Thu | Aug 13, 2020

Guy Symes | Memories of Forestry Department – Holywell and other forest recreation areas

Published:Tuesday | July 28, 2020 | 12:17 AM
Guy Symes
Guy Symes

The recent controversy concerning the offer of a private lease of 7.7 acres of Holywell, part of the Blue and John Crow Mountains National Park, has triggered my memories of the area prior to its management under the Jamaica Conservation and Development Trust. The following notes are an attempt to share some of these memories, regrettably without the benefit of any records or references.

Initially managed by the Forestry Department since 1938, Holywell was a gazetted forest reserve among other forested properties and patents listed together as components of the Blue Mountain Forest Reserve. The main access was via Hardwar Gap, beyond Newcastle, but the reserve could also be accessed via Maryland through Rosehill, another forest reserve at the source of the Wag Water River. Much of Rosehill had been planted by the water commission with Hong Kong Pines ( Pinus merkusii), perhaps in the early 1900s, and later with eucalyptus ( E. saligna). Apparently, the plantings had extended into Holywell to restore the bared areas left by squatters and shifting cultivation.

Even before the demarcation and reservation of most of the island’s forested lands, many of the natural vegetated properties had been visited by hikers and naturalists, and hill treks to the Hardwar Gap region were very popular among nature lovers, birdwatchers, students on holiday, and family outings. For most sites, the department would usually have a forest guard or headman on duty with a quire notebook to record visitors and their comments, and by 1962 the department adopted a ‘forest recreation’ policy to encourage more visitors and appreciation of the amenities of the forests.

During the earlier forest settlement process, a number of small cottages and huts had been built (by the Lands Department) to house the field survey team (mainly, Eric M. Brown and Martin Bertram). For example, wooden houses were located at Portland Gap on the trail to Blue Mountain Peak; Bruton Hall in the hills above the Rio Grande; Bullhead Mountain in the centre of the island; and Hardwar Gap, where at Holywell the cottage was known as ‘Robin’s View’. Occasionally, when not used by staff or survey teams, these cottages were rented for a small fee to overnight visitors, naturalists and hikers, and as demand grew, the department decided to explore the opportunity for increased accommodation.


After Jamaica’s Independence and the departure of the UK conservator, Jan Burra (who had been instrumental in the restoration of the Clydesdale coffee mill and farm buildings), Derrick Dyer was installed as conservator, and later succeeded by Keats Hall, who sought and obtained the Government’s approval for budget funds to open up a series of facilities at Holywell and Gourie Forest Reserves, to provide signage, improved trails, construction of ‘rondeval’ picnic shelters and rustic sanitary conveniences. In 1965, the department decided to build the first log cabin at Holywell to increase overnight accommodation and revenue, as well as to demonstrate the utilisation of plantation- grown timber.

Completed by Easter 1966, the two-bedroom cabin had been designed by the late architect Denham ‘Denny’ Repole and featured a split roof with a northern skylight and a fireplace. Built by the department’s carpenter Lushington ‘Boysie’ McClean, the structure was entirely made of home-grown, sawn eucalyptus timber and was clad on the exterior with specially machined overlapping slabs. In subsequent years another cabin was built, as well as a pavilion for groups.

Over the years, the number of visitors to the recreation area showed a steady increase, and the record of visitors’ comments and suggestions, as kept by forest guards and headmen like Dudley Davis (who lived at Maryland), was a testament to the success of the policy. Indeed, these records would later serve a useful purpose in the defence against a private proposal to lease the entire Holywell recreation area for resort development of mountain cottages. The matter was presented by the then minister of rural lands development at his monthly meeting with heads of department. It was reported that Director of Forestry Keats Hall argued so strongly against the proposal that the minister requested a guided tour of the facilities, and a date was set for after Easter that year. He further indicated that he would invite the proposed developers to join him on the tour. That notice gave the department the opportunity to prepare a suitable management document to support its rationale for the forest recreation policy, and which ably served to demonstrate the importance of the forest recreation policy and the tangible benefits that forests provide to the citizens of the country. Needless to say, it was with a sense of gratification that after the tour, the minister was pleased to deny the proposal and extended his sincere congratulation to the director and the department for how the matter had been handled.

Guy Symes is former managing director of The Forest Conservancy, he has more than 50 years professional experience in forest management and forest industry development in Jamaica, the Caribbean and West Africa. Send feedback to