Lamb chops, a ghost or two, and a singalong in the Lairds Arms

Lamb chops, a ghost or two, and a singalong in the Lairds Arms
Johnny Theunissen blows his bugle to summon you to board the London bus for the evening tour. (Photo: Tony Jackman)

Matjiesfontein is unique in the world, one of the few examples of that word being used correctly. That means there is nothing like it, anywhere.

Two German tourists, all twinset and pearls, once disembarked from the train at Matjiesfontein, went to reception at the Lord Milner Hotel across the road, and asked for directions to the nearest car hire firm. They wanted to hire a car to drive to Sutherland, 110 km north.

“Probably Cape Town,” was the perplexed reply from the receptionist. “Or maybe Worcester.”

They had made the mistake of the uninitiated. If you have never been to Matjiesfontein, and you hear its name, a mental image of a typical small South African town ending in “fontein” will occupy your mind. Dusty streets, stray dogs, a church with a tall spire, a co-op, a garage that’s seen better days, corner shops, a Pep store, a low-slung school or two, a tuisnywerheid where the tannies sell their cakes and tarts, a small Spar, maybe a Shoprite, and a small industrial area with its builders’ firms, tyre fitting premises and the like. (Maybe a car hire firm, but most likely not.)

There is none of any of that in Matjiesfontein. The entire original village, built from the 1870s until the 1890s, is a hotel, staffed by the people of the small community beyond the railway line. It was a resort at its foundation, and remains so today.

The Lord Milner Hotel, Matjiesfontein. (Photo: Tony Jackman)

My family first went there circa 1981 and we have been returning, two or three times a year, ever since. We reckon we have been there more than a hundred times. The place once led us to move to Sutherland to the north. Our daughter went there in her pram. She got married there six years ago. The granddaughter has had her first visit now, though she is too small to remember it. Our GrandBoy adores the place and has known it all his short almost-five years. He calls it “the hotel”.

And that is what Matjiesfontein is, for the most part: a hotel. The hotel itself, the Douglas Cottages in the garden to the rear, the little house where Olive Schreiner once lived, the “river cottages” with their wooden balconies with a view beyond the massive Victorian swimming pool to the traffic rushing past on the N1 beyond. Reston Villa adjacent to the ornate Victorian hotel building, named after the village the town’s developer, James D Logan, came from in Scotland. The Masonic Hotel and Losieshuis, soon after you turn into the town, is on hiatus at present but that too was built as travellers’ accommodation. The only shop sells curios. The Lairds Arms serves the hotel’s customers and random passersby, who gawk at its eccentric ornaments and photograph everything.

Masonic Hotel and Losieshuis. (Photo: Tony Jackman)

Other buildings are museum pieces. The old bank. The Marie Rawdon museum beneath the railway station, overwhelmingly packed with Victoriana of a hundred descriptions. There’s an entire pharmacy that was once in King William’s Town, which is now apparently called Qonce. (Qonce. I’m trying to get my head around that, let alone my tongue.) People tend to think that the Transport Museum, on the corner, is a lovely old Victorian building. It’s not. David Rawdon had it built in the Victorian style. It houses his personal collection of old cars, hearses, the odd Rolls Royce and sundry oddities.

The self-catering cottages in the side street that runs down to the river, recently and unusually in flow; some of them are staff accommodation today. Rawdon, the late hotelier, used to live in the cottage at the end of the street. His funeral was held in the little chapel, which was never consecrated.

The Lairds Arms pub. (Photo: Tony Jackman)

At the heart of the village is Johnny Theunissen, your travel guide and host. He takes you on the red London bus tour, the shortest tour in the country, every evening at six o’clock sharp. He blows his bugle to call you to board the bus. He’s been doing that since he was a teenager. He’s in his sixties now. Long, long ago, we were in the Lairds Arms one Saturday afternoon. There was a man on a bar stool who had been there for some time and had nodded off, his head on the table. Young Johnny, all of 16, blew his bugle. The man raised his head, turned and glowered at the door, where Johnny was standing, holding his bugle. “Is dit jy wat so blaas!?” he accused.

It was indeed Johnny blowing his bugle, and he’s been blowing it ever since. Now, when the tour is done, the tourists follow him into the hotel for his ghost tour (if you’re lucky you may meet Kate, or Lucy, or the Lady in White (whom a member of my family has seen, and she wouldn’t make it up), then into the pub for his singalong session. The Victorian-furnished lounge at the back with its red chaise longue is suitably creepy. After dinner you can return here with a post-prandial to play long playing records on the vintage gramophone. Ragtime, Mrs Winnifred Attwell at the piano, songs from the musicals or Men At Work. Then, back in the Lairds Arms, Johnny dons sunglasses like Ray Charles, his hands jump all over the keyboard (he only plays the black keys) and he sings Blueberry Hill, Cotton Fields, Sarie Marais, Ver in die Ou Kalahari, and De La Rey (“gaan jy Malema kom kry?”). The punters sing along and when I’m there I take Johnny’s hat around to ensure him decent tips.

Johnny Theunissen at the piano in the Lairds Arms. (Photo: Tony Jackman)

For us, a visit to Matjies has always been about the dinner in the beautiful dining room with its central pillar which, the legend goes, is one of only two, the other being in Buckingham Palace. It’s unlikely anybody will be able to prove that, but I don’t see how they can disprove it either. I’d rather give the story the benefit of the doubt.

Dinner, for me, is always about the lamb chops, and always has been. You know you’re a part of the hotel’s culture, part of its very gees, when you get an extra chop as a matter of course. Every time. (Sorry, but you’d have to be me. Tradition takes years.)

Things aren’t exactly as they always have been at Matjies but, somehow, no matter who is managing the place, the old spirit refuses to be quelled. It’s as mad and eccentric as ever, it’s always been far from perfect, and that’s the way we like it.

The Coffee Shop. (Photo: Tony Jackman)

About a decade ago the late hotelier Liz McGrath, who had taken on the management contract at Rawdon’s request, took to visiting every week while she spruced up the bedrooms, very nicely and appropriately, and revamped every bathroom in black and white. She clutched my arm one day and said, “Tony, this is keeping me alive.” She did leave us a few years later and the hotel and village soon passed out of her family’s hands.

The one thing that does rankle with veteran customers is the prices today. They have soared and are out of keeping with what Matjiesfontein is.

The food, happily, does not disappoint. You can still get lamb curry in the Lairds Arms pub at lunchtime. The Coffee Shop will still serve you cake or light meals morning and afternoon.

Lamb chops, plus one. (Photo: Tony Jackman)

The dining room menu has not strayed very far from the old traditions, and the lamb chops are better than they ever were, but one item is sadly missing. There’s still hot soup on the dinner menu though they don’t call it Hot Logan Soup any more (why not?). For as long as anyone could remember, you could choose a starter of chicken liver pâté with melba toast. That disappeared some years ago. What is wrong with melba toast? Its crackling crunch has long gone. I miss it. Please bring it back. As for that pâté, by all means, replace it with a more refined version, but bring it back too, updated to a more sophisticated palate. I know, absolutely know, that Rawdon would not be happy at all that the dish has gone. They’ll be putting TVs in the bedrooms next. (That would have Rawdon doing somersaults in his grave.)

I see him still whenever we are there, sitting in his chair at the massive bureau in the reception room, with a flute to hand and a bottle of the champagne he drank every lunchtime. I see him at night, eating at his table next to the dining room door, then getting up and going from table to table to see how everyone is enjoying their stay and their dinner.

Matjiesfontein has always defied change and modern ways. That is the whole point of it. Nothing about it is fashionable any more. That is how it should be. In times when anything colonial has become anathema and ridiculous, Matjiesfontein continues to assert its status as the epitome of Victorian style and grace. This grand old lady is not for turning. DM


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  • jamesrwhitelaw says:

    Wonderful write up Tony on a gorgeous old classic. I first came across this place when my sister worked as the PA to the owner of a stud farm down the road in De Doorns. She introduced me to this odd place with the Beafeater double decker bus, and I have been back many times, though not 100, as you have. When it came to my 50th, I elected to have it there and family and friends flew and drove in from all around SA to this quaint place. No one was dissappointed. It delivered and then some. We also had a New Years there one year, with friends and family, and that was a real treat, they really pushed the boat out. I want to do that again!! The one thing that is nice often when we are there is the Rovos train stops off there, so we have been given the grand tour of the train twice. A glorious place from another time. I am up here in KZN now and we of course know Mr Rawdon from another gem he created, Rawdons in the Midlands. The painting of him in the reception is fitting. Oh, did I mention the staff are as friendly and welcoming as one can get? Ok, I have talked myself into another visit, I will see if we can get in over New Years again… 🙂
    Again, great write up Tony.

  • Jim F. says:

    Is there any historical connection with the splendid Rawdon’s hotel in Nottingham Road, Natal?

  • Dear Tony
    Thank you for your articles which I always enjoy reading. Just a note regarding your article on Matjiesfontein. My mother Liz McGrath loved the history of the village and being involved in running the hotel for a few years, however after her death in January 2015 the family did not renew the management agreement. Kind Regards Mike McGrath

  • jcdville stormers says:

    Fond memories,even played a game of tennis on the run down court,musket shooting championship also took place when I was there in the early 90 s

  • richardalexander says:

    In January 2003 I cycled up to the Lord Milner Hotel having pedalled from Swaziland, via Welkom, Kimberly, Prieska and Fraserburg. I was sweaty, dusty and dishevelled. To my dismay, the receptionist reported that “there were no rooms”. I went into the bar and told the barman a little about my adventure. As “there were no rooms,” I thought I could take the train from Matjiesfontein to Cape Town. Someone then appeared and declared that, after all, they could let me have a room. I was so grateful. I showered, swam and ate. And yes, the lamb was good. I’d love to return one day but it probably won’t be by bicycle.

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