Quiet haven rich in history
East London - Thank you truck driver for overtaking me at the crucial moment, as I was looking for my turn-off. By doing so, you caused me to bypass the necessary junction, arrive at a different destination to that planned, and so experience the hedonistic pleasures of Somerset House.
Travels often hinge on small things like this. An annoying setback can prove to be a gift in disguise.
A ring on the doorbell, and Vega van Niekerk – who owns Somerset House in Somerset East with her husband, Stephen – opened the door to elegance, tranquillity, grand lounges, fine antiques, rich carpets, huge mirrors and heavy drapes. Fortunately, she had a room available for the night.
In no time, I was settled into a sumptuous garden suite overlooking a vegetable and herb patch, ornamental trees, and a fine view of the Boschberg.
Tea was served on the deep, covered veranda, which commands a view of lawns and the mountain. Chairs, couches, tables, and trees in tubs, are scattered around this u-shaped peaceful haven.
Darkness was trailing its cloak, but I felt reluctant to stir.
Van Niekerk served me a tasty, light supper – slightly curried home-made vegetable soup and an enormous sandwich with fresh garden salad – on the veranda. Clearly she is attuned to her guests’ desires; she did not ask if this was where I wanted to eat, she sensed it.
Somerset House has four stars, therefore the beds and linen are luxurious and there is under-floor heating, air-conditioning, and attractive en-suite facilities in all the spacious bedrooms.
This haven is in the quietest part of town, in the first street laid out when the town was founded.
As the weather was balmy, breakfast was served on the veranda, rather than in the spacious dining room.
The hearty meal began with a beautifully presented fruit platter.
Guests can, by appointment, request a dinner prepared by one of South Africa’s premier chefs, Janet Telian, who lives in the area.
Imagination swung into top gear, as Van Niekerk joined me for coffee, and related the history of Somerset House, which was built to be a school in the Colonial style in 1905.
After the flu epidemic of 1918, it became an orphanage for about 100 children left parentless by this outbreak, and was known as the Hofmeyr Institute, having been started by Isabel Hofmeyr.
In 1936, tragedy struck. Some of the boys from the orphanage went on a picnic in the Boschberg. When the time came to leave, eight could not be found. Four were eventually found and survived, but the others died in the harsh conditions on the mountain, and the orphanage was closed shortly thereafter.
It then became a primary school, but closed in 1950.
It stood empty for many years; became a factory for making animal feed pellets; then a workshop for a company producing wooden furniture. It then opened as a guest house, but this also failed, and the building was taken over by a church group.
The Van Niekerks, who lived on a farm in the area, bought it in 1998.
The town, which was founded by Lord Charles Somerset in 1825, also has an interesting history.
The government had set up a farm, run by a Robert Hart, to supply troops with food. When the farm was proclaimed a town, Hart moved to nearby Glen Avon farm, which is still in the family.
William Burchell, the English explorer, naturalist, traveller, artist and author, spent months in the area collecting and sketching
On a more modern note, the William Oates Primary School is said to be the oldest in the area.
Famed artist Walter Battiss grew up here. The art gallery named after him is in a building which was once run by the Battiss family as a hotel.
Father Michael Scully, the last Roman Catholic priest to serve the Church of St Francis in the town, was an interesting character. He died in 1997 at the age of 80. Many people in the town have a story to tell about him. Even the cemetery on the hill bears his name.
There are many museums and places of interest to explore, and a drive up the forested Boschberg Mountain, which encompasses the Boschberg Nature Reserve, takes one to a point with a splendid view of Somerset East and its surrounds.
l Contact Somerset House at 042 243 1819 or 073 154 6199; e-mail [email protected]; visit www.somerset-house.co.za. Glen Avon 042 243 3628; e-mail [email protected] glenavonfarm.co.za - Saturday Star