pierhead and are completely harmless to the swimmer.
Comfortless Cove was originally called Comfort Cove. It was where the ships carrying yellow fever docked. Islanders would bring the stricken sailors food and water across the rocks whilst preventing an epidemic amongst their own community. There are several small cemeteries around the coastline but the most visited is close to Comfortless Cove by the name of Bonetta Cemetery; so named after the ship HMS Bonetta which brought its fever victims ashore in 1838. Such desolation led to the change of name. Much later, the first transatlantic telegraph cables were brought ashore at this point some of which can still be seen today.
Boatswain Bird Island
Boatswain Bird Island is inhabited by seabirds and landing by the public is forbidden. Boat trips and divers anchor off its shores and dolphins often play around the boats as they speed through the turquoise waters. The Island can be seen from many vantage points around the Island; the top of Weatherpost or White Horse or simply by walking along from Hannay’s beach next to where the blow hole spews water into a fountain.
In 1923 the English Bay Company began mining guano deposits. The remains of this mining and the old log railway tracks can be seen on the surface of Boatswain Bird Island and around English Bay itself. Even after the English Bay Company stopped commercial operations, the guano off Boatswain Island was collected to fertilise the farm at Green Mountain.
There is the boatswain bird itself with its beautiful long tail that remains fairly aloof unlike the fairy terns, who in their eager curiosity fly low over your heads to see what you are doing. The Ascension frigate bird can be seen circling the skies looking for prey (often baby turtles at the end of the nesting season) but the distinctive red pouches of the male are rarely seen. The boobies are a sight to behold when there is a fry around the Pierhead as they dive straight into the water to catch their share. Other birds include petrels, brown and black noddies and the wideawake or sooty tern.
Things to do on Ascension Island
Ascension Island wildlife
Probably the most famous of the Ascension wildlife is the Green Turtle or Chelonia Mydas which swims from Brazil to the Islands sandy beaches to lay its eggs every November to May. During its 1000 mile journey the turtles fast as there is no vegetation for which they can feed on. Mating off shore the female clambers up the beach to dig her hole and lay up to 120 eggs at one time; each turtle visits the beach up to 10 times over a 17 day period. When these hatch the young make their way instinctively to the sea where a variety of predators ensures that only a few will survive. At one time, the Turtles provided fresh meat for the sailors and were a good source of income for the Island.
Today they are a protected species
The only indigenous inhabitants of the Island are the land crabs and the seabirds. The land crabs are most prolific around the foot of Green Mountain and the old NASA site. They are purple and orange and despite living on the land return to the seashore to lay their eggs.
The sea birds have all but left the Island but in some places they have now returned. Ships inadvertently introduced rats and mice but in a bid to exterminate them, the ferrel cat was introduced. Unfortunately, the cats found the birds much easier prey and drove them onto the hard to reach cliffs and shacks off the coast. Donkeys and sheep introduced by the early farmers for labour and food have since been allowed to roam free causing an unusual traffic hazard, particularly after rain when they stand in the road to drink from the puddles.
Watch the green turtles laying and hatching
The season runs from December to June. Turtles can be found in many locations, but Long Beach, next to Georgetown, is probably the best location. They almost always lay their eggs at night when it is dark, however, please do your watch before 11pm, so if a turtle is disturbed, she will have a chance to try again. Don’t use a torch, approach from the rear and don’t take any photographs until she is well into the egg laying phase or returning to the sea.
When the hatchlings emerge, they wait until it is dark and the sand has cooled, before trying to reach the sea. If they try to cross the beach in daylight, the birds often get them before they reach the water. I would recommend booking with the Conservation group for a turtle talk and watch. These happen on Monday and Thursday evenings at 9pm and costs £5 per person. They show you a video then take you down to Long Beach where they will try and find a turtle laying their eggs and some babies, depending on the time of year. The Conservation office on the main road through Georgetown and is open from 10am to noon Monday to Saturday and at other times on a request basis, Extension 6359.
Walk up Green Mountain and get a stamp in your passport
Ascension Island offers an infinite variety of landscapes. From the dense lush vegetation on Green Mountain, to the spectacular volcanic landscapes found elsewhere. There are many good walks on the island, some easy, some severe, often with splendid views. Many of the walks are known as “letterbox” walks” with rubber stamps to validate your achievement in a map book. The book can be purchased from the Tourist Information Office in the Obsidian Hotel or at the Heritage Centre. Some routes are hazardous and expert advice should be sought before attempting any of them. For safety reasons, we recommend a minimum of three people to do a walk together and please sign a sat phone out of base operations.
One of the most popular walks is at the top of Green Mountain. You can drive up there and park just before the Red Lion (sorry it’s not a pub!). From the Red Lion follow the track up past the old pig farm and on to the cow sheds. Take the path sign posted to the Dew Pond. The path is well marked, but sometimes can be overgrown and is very often muddy. The top section gets very steep and there is a boardwalk and rope for you to help get to the top, not as difficult as it sounds. You can do this with children. The pond was built in the 1870s and an anchor chain just past the pond marks the highest point (2817ft) on the island.
Visit the blow hole at Hannay’s Beach
Take a short drive from Two Boats down Watson’s Way towards the North East Bay, when the road forks right. Park past the Ariane tracking station then walk away from the station down to the beach to where you will find the blow hole.
Don’t forget your camera! There are lots of rock pools here which are full of fish, a great place to visit with children.
Take a dip at Comfortless Cove or English Bay
For Comfortless Cove turn off at One Boat and take a drive down to Pyramid Point Road. Follow the track to the left before the ‘golf ball’ then walk down to the beach. Enjoy a swim and relax on the beach, but before you leave pay a visit to the Bonetta Cemetery at the back of the cove. The Cemetery dates from 1838. It is where victims of yellow fever from among crews of ships patrolling the coast of West Africa were laid to rest.
To get to English Bay turn right off Pyramid Point Road, onto English Bay Road. Go past the BBC Atlantic Relay Station, take the left turn just before the power station and follow the road down to the main beach. There is a good barbecue and covered area should you want some shade down on the beach. Both beaches are excellent for snorkelling as there is a great variety of marine life to be seen.
NB: These are the only two beaches where you can swim and even then, do not swim if there is any swell running. Over the years several people have been killed by swells lifting them and dumping them on the rocks.
Take a walk through the Wideawake (Sooty) Tern colony
This is seasonal and will depend on when the terns are nesting on Wideawake fairs at the back of the airfield. Please get advice from the conservation people in Georgetown if you want to go there on your own otherwise you take trips out on a Wednesday at 1000 hrs (for 2 hours) with the conservation office. Cost is £5 per person.
Visit St Mary’s church Georgetown
Built by the Royal Marines in 1843, St. Mary’s Church contains many interesting memorial stones and gives a real taste of Ascension Island history. It also contains stained glass windows in memory of those men who lost their lives in the Falklands. St. Mary’s is open 24 hours a day and the door is only closed to keep out the donkeys.
Take a drive up the NASA road to The Devil’s Ashpit
As you drive up the road watch out for the yellow and purple land crabs, which live in burrows on the side of the road. They like to live quite high up on land, only returning to the seashore to breed and lay their eggs on the beaches near the high water marks. At the end of the road you will see the old NASA control building. This area is the starting point for several walks on the east of the island. If you are equipped to do some walking, the Weather Post and Devil’s Cauldron are worth the effort from this point as they give the best views of Boatswain Bird Island.
Go big game fishing
Fishing is a very popular pastime at Ascension, both as a hobby and to supplement the diet and many people fish either from the shore or boats. The waters around the island host a wide variety of fish. Offshore can be found such species as Tuna, Wahoo, Marlin, Sailfish, Dorado and shark. Inshore Grouper, Bullseye and Congor Eel can be found. There are several skippered boats (with fishing gear included) available for hire at reasonable rates. Contact numbers for local fisherman can be obtained from the reception at the Obsidian Hotel.
Note: Fishing from the rocks around Ascension can be dangerous due to tidal surges and unpredictability of the sea state. Before attempting any form of fishing on Ascension, you should be wise to seek the advice of an experienced fisherman.
Visit the museum
Fort Hayes Museum is run by the Ascension Island Heritage Society, and is well worth a visit. It is packed with information, photographs, historical facts and hands on things for the kids.
From the road to the side of the Saints Club, heading towards the pier, the museum is sign posted to the left. Follow down the hill and the main museum building is on the left. On the right is Fort Hayes itself and part of the museum is under it.
Visit a fumerole
Fumeroles are formed when large air pockets appear in red hot lava as a volcano erupts. When the lava cools a fumerole, or cave, is created. There are many fumeroles and caves around the island to explore. A good one to visit with kids is the fumerole behind Command Hill, as it is easy to find and fairly easy walking to get to it. The reception at the Obsidian Hotel holds a folder that is full of fumeroles to visit and maps how to get there.
Go diving (experienced divers only)
The diving conditions are usually excellent with clear warm water and a wide variety of marine life. Sea conditions are particularly variable from November to May. Large swells can build up which can make diving impossible. There are no rescue or hypabaric facilities on the island, so safety is paramount, with divers having to take full responsibility for their actions. Conservative dive profiles, safety stops and voluntary depth limits make sense when the nearest recompression chamber is at least eight hours flight away.
The gym at Travellers Hill is well equipped with squash court, cycling machines and weight training equipment. Various sports happen on a regular basis and anyone can join in, extra bodies always welcome!
There are tennis courts in Two Boats Village and the American base. All these courts are free to use.
In Georgetown there is a small saltwater swimming pool that is open all day, but there is no lifeguard. Head towards the pier and as you reach the bottom of the hill turn right. About 150 metres on your right you will find the pool. It is free to use.
At Two Boats Village there is a fresh water swimming pool situated behind the Two Boats Club that is free to use. There is no lifeguard and entry is gained via a keypad on the gate. The entry code is 231. The pool at Travellers Hill is for the more serious swimmer. There are sun loungers round the pool and there is a lifeguard. Access is limited - time can vary so check once you are in Ascension.
Golf is a very popular game in Ascension. The 18 hole golf course at One Boat (about half way between Georgetown and Two Boats) offers a unique environment to play golf. The “greens” are called “browns” and are made of crushed compacted lava smoothed flat with diesel oil and around the edges of the fairways large boulders of volcanic rock can be found. It is a very challenging course and it is recommended that you play with a local who is familiar with the course.
The golf course is open 7 days a week. The cost is £2.50* for a 9 hole game and £5.00* for a full round. There is a friendly match played every Thursday afternoon, which anyone can join in. * Prices are subject to change.
Note: You must provide your own golf clubs or try the gym at Travellers Hill who may have spare clubs