At the start of October 2014, I spent a delightful morning at the historic wine estate of Vergelegen on the outskirts of Somerset West. It was such a wonderful day – and in such breathtaking surroundings, that I wanted to share it with all of you. It has turned into a rather lengthy blogpost – but I hope that the pretty pictures will make it easy and enjoyable to read nonetheless.
The Children’s Hospital Trust
The Children’s Hospital Trust, which is the fundraising arm of the Red Cross War Memorial Children’s Hospital in Rondebosch had invited supporters, donors and benefactors to a relaxing mid-morning tea at the estate. The Trust often holds such events, usually at beautiful venues and with interesting guest speakers.
In case you’re wondering why the Hospital is referred to as the Red Cross War Memorial Children’s Hospital, this dates back to the very beginnings of the hospital. After the end of World War II, returning South African servicemen and veterans decided to create a place of healing – a kind of living memorial – in memory of their fallen comrades. They donated part of their salaries to a special fund, and this money was used, in close collaboration with the Red Cross Society and the Cape Provincial Government, to establish the Children’s Hospital; children were regarded as the most vulnerable group in society, and as innocent victims of the war.
Since 1956, the Hospital – also referred to as ‘the Cross’ – has grown into a globally recognised centre of excellence for child healthcare. One of the most long-standing supporters of the hospital, and a frequent speaker at events organised by the Trust, was Mr Colin Eglin, who had served with the Sixth South African Armoured Division in Italy during World War II. He had been involved with the Hospital since the very beginning, and often addressed those who gathered at the Remembrance Day service in November each year. Sadly, he passed away at the end of November 2013.
A delightful morning tea at Vergelegen
On 2 October 2014, I thus joined Max and Glynnis of the Pinelands Muse magazine, on the long drive out to Vergelegen Wine Estate, just off Lourensford Road in Somerset West. We made our way to the bistro restaurant known as ‘Stables‘. An unusual life-size sculpture of a horse, assembled out of driftwood, greets visitors as they walk into the restaurant. The friendly staff directed us towards an elongated room on the left, in which several tables had been prepared and beautifully decorated for our mid-morning tea.
On arrival, each of us was handed a goody-bag containing leaflets about the Circle of Life legacy programme (which encourages supporters of the Hospital to bequeath money to the Trust in their Last Wills and Testaments, as the Trust relies very much on financial contributions from generous donors to fund much-needed extensions and improvements to the Hospital), as well as a copy of the latest Newsletter, a delicious chocolate bar, and a really handy spiral-bound notebook.
We found ourselves a place to sit, and introduced ourselves to the other friendly people at our table. Waitresses took orders for tea or coffee, and delivered all kinds of scrumptious nibblies to the tables – scones with jam and cream, small squares of vegetable quiche, healthy sandwiches, decadent cakes…. While everyone was tucking in, the team from the Children’s Hospital Trust welcomed us to the function, and told us a bit about the Hospital and the work being done by the Trust.
And then, it was time for the guest speaker to take the microphone.
It was someone I had heard about on many occasions in my association with the Defence Reserves, as he just happened to be one of the previous organisers of the Cape Town Military Tattoo. It was well-known military historian and author, Willem Steenkamp.
Hugely knowledgeable and passionate about the history of South Africa, particularly the Cape (he has written several books), he shared with us some stories about the military and medical heritage of the Cape of Good Hope. Mr Steenkamp has a way of telling stories that make history come alive; he is a popular guide at the fascinating Chavonnes Battery Museum at the V&A Waterfront (have a look here), and sometimes fires restored flintlock muskets and muzzle-loading cannons at historical re-enactments and special events. We were all spell-bound by his talk; I wish I had jotted down some notes at the time.
Afterwards, we chatted with the others around our table for a while, and enjoyed the delicious food. And then, we were in for a very special treat: a tour of the gardens!
As there were so many of us, we were divided into two large groups, each with a different guide. Glynnis, Max and I joined the group being guided by the manager of the gardens, Richard Arm. It was fascinating to be shown around the vast property, and to have the different features pointed out and explained to us.
Our walking tour of the gardens
If you look at the map of Vergelegen wine estate, you may notice that there are a couple of octagonal-shaped structures. The newly constructed hilltop winery, with its multiple levels and gravity flow cellar (now doesn’t that sound intriguing?!), is apparently also shaped like an octagon. Now have a look at the logo for the Vergelegen wine – it’s a V inside an octagon!
Octagonal herb, vegetable and flower garden
From Stables restaurant, we walked through the octagonal shaped formal garden, which is subdivided into sections containing various kinds of herbs, edible and decorative flowers, and vegetables. Everything looks like it is lovingly tended and nurtured. This garden has an unusual sundial as its central feature – and it even showed the correct time!
The thatch-roof building next to it houses the Wine Tasting Centre, which is also the place from which the daily cellar tours and heritage and garden tours depart.
A short history of Vergelegen wine estate
I was interested to learn about the history of the estate, which can apparently be divided into four broad eras: the Van der Stel era (1685 to 1706), the Phillips era (1917 to 1941), the Barlow era (1941 to 1987) and the Anglo American era (1987 to the present).
Each of these left its mark on the landscape, and influenced what we see today.
And oh my goodness, this place is beautiful!
The estate, consisting of 30,000 hectares of land on the west-facing slopes of the Hottentots Holland mountains, was granted to Willem Adriaan van der Stel, who was Governor of the Cape of Good Hope in 1700, when the Cape was under the control of the Dutch East India Company (VOC). Van der Stel called it ‘Vergelegen’ (‘far away’) because it took three days by ox-wagon to travel here from Cape Town.
Driven by a strong interest in horticulture and agriculture, he laid out fruit orchards and orange groves, complete with water reservoirs and irrigation canals, and planted camphor and oak trees – some of which have survived to the present day. He also introduced herds of cattle and sheep. Many of the old buildings – specifically the Cape Dutch homestead – date from this period.
He wasn’t popular with the surrounding independent farmers, though, and they signed a petition in protest. (Apparently he used slaves and resources from the VOC in order to develop his farm – which he was not supposed to do – and made life difficult for the surrounding farmers.) As a result, Van der Stel was fired from his position as Governor, and returned to the Netherlands. Thereafter, three-quarters of the original estate were sold off, dramatically reducing the size of the property. I think it currently covers about 3,000 hectares.
Over the next centuries, the estate changed hands numerous times.
In 1798, the Theunissen family focused on growing grapes and producing wine, but an infestation of phylloxera louse in the late 19th century tragically wiped out most of the vine stocks. Phylloxera is an insect pest that is originally native to eastern North America, where vines have developed a natural partial resistance to it. When specimen of these vine stocks were brought to Europe in the 19th century by Victorian English botanists, the insects spread rapidly across Britain and most of Europe, destroying between two-thirds and nine-tenths of all vineyards. It was devastating. And there was – still is – no cure and no chemical method for controlling or preventin gphylloxera. The only solution is hybridization and the grafting of cuttings onto resistant root stocks.
The estate went into decline, until it was purchased by the millionaire mining magnate Sir Lionel Phillips as a present for his wife, Lady Florence Phillips in 1917. She removed the remaining vineyards and laid out the beautiful gardens. Much of the infrastructure – the roads, the bridge, the buildings, the dams – were built, restored and upgraded at this time. Many of the works of art and pieces of furniture also date back to this era.
When Sir Lionel and Lady Phillips died, the Vergelegen estate was auctioned off to the Barlow Family in 1941. Like her predecessor, Cynthia Barlow too was a collector of art and beautiful furniture. The Barlows brought in a Jersey cattle herd, planted peach orchards, and replanted some of the vineyards.
The new owners – Anglo American, bought the Estate in 1987. They invested extensively in viticulture, which involved rehabilitating the land and re-establishing the vineyards. The innovative hilltop winery was constructed at this time. In 2004, the estate initiated an ambitious programme to clear invasive and alien plants, and to restore the natural fauna and flora of the Cape. They also established a herd of about 200 beautiful multicoloured Nguni cattle, which are perfectly suited to these conditions. And they have herds of prettily patterned Bontebok roaming the estate. As result of the rehabilitation of the land, other wild animals are also returning – like honey badgers, Cape Mountain leopard and lynx. (Vergelegen website)
In recent decades, numerous heads of state, members of the British royal family and international celebrities have visited Vergelegen.
We meandered through a cool and shady bamboo grove past beds of flowering orange-yellow clivias, until we reached the Library.
The building, which was constructed in 1816, was originally a winery, but converted to a Library during the Phillips era (first half of the twentieth century). We weren’t allowed to take photos inside the library, but we did go in to have a look at some very old maps that were on display. The library shelves are cordoned off, as it’s not a public access library.
“It is now home to a priceless collection of Sir Lionel Phillips books including ancient and modern history, travel journals and a small collection of Afrikana and French volumes.” (Vergelegen website)
The path leading up to the entrance is lined by incredibly tall conifers – as far as I remember, they are very old cedar trees that have never been pruned or cut back hard, because they might die.
They were so tall that I couldn’t even see their tops!
The camphor trees
Our next stop on the tour was the row of five massive camphor trees (Cinnamon camphora), which stand in front of the historic Homestead. Planted between 1700 and 1706 by Willem Adriaan van der Stel, these trees are thus 314 years old! They were declared National Monuments in 1942. They are actually natives of China and Japan, but were introduced to the Cape in about 1670 via the Dutch East Indies.
We picked up a couple of fallen twigs from the ground, and sniffed at them – the fragrance of camphor was quite distinctive. Richard told us that the other camphor trees on the estate were grown from seedlings of these original giants.
The great lawn beyond the camphor trees is the venue for the annual Carols by Candlelight and other outdoor concerts – it is hard to imagine a more breathtaking venue!
Nearby stands a campanile (dated 1958) from which hangs a slave bell. I missed the story of that, unfortunately, so I don’t know why it is known as ‘the slave bell’. I read somewhere that the Estate did have slaves (about 60 during the ownership of the Theunissen family).
The white mulberry tree
Also nearby is a White Mulberry (Morus Alba), which – like the camphor trees – dates back to 1700. Van der Stel was trying to start a silk industry in the Cape. This is the only remaining specimen, and was probably imported directly from China, where mulberry leaves have been used for centuries to feed silkworms. When we visited, the tree was covered in temptingly juicy red berries.
Seeing those berries reminded me vividly of the fun I had as a child when picking mulberries in my aunt’s garden in Swakopmund. We’d invariably get our hands and faces totally smeared and stained with berry juice, and our feet stained deep red-purple by the berries that had already fallen to the ground.
We went briefly inside the Cape Dutch homestead, which was constructed in the early 1700s. “The Homestead also houses an Exhibition Corridor, comprising a series of pictorial panels detailing the various eras of history as well as significant visitors to the Estate.” (Vergelegen website)
Unfortunately, no pics are allowed to be taken inside, and I didn’t have time to take down notes of some of the interesting details. Clearly, it’s another reason to go back – and to put to good use that handy notebook we’d been given earlier that morning! Well, quite apart from that, when I was writing up this blog post, I discovered that there were many, many more parts of the garden that we hadn’t explored – so, quite obviously, a return visit must be planned. 🙂
The reflection garden
We made our way past the homestead and entered the reflection garden. Along the one side of the sequence of pools, with their still clear water, is the elegant and stylish Camphors restaurant – named after the ancient camphor trees. This is dining in style. I can well imagine heads of state and royalty feeling very comfortable in these exquisite surroundings.
The old English oak tree
Tucked away in a small garden next to the reflecting pools is a humungous old English oak tree (Quercus robur). Apparently planted here in the early days of the estate, it is believed to be over 300 years old and thus the oldest living oak tree in Africa. Pretty amazing! The sign next to it explained that this type of oak tree was among the first exotic tree species planted in South Africa by Jan van Riebeeck, having been introduced from Western Europe in about 1656. The thick stem is almost entirely hollowed out inside; apparently, in our fairly temperate climate in the Western Cape, oak trees grow much faster than they do back home in Europe.
The ‘Royal’ oak
Our next stop was another oak tree, this time a far younger one, having been planted in 1928, although it too looked huge to me. Richard told us that this oak tree had grown from an acorn, which had come from the last of King Alfred’s oak trees at Blenheim Palace in Oxfordshire. Blenheim was the birthplace of Sir Winston Churchill – and incidentally, one of the many films shot there was Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix (!).
In April 1947, His Majesty King George VI undertook a major tour of South Africa, together with Queen Elizabeth, and their daughters, Princess Elizabeth and Princess Margaret – apparently the first time a monarch had undertaken such a tour with his family. Princess Elizabeth, who later became the Queen Elizabeth II, celebrated her 21st birthday on this visit – and gave a historic public speech on 21 April 1947.
I only found out today that she celebrated her birthday in the Officers’ Mess of the Cape Town Rifles (Dukes) regiment at the Castle of Good Hope in Cape Town; the regiment had previously been known as the Duke of Edinburgh’s Own Rifles, which indicates the close connection the regiment has always had with the British royal family. Two days later, during the royal family’s visit to Vergelegen, according to the plaque underneath the ‘Royal’ oak tree, King George VI personally collected acorns from this tree for replanting in the Great Park at Windsor Palace.
In March 1995, during her visit to South Africa after the first democratic elections in the country, Queen Elizabeth II was welcomed by President Nelson Mandela, and then traveled around the country, as she had done in 1947. One of the places she visited was Vergelegen – and another plaque was placed in her honour under the ‘Royal’ oak tree to commemorate her visit. In November 2011, a visit by the Prince of Wales (Prince Charles) and the Duchess of Cornwall (Camilla) was similarly commemorated with a plaque.
Down to the river – and the old yellowwood tree
As there was a strongly flowing stream on the property, Van der Stel built a mill with a waterwheel to grind grain. Only one of the walls stands today. It is fenced off, and surrounded by dense vegetation, so you cannot get close – presumably it is also a bit unstable.
Nearby, is a maple tree garden; there were a couple of young saplings growing in the well-mulched soil.
From there, the path led us down to the stream, which we crossed by means of a suspension bridge. On the other side, we meandered past camellia bushes (I saw on the map that there were in fact several camellia gardens dotted around the property) – until we arrived at another remarkable old tree: a huge yellowwood tree that had been planted around 1700!
Richard picked up a couple of seeds lying on the ground, and showed us that these were yellowwood seeds. Apparently, it is quite easy to grow a tree from these – but you do need a fairly spacious garden, as they are very, very large trees once they become established.
It felt so peaceful under this beautiful old tree.
As with the camphor trees, the mulberry tree, the old English oak tree, I couldn’t help wondering what this tree had witnessed and experienced in the 300-odd years of its life. How much had its surroundings changed? Who had sat beneath it, or climbed into its branches? What conversations had it overheard? How many birds had nested in its high branches, how many squirrels or mice or other small animals had foraged beneath it?
The octagonal garden
We retraced our steps to the reflection garden and to the Homestead. From there, we entered the large octagonal garden.
It is simply gorgeous.
On the far side, we emerged from the walled garden into the parkland, which surrounds the Royal Oak tree. We slowly made our way back to the starting point of our tour, and took turns thanking Richard for his excellent and informative tour.
It had been such an uplifting experience to walk through these beautifully maintained gardens. Although it must be an incredible privilege to work in such enchanting surroundings, I suspect that there is far more hard work involved behind the scenes than I could ever imagine.
I am really looking forward to another opportunity to go walkabout in these magnificent gardens, particularly because I now know that we only saw a small portion of this vast estate.