Several years ago, my friend Goonie Marsh and I were out exploring the side roads of the Eastern Cape, in an effort to get some good photographs for me to use in my painting. We had just spent the weekend at a nature conservancy in the Zuurberg and were making our way home on a track that I had not been on before. At a crossroads, a small, rusted and battered sign, partially obscured by the thorny branch of an Acacia Karroo, pointed us in the direction of the Zuurberg Pass, a historic route that would take us up and over the mountains to the Addo Game Reserve, situated on the other side. I had a slight sense of trepidation, as the road over the pass is notoriously rough and little used, but our vehicle was tough and so were we, and more than that I was keen to see some elephants. So off we set along the gravel road towards the mountain, and as we started to ascend the rocky incline, I caught a flash of a white building out of the corner of my eye. We pulled over to look back at a startlingly gracious Victorian mansion, standing alone on the side of the road, facing out over the veldt. It was so unexpected and a vision I will never forget, this grand old lady of a bygone era, with so many stories to tell.
I soon learned that this was Ann’s Villa, built in 1864 by John Webster and named after his wife Ann, who had borne him fourteen children, not all of whom had survived. The couple had emigrated from Scotland and England in search of a brighter future and had originally settled in Port Elizabeth, where John had started a bakery. At around this time work had begun on the Zuurberg Pass, as part of the proposed new route from Cape Town to Grahamstown. Described as “an almost impassable mountain”, the rugged route through it was begun by Inspector White and a gang of 250 convicts, but was interrupted by frontier wars and plagued by problems linked to inadequate planning, extreme weather conditions and an untrained, unmotivated workforce.
The pass was finally opened in 1858, three years after John Webster and his family, having moved from Port Elizabeth, had settled at the Northern end of it. The family originally lived in a small cottage and built the current villa in 1864, but Ann died shortly thereafter, and two years later John remarried and had another daughter. At this time in history, diamonds were discovered along the Orange River, and fortune hunters began flocking to the interior via the Zuurberg Pass, which was good news for John Webster, whose villa was now Webster’s Hotel, with its seven bedrooms, restaurant, bakehouse, wagon repair and blacksmith shop, in addition to a well stocked wholesale and retail shop.
I was intrigued and preoccupied for a while, wondering what the building was like inside, imagining the women, resplendent in their long Victorian dresses, outwardly feminine but inwardly capable and resilient as they handled their daily chores and coped with the men, dust and heat of the African Karoo. I think a lot about the pioneering women who came by ox wagon into this harsh, inhospitable land, so different to the one they had left behind… but my reverie was interrupted by my companion who told me to get my camera out, for there were views to see and photos to be taken.
My brief encounter with that lone white building has never left my mind, so when in February this year, my sister suggested that Ann’s Villa would make a good venue for a family reunion to celebrate my birthday, the idea sounded really appealing! Before the week was out, the venue was booked and the family informed that they would be expected there for the weekend, dressed in settler/vintage style. It felt original and exciting and something so completely out of the ordinary humdrum of our lives.
In the weeks leading up to the big weekend, nobody said a word to one another about what they were going to wear, with all discussions being centred around food and timings. The only people who had actually spent a night at Ann’s Villa prior to this momentous occasion, were my sister Nicky and her family, who had stayed over one night the previous year. With her mischievous spirit, the only thing she would give away was that it would be a weekend we would never forget. This, I was to discover, was an understatement.
Stepping into Ann’s Villa is like stepping back in time, being transported into some weird, but fascinating time warp, where the rest of the world has been cut away. The lack of ostentation and the sense of isolation from the rest of the world, made it the perfect place for a family reunion, as it gave us the freedom to be who we wanted to be, with just family and friends and nobody else to worry about. As we crossed the threshold, I immediately sensed a lightening of spirit and the beginning of a great adventure. It was exciting to walk the floorboards that have carried the feet of generations before us, between walls that have witnessed more than we will ever know, up the winding, creaking wooden staircase to comfortable bedrooms, and out onto the balcony from where we could relax and enjoy vistas of the Karoo. Sensitively restored, the character of this 150 year old building remains fully in tact, allowing the visitor a completely authentic experience.
Entering the kitchen, with its worn wooden table and wood burning Aga stove, we felt immediately at home, for it was very similar to the kitchen at our farm in Inyanga, (Zimbabwe), where we were raised in pioneering style. To top it all, as we opened the back door, we were greeted by a flock of sheep, a joyous experience that completed our sense of homecoming. Their little black droppings fertilized the lawn that stretched away from the house and butted up against the indigenous vegetation at the base of the hill, beyond which lay the Zuurberg Mountains, with so many paths to explore.
We spent our weekend eating, laughing, talking, walking and generally exploring the area, but one of the highlights of our stay was a fascinating and informative guided tour around the blacksmith shop by caretaker, Muran, whose cheerful nature and enthusiasm for the subject kept us riveted and wanting to know more. He set the scene of what life was like in the 1860’s and with original tools of the trade on show, we were convincingly transported back to a era when living and working conditions must have been extremely difficult. The grandeur of Ann’s Villa, with its meticulous attention to detail and good craftsmanship, became all the more impressive, given the harsh conditions and the fact it was built using the hand crafted tools that surrounded us. There was something intrinsically grounding about standing in that room, which got me thinking about modern technology, and how much we have in fact lost.
We were then shown around the original old shop, that is situated on the ground floor of the villa and is still set up as it was in the 1860’s.
As the evening of my party drew nearer, the women moved into the kitchen, laughing, chatting and bustling about with purpose, and it wasn’t long before the aroma of dinner could be caught in the evening breeze.
As the sun became low on the horizon, we adorned ourselves and made a grand entrance down the wooden staircase, and the place erupted with laughter as we all got to see who we had become. The atmosphere of the villa allowed us to perform and take on the characters we had chosen, which was hilarious fun and the evening sky rocketed from there.
To view a few more images from our entertaining weekend at this grand old villa, click on the images below:
Nicky was right, the weekend at Ann’s Villa was one that I will never forget. Apart from being magical, spontaneous and very, very funny, it gave me an opportunity to spend quality time with those I most care about. The villa reminded me that there is character and beauty to be found in age and if I can age half as gracefully as this grand old lady, I will be more than happy.
The interesting thing is that despite having entered her doorway and becoming better acquainted, the mystery of Ann’s Villa remains, and I’m sure that the next time I travel that road, I will still find myself wondering what life was really like for the men and women who lived there. The difference will be that this time I will have my very own story to tell, and for that I am extremely grateful.