Words & Photographs by Chris Marais[dropcap]B[/dropcap]ack in the 1840s, Cradock was a bustling young settlement and Market Street, in particular, was home to artisans who served the oxwagon routes from the coast to the interior.
The harness makers, wheelwrights, smithies and carpenters all lived on Market Street, in typically snug little Karoo houses.
But by the early 1920s, the world had swopped over to trains and motorcars, with wagons a relic of the past. The artisans clung to their homes and, ironically, kept them in their traditional state because they were too poor to knock them down and build those modern-day monstrosities you see all over the platteland.
Cradock’s iconic Market Street, with its row of candy-striped Victorian cottages, might never have been restored to their former 1850s glory had it not been for pumpkins and pigs.
In 1980 Michael Antrobus was farming sheep on Longacre just north of the town. Michael and his wife Sandra decided to try a crop of pumpkins. Unfortunately, hail damage made them unsaleable, so he bought a brace of pigs to eat up the pumpkins. The pigs grew fat and raised a good price when sold.
Sandra took the proceeds and bought period furniture for Longacre’s historic farmhouse, part of which dates back to 1780. And that’s when the heritage bug hit hard. As Sandra’s fascination grew, she opened an antiques shop in town, and was gradually drawn into the intrigue of historic buildings. When the restoration of Olive Schreiner’s house began, Sandra was a natural choice to join the restoration team.
Every day, as she drove to Olive’s house in Cross Street, Sandra passed the slum of Market Street. This part of town had been in slow decline ever since the wagon trade went out of fashion in the late 1800s.
She bought a few dwellings for next to nothing, with no clear vision of what she would do with them. But once they were restored, visitors to the town wanted to stay in them. Sandra became a hotelier, and whenever a house or cottage became available, she’d buy it and fix it up – a labour of love.
Now the 30-odd Tuishuise of Market Street, as they are called, are Cradock’s most recognisable tourism assets, along with the Dutch Reformed Moederkerk (Mother Church), which is a replica of St Martin in the Fields in Trafalgar Square, London.
“But she still hasn’t paid me back for the pigs,” quips Michael.
“We will always remain what we are,” she says in her letter of welcome to guests, “an old street in a small Karoo town with country folk only too happy to serve you, our special guest. So please relax and enjoy your stay with us, because we will enjoy meeting you.”
There are precious few country hotels left in South Africa that still adhere to old standards of quality. The Victoria Manor in Cradock is, thankfully, one of them. Walk into the foyer of this establishment and you suddenly find yourself in the gracious days of the mid-1800s.
Some nights, as you gather downstairs for a pre-supper sherry, the local dominee will entertain you with his squash-box. Or perhaps it will be the youngster from down the road playing on the little trekker organ. It’s called a huiskonsert (home concert) and harkens back to the old drawing room soirees of the Victorian era, well before the time of television.
You troop into the lush red dining room where the silver sparkles and the hotel’s first-class chef has laid on a Karoo feast of some proportion. It’s stick-to-the-ribs fare, with some form of lamb as a constant item on the menu.
Wine follows, and with each glass someone feels compelled to tell a story, something with a twist. There is laughter, the background music is discreet and the service impeccable.
The Victoria Manor, built in 1840, was the first genteel frontier establishment of this kind. In later years, generations of local characters gave the hotel its legends and historic texture. People still talk about the era when a district farmer used to ride his horse right into the hotel and up to the bar, where the steed was given beer in a Cadillac hubcap. What did the farmer drink? Probably something involving the brandy of the day…
- Both the Tuishuise and the Victoria Manor features in Karoo Keepsakes and Karoo Keepsakes II, by Chris Marais and Julienne du Toit. See www.karoospace.co.za for details.
- Die Tuishuise & Victoria Manor:
Tel: +27 (0) 48 881 1322