By Francois Rank

In the past 14 years, ownership of the sleepy Eastern Cape hamlet of Middleton has changed hands three times, and the former railway stop is on the market again - for a cool R2,5-million.

Mpumalanga businessman Marius van Koller, who has owned Middleton for the past eight years, put the property on the market three weeks ago and admits it will be hard to give up ownership of his own little village complete with a hotel called Middleton Manor, a pub, police station, petrol station, bottle store, general dealer and a few houses.

"I love the place but I'm quite far from Middleton and it's difficult to manage the business from so far away, so I decided to sell," he said.

Van Koller and his wife have spent eight years renovating Middleton Manor, but decided to sell it when their children showed no interest in getting involved.

"The main reason I renovated it was for my children. I thought one of them could manage it some day, but both of them decided to go in other directions," he said.

Van Koller said he had had calls from many interested buyers.

People from Plettenberg Bay, Cape Town, Paarl, Johannesburg and even Bethlehem had inquired, he said.

Although the town has struggled in recent times, Van Koller believes this will change soon.

"Tourism is picking up and they have finished the roadworks on the Cradock road, which were having a very negative effect on us."

He said he wasn't in a hurry to sell and would consider renting the businesses in the town.

Van Koller said that the eventual buyer would need a hands-on approach to make the business a success.

Middleton was established in 1879 as a train stop and is situated on the banks of the Fish River 140km from Port Elizabeth on the N10 to Johannesburg. The first buildings to be erected were the station, which has been converted into a pub, and an original stone building which forms the reception area and the first five bedrooms of the current hotel.

The town of Middleton was first auctioned in 1904 when Percy Sparks paid a paltry R604 for it.

The longest owner was Fleetwood de Kock, who kept it for 52 years.

In 1989, Amanzimtoti estate agent Doreen Roberts bought the town and put into action plans to turn it into a tourist attraction.

Roberts put it up for auction in 1993, but it remained unsold until 1997 when Van Koller bought it.

Today it enjoys support from the local farmers as well as overseas and South Africa hunters.

Middleton Manor manager Stella Oosthuizen said the reason the hotel had so much support was its relaxed and intimate atmosphere.

"It is very informal here," she explained.