Legacy & Eccentricity: Preserve a Grand Old Lady of the Karoo

Legacy & Eccentricity: Preserve a Grand Old Lady of the Karoo
Photo of the Lord Milner Hotel in Matjiesfontein by Chris Marais.

Then Johnny, after leading visitors through the dining room and lounges, will guide them into the Laird’s Arms pub, with its handsome double doors once having resided in the Mount Nelson Hotel in Cape Town. Then Johnny, who as a teenager was a bugle boy in the village, will play Cotton Fields and De la Rey on the pianola in the Laird’s Arms pub, faintly out of tune and with wicked new lyrics (“De la Rey, De la Rey, Sal jy die Guptas kom kry, De la Rey...”).

Matjiesfontein again. The village nobody understands if the closest they’ve come to it is to whizz past it on the N1, presuming it’s like any other dorp — a hotel, a winkel, an off-sales, a café with Coca-Cola branding, a salon with a pienk-haar tannie in a floral Eighties frock doing your hair. A takeaway that the locals call the KFC. But turn off the main drag and saunter into this little Victorian oddity if you want to find what’s really there, and the first thing you’re likely to notice is someone else who has done just that — stopped, climbed out of the car, and started gawping.

Because nothing, anywhere on the planet, is quite like Matjiesfontein. Strangers will be taking phone shots of the broekie-lace double-storey Lord Milner Hotel while imagining flannel-clad colonials lounging in the wicker chairs on the verandah in more genteel times. They’d be right; Europeans would come out in the 1880s and 1890s for the pure air at what was then a sought-after spa, before its owner would allow it to be used as a hospital for the British forces during the Anglo-Boer war. Later it would be bypassed for a generation or two before being revitalised in the 1970s.

Step through the double doors into the foyer and the grand staircase will have our visitors, frankly, puzzled. Stroll right into the dining room and their eye will be caught by the ornate pillar in the centre of the room, seemingly holding the high ceiling up. Ask a local and they’ll tell you there are two of those pillars in the world, and the other is in Buckingham Palace.

Why would there be this level of ostentation here, in the middle of nothing? Between low-slung purple mountains and sundry peaked koppies, Cape Town 250km behind you and the road rolling over hills to Laingsburg ahead? Because that is what Jimmy Logan — James D Logan, who became known as the Laird of Matjiesfontein — wanted, once he’d found a spot and a piece of land that won his heart. And what Jimmy Logan wanted, Jimmy Logan got. Funny to think Australia nearly got him — he’d been at sea headed for the Land of Aus when his ship drew into Simon’s Town and, liking what he saw, decided to jump ship. He’d made his way to Cape Town where he’d found work as a porter at the railway station and in due course had forged up to dreary Touws River where, even today, you’ll spot the old Loganda Hotel a few hundred metres off the freeway, 55km behind you as you gawp at a Buck House pillar’s outlier cousin.

Logan must have been the kind of dude who would have been an entrepreneur in our times, a self-made man, the kind who when seeing an opportunity, grabbed it and milked it. A fortune-seeker who found a place, then made his fortune. Not really my sort of man, to be truthful; but I admire his legacy. A man who created, on a farm called Matjiesfontein, two streets of Victorian grandeur contrasted with simple (for their time) Victorian dwellings. Some ostentation, yes, but simplicity also.

By rights, the place should be preserved as an entire village museum. It does have museums — the Marie Rawdon museum below the railway station, a small railway museum on the platform, and the Transport Museum housing David Rawdon’s collection of old cars, not least his Rolls Royce once famous when it was based at Lanzerac, and his favoured matt blue Buick. And the red fire engine that looks like it stepped out of a Noddy story, and the old red London bus that takes visitors on a 6pm tour that’s all over in five minutes as Johnny T (Theunissen) regales you with off-the-cuff history. “It’s Show Time!” And when he spots us, inevitably, “It’s the Honeymoon Couple!”. Then Johnny, after leading visitors through the dining room and lounges, will guide them into the Laird’s Arms pub, with its handsome double doors once having resided in the Mount Nelson Hotel in Cape Town. Then Johnny, who as a teenager was a bugle boy in the village, will play Cotton Fields and De la Rey on the pianola in the Laird’s Arms pub, faintly out of tune and with wicked new lyrics (“De la Rey, De la Rey, Sal jy die Guptas kom kry, De la Rey…”).

David Rawdon had owned Lanzerac before he came to Matjiesfontein, after growing up in the old Natal Midlands where, still today, you’ll pass the hotel his American dentist dad built, still bearing the Rawdon name.

Rawdon, by rights, should be dubbed the second Laird of Matjiesfontein, so closely is his name associated with it. In the 1970s he restored what had become a run-down, almost forgotten village and brought it many seasons of new glory. What had been known, in the days of the diamond rush, for its “Hot Logan Soup” served on the station to fortune-seekers headed to Kimberley, soon became known for the board in the hotel dining room. And even today, the tradition of Hot Logan Soup remains on the modern menu. Not that there’s a particular recipe for it… ask your waitress and she’ll tell you what the Hot Logan Soup of the day is. Last week it was “veg”, which actually turned out to be tomato.

All of which adds up to something. To tradition. And possibly tradition simply for tradition’s sake, no less random than Logan having decided he’d put a Victorian village there, right there, in those corset-sturdy, high-necked Victorian days. To an old-fashioned way of doing something. And that is something Rawdon saw and worked hard to preserve, as did Logan before him. When Rawdon died, a fresh wind blew through Matjiesfontein when Liz McGrath, the hotelier famed for the Cellars-Hohenort, The Plettenberg and the Marine in Hermanus (which Rawdon had owned previously), took over the running of the place partly so she could keep an eye on Rawdon’s legacy once he’d left the coil.

And if you’d lived through the Rawdon years at Matjiesfontein, while eating dinner in the lovely dining room you’d imagine you could hear the old man’s callipers clinking from table to table, engaging his guests between the soup or pâté and the three lamb chops with piles and piles of vegetables. Then sitting at his table to the right of the door, fondling his Champagne flute, bottle ever to hand. Or sitting at the window of his reception office, ever nursing a glass.

But then dear Liz McGrath left us too. The last time I had seen her, she’d arrived in the passenger seat of a small white car, the back of which was packed to the roof with lamps and cushions and sundry goods destined for the hotel bedrooms. She was gone 90, yet she had a mission you could read in her bright, flashing eyes. She’d rolled down the window when she saw me, reached out a bony hand and clutched my arm.

Tony, this is Keeping Me Alive!” “This” was, chiefly, her renovation of 30-odd bathrooms in black and white, bathrooms long neglected during the Rawdon decades. McGrath had, in her dotage, managed to blast fresh air through Matjiesfontein Village. That was a treasured moment for me, and she left us not many months afterwards.

Her tenure, by way of a management contract, had brought with it new prices that alarmed Matjiesfontein regulars familiar with Rawdon’s desire to keep prices affordable and the village lifestyle simple. Matjiesfontein was never posh, other than perhaps in its colonial heyday.

In the dining room, the old set menu that was as familiar as a well-worn jersey had been ditched in favour of an à la carte menu that kept a flavour of the old while updating both dishes and prices. This was not necessarily a bad thing. But on any recent visit, we’ve heard repeated mumblings about the prices — of the rooms and suites, of a little can of Coca-Cola, of the wine, and of the restaurant meals — and there’s been a discernible drop in visitor numbers, say those in the know.

Matjiesfontein Village, its Lord Milner Hotel and its very particular history deserve better than to begin to recede once more into a mere memory of its grand heyday. It deserves better than to be priced out of its own market by people who don’t quite seem to “get” what it is. David Rawdon’s legacy deserves better. And Liz McGrath’s late-life mission to give the place back some of its past glory also warrants recognition. It’s time for the current owners and managers to get a wake-up call. And we, the customers who have supported the place through some generations and many years, are in the best position to point this out.

There are some very knowledgeable people in the background of the dear old place now; people I respect. People who have deep experience of managing very fine hotels. Hotels of the Five Star league, the sort of places that very rich people can afford to stay in.

Matjiesfontein is not like those places, and if ever it were to become like those posh palaces it would lose the very essence of what it is: An eccentric, one-of-a-kind Victorian village, virtually a folly, affordable to many, and which those of us who know and love it, who understand it, who “get” it, do not want to see die. Preserve Matjiesfontein Village. Properly. (How’s the food doing? Read the accompanying review.) DM


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