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Who would have thought that inhabitants of Cradock once turned up their noses at an opportunity to rent five restored houses in Market Street, because of the supposed stigma attached to their locality?
Their snobbery was to open the door for others. The woman who bought and lovingly renovated the houses, Sandra Antrobus, did not despair. Shifting her focus, she decided to target travellers. Her business acumen paid off, and now these charming old homes, which began life in 1989 as Die Tuishuise, are much sought after by those passing through the town.
Sandra says her involvement in the restoration of the Schreiner House Museum in Cradock in 1980, and the pleasure she derived from this, was to lead her to restore most of the houses in Market Street.
Since those early days, more houses have been added to the original five (there are now 31), as has the Victoria Manor hotel.
But why was Market Street once regarded as an undesirable address? It seems this can be laid at the door of a yen for affluence. After all, who would want to live in an area associated with poverty.
Yet, once Market Street was home to the thriving backbone of many a small country town: wagon makers and all those associated with the trade, such as harness makers. Times change, though, and in the early 1900s along came the railway, followed by the motor car. Suddenly wagon makers were out of business and this became an underprivileged, uninhabited area. Hence the reluctance to rent at this down-market address.
Sandra said: “This poverty was a blessing in disguise as no one had enough money to make any drastic changes to the houses, only to modernise them by putting in steel windows and concrete verandas.
“To date I have replaced steel windows with wooden windows and hollow-core doors with cross and bible doors. I have also managed to replace some verandas with wood, but still have quite a few to replace, as it is not easy to find craftsmen in Cradock to do this kind of restoration.”
Each of the houses is decorated in individual styles to depict the different South African lifestyles in the pioneering days, and Sandra is compiling a history of each house and the people who lived in them.
Though Die Tuishuise thrived, a stumbling block to their reputation was the adjoining Victoria Manor hotel (built in 1848) with its unruly public bar.
So Sandra bought the hotel and closed the bar but retained the dining facilities.
The hotel still has some of the beautiful pressed iron ceilings reminiscent of the Victorian era, though the original broekie lace was removed in the 1950s.
Sandra’s restoration efforts have been crowned with several awards, the most prestigious being the Simon van der Stel Gold Medal for restoration.
None of this has turned her head. “We will always remain just what we are, an old street in a small Karoo town with country folk only too happy to serve you, because you are our special guest,” she said.
Cradock itself has a fascinating history, so I asked Sandra’s daughter, Lisa Antrobus-Ker, who is the front office and human resources manager for Die Tuishuise, to give a brief breakdown. She responded with enthusiasm. Clearly she and her mother have a love affair with their home town.
Lisa said it was established as a frontier town in 1814, and is the fourth oldest town in the Eastern Cape after Grahamstown, Uitenhage and Graaff-Reinet. The original Tuishuise were built between 1840 and 1880.
In 1847, Töger von Abo from Denmark settled in the town. He must have caused quite a flutter, when he set up cages on the town square to house the lions he was sending to Europe.
In 1848 Thomas Baines, the explorer and painter, passed through Cradock and said that it had a population of about 9 000 people. He was impressed with the great buildings of both English and Dutch architecture.
One of Cradock’s most famous inhabitants, Olive Schreiner, author of The Story of an African Farm, moved there in 1867, while the Victoria Manor’s cellar was used as a prison for Boer soldiers during the Anglo-Boer War.
The town is the last place where arms were laid down at the end of the war.
Cradock shot to political notoriety with the killing in 1985 of the Cradock Four – Matthew Goniwe, Sparrow Mkhonto, Fort Calata and Sicelo Mhlauli – outside Port Elizabeth while on their way home to Cradock.
Cradock’s cricket ground and library are the second oldest in the country; Afrikaans was published here for the first time; and in 1868, with 3 000 copies, the Cradock News had the biggest circulation of any newspaper in SA at the time.
Illustrious visitors include Jan Smuts, who was scheduled to arrive by plane in 1942. Conscious of security, he caught the train, and arrived at the airstrip by car to the amazement of all waiting for his plane to touch down.
The future King Edward VIII – who abdicated when he married Wallis Simpson – visited in 1925. When he arrived at the station, his hand was bandaged because he had shaken so many hands.
The town warrants a stopover of a few days, if you have the time to spare. Again Lisa obliged, by listing how visitors can spend their time.
The Olive Schreiner museum, the Cradock Four Memorial, and Great Fish River Museum are major drawcards. Hearsay has it that the organ housed in the last-named was played at Paul Kruger’s baptism.
As to Schreiner’s house, the kitchen floor is made of a mixture of tramped down ox blood and cow dung while the kitchen walls are painted in what appears to be modern turquoise. In reality, in the olden days they mixed aresenic with the paint to repel flies, hence the brilliant blue colour.
For a panoramic view of Cradock, take a drive to Oukop, 2kms outside the town on the Middleburg Road, where you can also see soldiers’ etchings on a rock as the hill was used as a lookout post during the Anglo-Boer War.
The Dutch Reformed Church, too, has a fascinating story. Its minister married an English woman. In Cradock she became so homesick it was decided to build a replica of London’s St Martin-in-the-Fields, copied from the exact plans of Christopher Wren. The only differences between the two churches are the stained glass windows and organ.
Paul Kruger was christened in this church in 1826.
Visit the grave of Dr Reginal Koettlitz, the senior medical officer with Captain RF Scott’s first expedition to the Antarctic on the ship Discovery in 1905. Shortly after that Koettlitz moved to South Africa and started a medical practice in Somerset East. In 1916 he and his wife died in Cradock on the same day – she of a heart disease and he a few hours later of dysentery.
Walk up Buffelskop on the farm Buffelshoek, 24km south of Cradock to visit Schreiner’s grave, or try a dip in the Cradock sulpher spa, which pumps 4 500 litres of water an hour at a constant temperature of 31ºC.
Walk down Bree Street, the oldest street in town. Guy Butler, author of Karoo Morning, lived here. Here too is the gabled home reputed to be the oldest in the town, built circa 1818. Its lounge boasts one of two original painted ceilings in South Africa, painted in 1880 by an Oxford graduate. Famous people such as Sir John Cradock and Lord Charles Somerset stayed there. Its current owner is Sandra.
Other snippets of information are that Mary Butler, the first location nurse in the town, was appointed in 1927 to run a dispensary, while Sir Joseph Benjamin Robinson, the chairman of the Robinson group of mines, was born in Cradock in 1840.
How about a drive to the Mountain Zebra National Park, one of my own favourites.
It provides the visitor not only with animal sightings, but wonderful scenery and makes for a pleasant stopover, for those who don’t want to stay in Cradock itself.
Then there’s Tsolwana Provincial Park, near Tarkastad.
Lisa also mentioned white water rafting; the Xhosa Cultural Village; stargazing; walking trails; Predatours Wildcats between 7-9am and 5-7pm; San Etchings (27km from town) and a tour of the graveyard.
A resident genealogist in the town, is able to enlighten those wanting to learn more about their family stories.
According to Lisa, it is heartening that the town’s mayor, Nyameka Goniwe, the widow of Matthew Goniwe understands the importance of tourism.
If You Go...
l Die Tuishuise & Victoria Manor 048 881 1322. Website: www.tuishuise.co.za
l The local Tourism Office can be contacted on 048 801 5000.
l For more on the Karoo visit www.karoospace.co.za - Sunday Tribune