Saturday, June 27, 2015

Under the Loquat Tree with Doctor Creagh

     According to modern weathermen this past winter in the Canary Islands was the dullest in terms of prolonged low temperatures, as well as the driest for seventeen years. But, sheltering from the mid-day sun under a nispero or loquat tree in my garden, just inland from the northern shores of Tenerife, I can only agree with those many 19th century British scientists, artists, doctors or mere travellers who wrote such admiring articles about the climate in the Canary Islands and especially of that to be found in the Orotava Valley.


Loquats in the Orotava Valley (Eriobotrya japonica)

     One of them was Doctor Jasper Creagh. In 1889 he wrote one of those articles for the British Medical Journal after spending three months in the valley, which was in those days carpeted with fields in blossom and the beginnings of banana plantations, a produce which replaced the cochineal industry.

     He had spent the previous twenty years living in Buenos Aires, Argentina as a doctor for the British community. The climate in that part of the world can vary between freezing cold winters and stifling summers so it is perhaps not surprising that Doctor Creagh found the climate here so gentle. Nevertheless he decided to visit the island after hearing so much about the charms of Tenerife and its weather from earlier travellers and during his stay he took very scientific notes to support such praise for the climate.

La Orotava

     The doctor spent a few days exploring the island on horseback and in carriages before falling for the colourful charms of La Orotava. It was here that he began to make observations, taking into account the weather patterns and temperature variations. In his article for the British Medical Journal he referred to Sir Morel Mackenzie who had also stayed in La Orotava during the winter of 1888 and had observed that Tenerife has three great advantages….the relative constancy of the temperature, the dryness of the atmosphere and the variety of weather in a small space. Mackenzie was one of Britain's pioneers in laryngology. 


Sir Morel Mackenzie

     Doctor Creagh, referring to Sir Morel’s conclusions, compared the climate of Tenerife with another British favourite, Madeira. The average temperature in Madeira was 63°F.  The average in La Orotava was approximately 67°F.  In Port Orotava, the old name for Puerto de la Cruz, bathed by the sea and protected by the mountains, the average temperature was 68°F, ranging from 62°F in January to 76°F in July. It was indeed during the winter months that most Victorian visitors came to stay in the valley and they were greeted with temperatures, from November to March, averaging 63°F to 64°F. A paradise, it would seem.

     Nevertheless, visitors to Puerto de la Cruz this past winter, which was perpetually cloudy and cold, might have felt the same as my mother did 52 years ago. In her diaries she described the weather during most of January 1963 as cold, windy and wet, almost as bleak as the Dartmoor farm from which she had escaped ten years earlier. However she lived in the Orotava Valley, which she loved, for nearly sixty years so would certainly agree with Doctor Creagh who remarked at the lack of atmospheric disturbances in Tenerife. Like Creagh, who described the delights of the sea breeze which gave Puerto its gentle conditions, even in the hottest summer, she too would sit under this nispero tree and enjoy feeling the gentle, cool breeze soothing away the mid-day sun.

Friedrich Heinrich Alexander, Baron von Humboldt, the great German Naturalist and Explorer

     Doctor Jasper Creagh was almost as generous as Alexander von Humboldt who, in June 1799, described the Orotava Valley as a place of varied beauty, with pretty fields, woods and delicious gardens providing a perpetual spring. He was also enthusiastic, as few Victorians were, about bathing. Indeed he noted the sea was warm enough to swim in, even in winter.

A mobile hammock in Port Orotava (Puerto de la Cruz)

     Whilst in Tenerife Doctor Creagh got around on horseback, in carriages or in hammocks. They could all be hired for a very reasonable price. For example he could hire a horse for a whole month for less than 150 pesetas. He had come to the island on a British regular line steamer from South America although he appears to have been most unpatriotic in recommending French ships as the best.

     Representatives from the very few, but fine old hotels in the 19th century, like the Camacho or Quisana Grand Hotel which overlooked the bay in Santa Cruz, met passengers aboard the ships as they docked in the harbour or anchored offshore. They took care of every detail and would have carriages waiting to take passengers to La Laguna or to the Orotava Valley along what Creagh described as an excellent macadamised road. In other words horse drawn wooden carriages would offer a smooth, bumpy ride over compressed layers of stones.

Early postcard depicting the Quisana Hotel

     Whilst Victorian elegance was evident in the grand hotels there were different expectations about travel comfort one hundred and twenty years ago and journeying any distance was still expected to be an adventure. Nevertheless it was thanks to writers like Doctor Jasper Creagh, recommending the qualities of the Orotava Valley as a health resort, that so many British travellers chose to come here in the late 19th century, creating the beginnings of the Canary Island tourist industry.  
 

(Certain images have been reproduced from internet with no personal financial gain intended.)
By John Reid Young
Author of The Skipping Verger and Other Tales, a collection of short stories set in Tenerife.

    

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