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
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; firstname.lastname@example.org; www.somerset-house.co.za
● Glen Avon 042 243 3628; email@example.com
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.