Dis­cover a hid­den trea­sure

Somerset House is a good ex­cuse to es­cape the busy city life and delve into tran­quil­lity in a town rich in his­tory, nat­u­ral beauty and charm

Weekend Argus (Saturday Edition) - - TRAVEL 2013 - MYR­TLE RYAN

THANK you, Eastern Cape truck driver, for over­tak­ing me at the cru­cial mo­ment, just as I was look­ing for my turn-off. By do­ing so, you caused me to by­pass the nec­es­sary junc­tion, ar­rive at a dif­fer­ent des­ti­na­tion , and so ex­pe­ri­ence the he­do­nis­tic plea­sures of Somerset House.

It is on small things like this (a truck driver ir­ri­tated by my slow dither­ing) that my trav­els of­ten hinge. An an­noy­ing set­back can prove to be a gift in dis­guise.

A ring on the door­bell, and Vega van Niek­erk – who owns Somerset House in Somerset East, with her hus­band Stephen – opened the door to el­e­gance, tran­quil­lity, grand lounges, fine an­tiques, rich car­pets, huge mir­rors and heavy drapes. She also had a room avail­able.

In no time, I was set­tled into a sump­tu­ous gar­den suite, over­look­ing a veg­etable and herb patch, with a fine view of the Boschberg. Tea was served on the ve­randa, over­look­ing the lawns and moun­tain. Chairs, so­fas, ta­bles, and trees in tubs are scat­tered around this U-shaped, peace­ful haven.

Dark­ness was trail­ing its cloak, but I felt re­luc­tant to stir. Vega served me a tasty light sup­per: slightly cur­ried home­made veg­etable soup, and an enor­mous sand­wich with fresh gar­den salad – on the ve­randa, rather than in­doors.

Clearly she is at­tuned to her guests’ de­sires and did not ask if this was where I wanted to eat. She just sensed it.

Be­ing a four-star haven, the beds and linen are lux­u­ri­ous, with un­der­floor heat­ing, air conditioning, and at­trac­tive en-suite fa­cil­i­ties in all the spa­cious bed­rooms. As it is in the qui­etest part of town, Mor­pheus soon claimed me.

As the weather was balmy, break­fast was served on the ve­randa, rather than in the spa­cious din­ing room. The hearty meal be­gan with a beau­ti­fully pre­sented fresh fruit plat­ter. Guests can re­quest a din­ner pre­pared by one of South Africa’s pre­mier chefs, Janet Telian, who lives in the area.

Vega joined me for a cof­fee and re­lated the his­tory of Somerset House, built as a school in colo­nial style in 1905.

Af­ter the flu epi­demic of 1918, it be­came an or­phan­age for 100 chil­dren left par­ent­less by this out­break, and was known as the Hofmeyr In­sti­tute, started by Is­abel Hofmeyr.

In 1936, tragedy struck. Some of the boys went on a pic­nic in the Boschberg. When the time came to go home, eight could not be found. Four sur­vived, but four died in harsh con­di­tions on the moun­tain. The or­phan­age was closed shortly af­ter­wards.

It then be­came a co-ed pri­mary school, but closed in 1950. It stood empty for years; be­came a fac­tory mak­ing an­i­mal-feed pel­lets; then a work­shop for a com­pany pro­duc­ing wooden fur­ni­ture. It opened as a guest­house, but this ven­ture also

She opened the door

to el­e­gance, grand lounges, fine an­tiques

and rich car­pets

failed, and the build­ing was taken over by a church group.

The old build­ing must have heaved a sigh of re­lief when the Van Niek­erks, who lived on a farm in the area, bought it in 1998.

The town it­self, founded by Lord Charles Somerset in 1825, also has an in­ter­est­ing his­tory. The govern­ment set up a farm here, run by a Robert Hart, to sup­ply troops with food. When the farm was pro­claimed a town, Hart moved to nearby Glen Avon farm, which is still in the fam­ily.

Wil­liam Burchell spent months in this area col­lect­ing and sketch­ing.

On a more mod­ern note, Wil­liam Oates Pri­mary School is said to be the old­est in the area. Parts of it are even older than well-known Bish­ops in Cape Town.

Famed artist Wal­ter Bat­tiss grew up here. An art gallery named af­ter him is in a build­ing once run by the Bat­tiss fam­ily as a ho­tel.

Fa­ther Michael Scully was the last Ro­man Catholic priest to serve the Church of St Fran­cis in the town. He died in 1997 aged 80.

A much- loved fig­ure, nearly ev­ery­one in the town has a story about him. Even the ceme­tery on the hill bears his name.

He was the res­i­dent TV ex­pert, and when TV ar­rived in the coun­try in the 1970s, those who didn’t know how to tune it were of­ten res­cued by Fa­ther Scully, who rode about town on his bi­cy­cle.

It is said the man of the cloth was al­ways happy to help, es­pe­cially if you hap­pened to have a spot of Ir­ish whiskey in the house.

There are many mu­se­ums and places of in­ter­est to ex­plore, while a drive up the forested Boschberg, en­com­pass­ing the Bos­berg Na­ture Re­serve, takes you to a point with a fine view of Somerset East and its sur­rounds.

● Con­tact: Somerset House 042 243 1819; 073 154 6199; som­er­setgh@telkomsa.net; www.somerset-house.co.za

● Glen Avon 042 243 3628; brown@gle­navon­farm.co.za

PIC­TURES: MYR­TLE RYAN

IDYL­LIC: Somerset House from the front gar­den.

HIS­TORIC: Wil­liam Oates Pri­mary is one of the area’s old­est schools.

IN THE FAM­ILY: This was once a ho­tel run by artist Wal­ter Bat­tiss’s fam­ily.

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