Although Harrington Sound is a place of great scenic beauty, it is also unique from a biological and geological point of view. We Explore its distinctive waters, wildlife and surroundings.
At first glance, Harrington Sound on a small tourist map of Bermuda appears to be a landlocked freshwater lake with the three parishes of Hamilton, Smith’s, which splits Hamilton in half, and St. George’s fitting neatly around it. The narrow channel under Flatts Bridge connecting Smith’s with Hamilton can scarcely be seen on a small map. But it is definitely there and it is that channel which links Harrington Sound with the ocean and helps to make it a saltwater body of water, accounting for 50 percent of the Sound’s tidal flow. The other half comes through the many surrounding caves and fissures so characteristic of this area in Bermuda.
These days, as has happened for hundreds of years, people stand on Flatts Bridge and gaze down at the water, mesmerised by the tidal race between Flatts Inlet and the “Little Sound” which changes direction approximately every six hours. When they look up and across the Sound, they see an expanse of tranquil water surrounded by hills and cliffs (although the cliffs are best seen from a boat) and dotted with islands. If they are lucky a shoal of fry will jump, a sudden silver spray springing out of the water. If they are luckier still, they will see a spotted eagle ray, entering the Sound from the bridge, suddenly leap in front of them and then dive back down, hunting for shellfish.
Perhaps the Sound’s lagoon-like appearance is what has given rise to a few myths. “The water is bottomless,” many a Bermudian will tell you. It isn’t. But approximately two miles west to east and one and a half north to south, Harrington Sound drops to slightly over 80 feet in some places, the deepest part of the Bermuda platform. Another mistaken belief holds that Harrington Sound is a volcanic pool. However, as will be seen, its origins are far more recent than Bermuda’s volcanic beginning. Also mistaken is the commonly held conviction that Harrington Sound is a sinkhole or a collapsed cave.
One story told to a Bermudian student by his history teacher at a local school is more dramatic. Apparently, an American biologist visited the island and explored Harrington Sound in a submarine. He was so shocked by what he saw, he promptly left Bermuda and never returned. It has to be admitted that this is an uncorroborated account, with no details explaining the biologist’s horror. If he did catch sight of a Bermudian equivalent of the Loch Ness monster, no-one else has seen it since.
While these myths are untrue, there is much about Harrington Sound that is special,indeed—from a biological and geological point of view—unique. And it is a place of great scenic beauty as Susette Harriet Lloyd, a missionary who stayed in Bermuda from 1829 to 1831, noted in Sketches of Bermuda: Harrington Sound is “encircled by a chain of lofty hills, which form a tranquil inland lake with many laughing islands rising on its surface; so still, that the slightest bark may glide along in security, and yet sufficiently deep to shelter a fleet. It is in fact a great natural basin, above which seven miles in circumference, with upwards of 15 fathom of water.” Interestingly, she goes on to say: “It is also well sheltered against the wind, and being situated in the heart of the colony, between St. George’s and the mainland, would be a position for which both might be covered for any hostile invasion…These advantages have induced several persons to propose it for the great rendez-vous of our fleet.”
Indeed, in 1809 it was proposed to cut a channel from the north shore to Tucker’s Bay on the western edge of Harrington Sound, north of Flatts Bridge. Harrington Sound narrowly missed being the venue of our Royal Naval Dockyard. And so, unlike our other Sounds—Castle Harbour in the east, the Great and Little Sounds in the west—no parts of its coastline and channel have been artificially reformed by humans for military reasons. It is also unique in that unlike our other Sounds, it does not have large connections with the ocean and it therefore has a very small tidal rate and flushing rate.
While the Harrington Sound region was never the busy hub that Dockyard became on Ireland Island, it did become a popular residential and tourist area resulting in the many properties that surround the water. Tourist accommodations Angel’s Grotto on Harrington Sound Road and Harrington House opposite Leamington Cave, for example, were popular and lively guesthouses. Later, Deepdene Manor would be converted from a private house into a hotel.
Tourists were drawn by the beauty of the water, as well as the magical network of caves—Green Cave under the water and Shark Hole (which Lloyd visited by boat), Leamington Cave on Harrington Sound Road, and the Crystal and Fantasea Caves accessed on Wilkinson Avenue. Indeed, Devil’s Hole was, according to travel writer Euphemia Bell, “one of Bermuda’s earliest and most noted attractions.” The roof of a cave belonging to a Mr Trott had collapsed causing this pool, which he then used as a natural fishpond. He built a wall round it to protect his fish from theft. In 1843 he charged an entrance fee for people wanting to view groupers and angel fish. In Bermuda Past and Present, William Hayward writes: “Let no one entertain the delusion these fish [groupers] are not dangerous. A British officer once ridiculed the fact and to test its truth threw his dog into the pool. In a second, the dog was torn to pieces, and its master departed much chastened in spirit.” Hopefully, this is yet another Harrington Sound fishy tale.
The Sound itself provided pleasurable swimming and sailing activities while also being an excellent venue for snorkelling, thanks to its abundant marine life, some of which is unique. Islands in the Sound were also attractions. Except for Cockroach Island, so called for its shape, even their names have appeal. Trunk Island, Redshank Island (home to common terns which were known as redshanks), Rabbit Island, and Monkey Island all have their stories.
Hamilton Parish’s Anglican church, Holy Trinity, was in existence near Harrington Sound from the seventeenth century. It is famous for its beautiful stained glass windows, two of which were designed by Burne Jones. In the nineteenth century, Bermuda’s first African Methodist Episcopal Church, St. John’s AME, opened on the corner of Harrington Sound Road and Wilkinson Avenue. Today, the Lyceum on Wilkinson Avenue is the centre for the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints, but as will be seen, it was once a lively cultural centre and theatre, founded by three enterprising women.
The Geological Development of Harrington Sound
In both The Natural History of Bermuda and The Ecology of Harrington Sound, Bermuda, Martin Thomas dispels the myth that Harrington Sound was a crater resulting from the volcanic eruption some 110 million years ago which led to Bermuda’s formation. Thomas takes us back to a mere fifteen thousand years ago when Bermuda was much larger and consisted of sand dunes. The dunes were higher around the edge of the land and especially on the south shore. The inland lower sand dunes contained depressions which in time deepened because of erosion caused by rainfall running into them. At the same time, caves, cracks and fissures developed. And so, he argues, it was probable that “the location of Harrington Sound was a large depression among the dunes with a ridge of smaller dunes running in an east-west axis down the centre of this depression.” Those depressions eventually became the north and south basins of Harrington Sound. During this era it was likely damp areas on the bottom enabled some freshwater species to develop. Their dead remains eventually turned to peat, sealing the surface of sand and limestone. The peat also acts as a kind of palimpsest revealing that by eleven thousand years ago there were freshwater ponds, marshes and swamp forests, mostly of palmetto. While the sea levels fell eight thousand years ago because climate warming temporarily reversed, a thousand years later they rose again, flooding into the Sound through the caves, cracks and crevices and drowning the forests. As brackish water replaced freshwater, freshwater life-forms disappeared. Sea levels continued to rise, filling the Sound with water. Three thousand years ago, Thomas says, the Sound would have been shallower than it is today but it would have supported the same flora and fauna other than the larger fish such as the eagle ray.
Flora and Fauna in Harrington Sound
Older Bermudians have memories of snorkelling in the Sound where they could view purple sea urchins feeding on turtle grass and algae, and sea cucumbers, which apparently eat lots of sand while moving—so much that according to scientist W. J. Crozier, who was at the Biological Station between 1915 and 1918, they could process in the Sound between 500–1000 tons of sediment a year. Bermudians would also see barred hamlets, white grunts, or yellow grunts, Bermuda bream, all bottom feeders, slippery dicks, garfish and great barracuda. Mike Jones remembers snorkelling in 1957 around a car that a waterspout had tossed into the Sound during a hurricane in the 1940s. Spiny lobsters had made a home there. All these species are plentiful today. But older Bermudians’ fondest memories are of diving in the Sound for clams, calico clams and sunset tellins in particular, and for scallops, all of which are good to eat. Clams casino, incidentally, was a favourite starter in one of Hamilton’s restaurants during the 60s and 70s.
These shellfish were abundant at one time thanks to the many species of plankton in the water, food for other filter feeders, such as crabs, sea squirts and sponges. But in the 1970s a green seaweed, common pincushion or Cladophoro prolifera, suddenly bloomed and formed algae mats which killed animals and plants by depriving them of light and oxygen. Clams and conchs suffered as a result. Because Harrington Sound’s flushing rate is low and its surrounds are heavily populated, it was thought seeping sewage and pollution were responsible for this proliferation of pincushion. However, the pincushion has since declined whereas pollution has not, as Thomas points out, so a causal connection is not proven.
Since 1993, calico clams have become more plentiful, as have conchs, and both are protected species. Scallops, which were never that plentiful in the first place, have not yet made a comeback though efforts have been made to farm them for commercial purposes. Zebra mussels (Arca zebra) were also once a part of traditional Bermudian cuisine—the essential ingredient in mussel pie or curry—and they too were decimated. But it was not the common pincushion that killed them; it was the ruination of their habitat. Zebra mussels grew on the branches of an ivory bush coral forest too deep in the water for extensive fishing by hand. Dredging by a commercial fishery was carried out, thus destroying the coral.
One unique geological feature is the Harrington Sound Notch, an underwater cleft just below tidal level. Thomas explains, “It characteristically has a fairly flat top, proceeds into the rock for six feet or so and gives way to a sloping bottom which ends at a small cliff going down to the sandy bottom. The height at the entrance of the notch is normally four to six feet…” He doesn’t recommend diving into it because of its jagged edges and fire sponges that sting. Nevertheless, it is an important environment as it supports a hundred different sponges with graphic names, such as dead man’s fingers (Leucetta microraphis) with whitish fingers and violet finger sponges (Haliclona molitba). Corals such as Chinese hat and rose coral live there as do sea anemones, purple and orange sea squirts and little groups of arrow squid and sergeant majors.
William E. S. Zuill mentions the notch in Bermuda Journey saying that it was “due, it is thought to a tidal change of only a few inches which causes the waves to lap without much change of position.” But it is now known that tiny date pit mussels (Lithophaga nigra) are responsible for creating the notch through bioerosion. Their name means “rock eater” so one can imagine them munching away into the rock. Filter feeders, they actually burrow into the rock by scraping away sediments with the serrated edge of their shell and by secreting acids to soften the rock. Not only are they responsible for creating the notch, but also for causing rock falls in the cliffs by undermining them.
Names and Harrington Sound
Go back in history and the reason for a place name is often related to a person or creature who has some connection, or to its shape, or to an event. In early maps, this body of water was named Little Sound but by 1660 it was officially called Harrington Sound after Lucy, the Countess of Bedford. (See sidebar below for more information.) In the case of Harrington Sound’s islands all three reasons are apposite though sometimes their stories continue after their namings.
Situated on the western perimeter, Trunk Island is named on Norwood’s Second Survey of 1663 which says it was occupied by John Roberts who paid 10 pounds of tobacco annual rent and who was expected to grow cedars. Captain Turner, governor from 1646–49, had deforested it, chopping down trees for his own purposes. The theory is the island was named “Trunk” because it was full of felled trunks and stumps. It is the largest of the Sound’s islands.
After the land reverted to the Crown in 1811, it was eventually sold to Augustus James Musson (1792–1887) for £268.6.8. For some reason, he wanted to live there. His wife, Amanda, née Harvey, did not. However, they came to an agreement: he would take her to England while the house was being built. She never had to keep her side of the bargain because she died in 1874 before it was finished. It became known as “The Big House” and it can be clearly seen when viewing the island from a boat. Augustus lived there alone until he died aged 94 in 1887.
In Bermuda Journey, William Zuill remembered that during the 1870s and 1880s Trunk Island “was in demand for impromptu dances. Young people from the neighbouring shore would gather there on moonlit nights with a fiddler (and doubtless with a bevy of chaperones) and dance until dawn.” Eventually, Archdeacon Tucker bought it and his daughter Frances remembers in Bermuda Recollections spending her holidays there.
Today, Trunk Island is an important venue for the non-profit Bermuda Zoological Society, support charity for BAMZ, which now owns much of the land. Recently, it has acquired an additional 2.41 acres which include a cottage (originally the caretaker’s cottage), ideal for running aqua camp explorer classes directly from Trunk Island in the summer, a dock, a rocky shoreline and beach. Fundraiser and former principal curator of BAMZ Richard Winchell explains, “Trunk Island has joined Nonsuch Island in being treated as a nature reserve but while Nonsuch has long been dubbed a ‘living museum,’ Trunk Island will be more a ‘living classroom,’ perfect for allowing students to be immersed in a hands-on, practical approach to learning about the complexities of native and endemic plants in Bermuda’s natural environment and the crucial importance of saving it.” Recently volunteers have carried out restoration work, replacing invasives with cedars and other endemics. You could say they been following the work demanded of Turner in 1663.
According to the Bermuda Atlas and Gazetteer by G. Daniel Blagg, this National Trust nature reserve near Trunk Island was known as Hairbrush Island, first called High Island because it rises steeply from the water. So why did it become known as Rabbit Island? Some people argue its physical shape resembles a crouching rabbit, though it could also be said it resembles a hairbrush. A reference in Lefroy’s Memorials may offer a clue. In 1661 William Righton, constable of Hamilton Parish, petitioned HM Council to “put rabets upon the island in the little sound commonly known as High iland.”
Trevor Rawson, captain of BAMZ’s Callista and Trunk Island Officer, has another theory. The British Royal Navy was known for placing rabbits on islands in territories where it was stationed. Presumably, they saw them as a source of food. As previously mentioned, in 1809 Harrington Sound was being considered as a centre for the fleet, so maybe rabbits were placed on the island in preparation for an influx of sailors.
Past guide books mention that rabbits were on the island, though whether that is true or not is unclear. Today, there is not a rabbit to be seen.
Hall’s or Monkey Island
According to Terry Tucker’s The Islands of Bermuda, this island was first named after Norwood Hall, a ferryman who operated a horse ferry from Ferry Point to Coney Island. An enterprising man, he died in 1801.
In 1970, Hall’s Island became home to 20 gibbons from Thailand where they were subjected to behavioural research conducted by an international group of scientists. It later emerged that half of the monkeys had stimulating devices placed into their brains. The death rate among the apes was high and the research deemed “controversial.” Some Bermudians remember hearing screams from the island. Fortunately, the research ended—today only the new name Monkey Island reminds us these primates once lived there.
Born 1580, the daughter of Sir John Harington of Exton, Lucy was apparently very beautiful and very clever. She spoke French, Italian and Spanish and was passionately interested in the arts, becoming patron to many writers, including poet and dramatist Ben Jonson and poet John Donne. Aged nearly 14, she married Edward Russell, the third Earl of Bedford, and it is said that A Midsummer Night’s Dream was produced especially for her wedding. So why was this Sound named after her? Although she never set foot in Bermuda, she was in her own right an investor in the Virginia Company and subsequently an investor in the Somers Isles Company, founded in 1616. When William Strachey wrote his account of the Sea Venture’s wreck in 1609 in the form of a letter addressed to “ Excellent Lady,” it is likely he was writing to the countess. She died in 1627.
The stone pedestrian bridge crossing Harrington Sound Road to a tower topped with an ornate iron decoration has long been a familiar, though somewhat odd, landmark because it is out of keeping with traditional Bermudian architecture. The tower was actually a boathouse that the bridge connected to a large manor house, which once belonged to American Wall Street investment banker Clinton Ledyard Blair and his first wife, Florence Jennings Blair. The property was built in 1929 on 10 acres of land, which Blair bought from the Church of England in 1926. It cost US $500,000, a huge amount of money in those days. The main house, which once featured a living room with ornate wooden carvings, is now a condominium complex. But the nearby swimming pool with its Grecian pillars and garden setting recalls the former luxury of this property, as does the boathouse right on the water. According to the Bermuda National Trust’s Smith’s Parish, the boathouse was designed by Thomas Hastings, a partner in Carrere and Hastings who designed the New York Public Library and the Frick Museum. Its interior features bird’s eye cedar and Bermuda limestone. The ceiling in the main living room is lined with cedar, shaped to resemble the inverted bottom of a ship, while the floor is planked to look like decking. On top of the tower, Blair’s initials—CLB—are represented by a wrought iron crab chasing a lobster chasing a bee. This whimsy was restored in 2014. On the dock is a copper and stone seat with an umbrella, resembling a stationary carousel. It was dubbed the “wailing tower” because apparently it was here Blair’s wife sat watching him sail on Harrington Sound, horrified by his sailing antics. (At one point he was commodore of the New York Yacht Club.) She died in 1931, the year the house was finished. He remarried in 1936 but his second wife, Harriet Brown, didn’t want to live in it. Unlike Musson, Blair did not negotiate. In 1947 the property was sold to Dorothy Vera Hunter of Harrington House who turned it into a guesthouse and renamed it Deepdene Manor.
Former senator Charlie Marshall remembers that Michael Collier, Helene Adcock and Joan Aspinall, who were members of the Williams Aqua Review, used to train and perform their synchronised swimming events at the pool. Marshall’s wife, Lesley, recalls in the late 1950s watching ballets performed there with the Grecian pillars as a backdrop. The guesthouse closed in 1978.
Wilkinson Avenue and the Lyceum
Wilkinson Avenue is best known for its access to the Crystal and Fantasea Caves, popular attractions since 1907. But it also has some interesting buildings, including the Lyceum. A two-storey building with a gable roof and moulding around the windows and door and gable ends, it was designed in the classical Greek revival style. It owes its existence to three women from leading families in the vicinity. They were determined to create more intellectual and social stimulus for people in the neighbourhood when travel to the City of Hamilton and the Town of St. George was not easy. There was no motorised transport and the pedal bicycle was yet to become popular. Henry Wilkinson explains in the second volume of From Sail to Steam that the Lyceum was the brainchild of three women: Mary Despard, Mary McCallan and Ellen Augusta “Nellie” Sprague. Despard was left a widow at a young age but single-handedly managed a 60-acre farm for many years. She also played the organ and gave “innumerable” music and knitting lessons. McCallan was the widow of William, the son of the Scottish shipbuilder Claude McCallan who had been shipwrecked on the reef in 1787. (See Railway Trail to Bailey’s Bay article.) She was also the older sister of Dr Thaddeus Outerbridge of Willoughby, a house overlooking Bailey’s Bay. According to Wilkinson, “She had a winning smile, a hand ever ready to help, was a voracious reader who liked to read her books, a diary keeper, and the principal founder of the debating club, but not,” he adds dryly, “always the most practical of women.”
The third woman, Sprague, was an American governess to Dr Outerbridge’s children. Wilkinson describes her as a “gifted, literary and nervous lady.” But she felt “relatively well in Bermuda.” Perhaps his medical role in the community influenced his perception of her. The three women worked to found a social and educational centre on land given by Mathilda Wilkinson. They called it “Lyceum” after the garden in Athens where Aristotle taught his students. It opened in 1876 for social functions and as a school in 1877. Plays were often held there as is recounted in Bermuda Journey: “There must be many people in Bermuda who saw a play for the first time in their lives at the Lyceum. At all events this was my experience, and the play was Charley’s Aunt. The unalloyed happiness of that event is hard to describe, but I recall vividly the joyous excitement which accompanied the appearance of the bogus aunt and the delighted apprehension lest the real identity of the imposter should be discovered.”
Balls were also held. In 1878 the Royal Gazette reported in whimsical fashion: “The stage and auditorium of the upper hall was for the nonce transformed into a spacious ballroom, presenting a beauteous scene of light, flowers and fairy like forms: bows racing along violin strings, beaux glancing brightly into beaming eyes that reflected the blushes of loveliness; dainty little feet pattering along gaily to the strains of valse, mazurka and Norwegian. The school room below had changed into an inviting display of ice creams, melons, bananas and other luscious fruit, and the rattle of tea spoons on the saucers vied with the quick discoursing of quadrilles above.”
Later the building was used as a school offering a classical curriculum. More recently, a government preschool occupied the lower storey. Today, it is the centre for the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints.
For centuries Lion’s Rock near Patton’s Point and Devil’s Hole was a familiar limestone formation rising out of the water. A photograph of it is included in Bermuda Through the Camera of James B. Heyl, 1868–1897. It appeared on many postcards and was mentioned in guide books. Named for its shape, it is described by Hayward as “a remarkable effigy of that beast.” Unfortunately, it was destroyed without planning permission in 2017. Some residents were as horrified as Southampton inhabitants would be should Poodle Rock in Church Bay suffer the same fate.