Where time has moved slowly
The town of Heidelberg in the southwestern Cape was founded where the old Cape
wagon route crossed the Duivenhoks River between Swellendam and Mossel Bay.
Today the N2 highway skirts the town, but a visit reveals many interesting historical
buildings, including the original farmhouse, which dates back to 1728
Text & photographs by Jane Mulder
In 1904 the opening oft he New Cape Central Railways linked Heidelberg with Cape Town and later Mossel Bay. Today farming in the area consists mainly of wheat, sheep, cattle and ostriches, and until recently vegetables were grown on a large scale. With year-round rainfall and rich soil, it is ideal farming country.
Although the town has A number of historic buildings, its oldest by far is the Fourie House. This is the homestead of Doornboom and dates back to 1728, making it one of South Africa's oldest surviving clay houses. (The original grant for the farm was given to Andries Gous in 1725.) Once dilapidated and in danger of falling apart, the T-shaped building recently underwent extensive (and expensive) restoration, and was officially opened to the public on Heritage Day, 24 September, this year. (See Village Life April/ May 2008.) Although unpretentious, its thick walls, beamed ceilings, thatched roof and enormous hearth lend the house an undeniable charm, harking back to the days of the pioneers. It is hoped that once gardens have been developed and the house suitably furnished, the property will pay for itself by being hired out for functions. A tea garden and small museum are also planned.
Heidelberg's old church buildings are rather exceptional. The old Congregational Church, dating to 1870, is in need of restoration. The simple, thatched white building now stands forlorn and empty, silent to the sounds of worship that once resounded here and the later laughter of children who attended the playschool. Nearby is the old rectory - Roxton House, a Victorian house that has been restored to its former splendour.
The first St Barnabas Anglican Church was built in 1859. The present striking white building (dating to 1889) replaced the older building. Although known for its "blue benches" on which only Whites were allowed to sit, it has a serene atmosphere. The building next door was, from 1865, used by the English Church School.
Diagonally opposite this church is the magnificent Dutch Reformed Church, which dwarfs all other buildings in the town. Sited in large grounds at the town's centre, the grey-and-white Gothic-style structure was begun in 1913 to replace the old building, which had become dilapidated. The bell of the church, which is reputed to be exceptional, bears the words "But the word of the Lord remains for all eternity". Such is the grandeur of the edifice that it says much about the wealth of the community who contributed to the cost of its construction.
The original building that housed the Independent Church was renovated a number of times, and is now used as a gallery for local artists. Before it was built, one Henry Hall used to hold services under a thorn tree.
The Hotel Heidelberg is a familiar landmark in the town. Though renovated in 1932 - the date on the gable - it is thought that the building is at least 100 years old, a claim borne out by its old wooden beams and unusual staircase. The pillars that now support the first floor of the building replaced wrought-iron posts, while the bottle store next door was built in place of the old horse stables.
Heidelberg's Info Office was located in a building with an interesting history. Known as the "Boer-en-Brit" building, it was so named by its one-time owners, a Welshman and his Afrikaans wife, who opened a general dealer store there (sources say either in 1906 or 1926). The name probably also refers to the fact that, during the Anglo-Boer War, the building was the scene of a firefight. On 13 September 1901 a Boer commando attacked Heidelberg after they had two days previously been involved in a skirmish at Soet-makersrivier south of Riversdale (this was the southernmost skirmish of the war).
The building, then the Masonic Hotel and a cafe, had been hastily fortified by the 28 men of the Fourth West Yorkshire Regiment, and they managed to repel the Boer attack. The stories surrounding the three skeletons discovered under the floor boards during restoration work many years later — that they were either Boer or British soldiers killed in the attack - are not borne out by recorded facts. The Boer commando lost only one man (in another part of the village) and the British recorded only one soldier lightly wounded.
Other historic buildings are the imposing Heidelberg Town Hall, built in 1913, and the attractive stone Post Office, erected in 1936. In addition there are a number of noteworthy private buildings.
Brugsig (1880) has a view of the distant railway bridge, and is said to have been used as a refuge for women during the Anglo-Boer War. Also connected with this house is the romantic legend that a spy, riding with his young son to the house to deliver a package, had the misfortune of being fired on and having his son shot dead in front of him, but he nevertheless managed to complete his mission. It is said that bullet holes in the front door as well as a framed bullet inside the house bear testimony to this event.
The old magistrate's building (1882) once housed the court and judicial offices on the ground floor, while the magistrate and his family resided on the upper floor. This beautifully kept building is now a private residence.
The lovely old house of Henry Hall in Fourie Street dates to the 1800s, while the Lotz house opposite is situated next to the original stables of the Fourie House, where the feeding troughs can still be seen. Further down the road are the Blue House, the house of the farrier and the old Dutch Reformed Church rectory, while across the railway line is a private residence that once housed the old Masonic Church.
Just outside the town the rare mineral Bentonite is extracted through open-cast mining and is then refined. A mineral clay deriving from the erosion of volcanic ash, it absorbs many times its own weight when in contact with liquid. The three grades mined locally are named for the farmers on whose land they occur, viz. Eksteen, Kaiser and Jericho, and these grades are mixed in different proportions for different applications, which include road and dam building, steel and iron foundries, as a lubricant for oil rig drills, in the wine industry, in production of paints, building materials, stock feeds, medicines, cat litter, for lining ostrich nests, and in babies' disposable nappies. Bentonite comes in different colours - white, yellow, pink, red and (rarely) green.
Heidelberg is a good base for exploring this part of the country. The two passes, Tradouw and Gysmanshoek, offer grand mountain scenery accented by pristine fynbos, while the unspoilt wilderness of the Grootvadersbosch Nature Reserve is just 22 kilometres away. Also within reach are Port Beaufort on the Breede River, from where the Barrys shipped produce to Cape Town in the nineteenth century, and adjacent Witsand, where whale watching may be enjoyed in season.
As Heidelberg hasn't yet been "discovered" by city dwellers, it has remained unspoilt and almost in a time warp, yet locals are clearly house-proud. Many of the old houses, which were built very close to the street verges, have for the most part not been altered - on the outside anyway - but they are generally in excellent repair. As there is very little traffic, children play safely in residential streets. •