St Nicholas Abbey is on a 162-ha (400-acre) estate comprising 91 ha (225 acres) of sugar cane fields as well as lush tropical gullies, mahogany forests, formal gardens and Cherry Tree Hill (260 m), a prominent landmark that you can walk or drive up, or catch the train.
Approached down a long and impressive avenue of mahogany trees, St Nicholas Abbey was never actually an abbey – it has no monks’ cells or cloisters and some have supposed that the ‘St’ and ‘Abbey’ were added to impress. It is, however, one of only three surviving Jacobean mansions in the western hemisphere (the other two are Drax Hall, also in Barbados in St George near the centre of the island, the first place on the island where sugar was cultivated in the 1640s and today a private residence; and Bacon’s Castle in rural Virginia in the US, which, like Barbados, was a wealthy English plantation colony in the 17th century).
St Nicholas Abbey is thought to have been built by Colonel Benjamin Beringer in 1658, but was sold to Sir John Yeamans, who set out from Speightstown in 1663 to colonize South Carolina. The three-storeyed house has a façade with three ogee-shaped Dutch gables over its main portico and cornerstone chimneys and fireplaces of local coral stone; as these are unnecessary in the Caribbean it’s likely that Beringer purchased the plans in England.
Today, scrupulously restored, it is one of the architectural treasures of Barbados, with a Chippendale staircase and cedar-panelled rooms containing antique furnishings including a 1759 James Thwaite of London grandfather clock, an 1810 Coalport dinner service and a collection of early Wedgwood portrait medallions. Visitors are given an interesting tour of the ground floor of the house, as well as the rum and sugar museum and the gardens. The rum distillery uses a traditional pot-still to make the unique St Nicholas Abbey Rum sold in the shop, which also sells molasses and brown sugar from the estate, plus jellies and chutneys made with fruit from the gardens. Behind the house, near the 400-year-old sandbox tree, the Terrace Café serves lunch, tea and other light refreshments.
From the top of Cherry Tree Hill there are glorious views all over the Scotland District, which falls mainly within the parish of St Andrew. It is believed that cherry trees grew here once, but today the road up the hill is lined with mahogany trees.
The St Nicholas Abbey Heritage Railway runs from the station just inside the main gate of the abbey, where there’s also a small coffee shop. It’s a gentle-paced and very scenic 3-km train ride in open carriages pulled by a diesel or steam locomotive. In particular, railway enthusiasts will enjoy seeing Tjepper No 5, built in Germany in 1914 before being shipped to Java, Indonesia to work on sugar plantations, and spending later life in the UK’s steel and coal industries. After extensive restoration it arrived in Barbados in 2019. The railway follows a route past St Nicholas Abbey, around an ornamental lake and through woods and plantations to the top of Cherry Tree Hill. It takes around 1 hr with a break at the top to enjoy the views, and if they wish, passengers can assist the staff with turning around the locomotive on a turntable for the return journey.