Friday, 6 December 2019

Ida’s Valley Homesteads


CAPE ARGUS – 1939, January 3
Stellenbosch was the favourite child of Simon van der Stel. He loved it for its beauty, its fertility, and the pleasing contours of its hills and valleys. He gave its name to the embryo village, and he granted land to several of his friends in the Ida’s Valley, most lovely of all the valleys, under the shadow of his own Simonsberg.
Several of the old homesteads still survive. Time has dealt with them kindly. One of these is RUSTENBERG, on the land granted to the Landdrost Peter Robbertz, who came to the Cape in 1696. The house is H-shaped, with white-washed walls, large, low windows, simple gables and a thatched roof. The curved steps leading up to the flagged stoep are made of tiny Batavian bricks, brought over by the Dutch East India Company at the command of the first owner. A grant of land nearby was made to the Huguenot exile, Francois Villon, of Clermont, in 1692; and he probably lived in an earlier house, traces of which may still be seen, near the present homestead of Ida’s Valley. The neighbouring farm of Schoongezicht, for long the property of John X Merriman, also has a charming house, built rather high up, with a view of the Stellenbosch valley.
RUNNING WATER
Every homestead in the valley has white-washed walls and a thatched roof, and is surrounded by oak trees and running water.
There sluits of water round the house are a tradition surviving from the old days when, in the summer-time, the slaves used to lay the dust around the house by scooping water out of the sluits with a tin dipper, and sprinkling it liberally over the road.
This is not the only thread left from the tapestry of past years. Everywhere are to be found signs of earlier settlers, and of their customs and way of life. At Schoongezicht wine is still made in the gabled wine cellar, and the grapes are still pressed out by human feet. At Rustenberg, the slave hole under the house is now used for the more prosaic purpose of storing logs of wood, but it is still very dark and mysterious. In the loft under the thatch apples and pears are spread out on straw to keep for the winter months. Thrifty Dutch housewives of a century or more ago kept their stores in much the same way, in the days before cold storage was though of, and they hung their bunches of herbs and their home-cured hams on the same broad rafters.
The old homesteads in the valley were built for coolness, with high ceilings, thatched roofs and large windows. All the rooms are large and rather draughty. Fireplaces are scarce, and it would need a roaring fire to warm those huge, airy rooms. It is supposed that earlier tenants just retired to bed with a large, copper warming-pan when winter frosts set in. Present owners installed fireplaces and plenty of electric heaters.
MODERN HOMES
Besides the old Dutch homesteads of Ida’s Valley, Schoongezicht and Rustenberg, there are some charming new houses in the valley, which have been built on bits of land cut off from the three original farms. One of these is Kelsey Farm, built on a hilltop above Rustenberg – a low-eaved thatched house with a peerless view and surrounded by vineyards. Another is the House in the Woods, built among the poplar trees on a piece of Ida’s Valley. Numerous other cottages have sprung up as more and more people have realized what a delightful part of the world this is in which to live. All are comely, with their thatched roofs and white-washed walls, and are in keeping with the spirit of the valley.
The grey curves of Simonsberg rise above the valley, which is watered by springs from its ravines. Among the rocks near the summit live a troop of baboons, which raids the upper farms for fruit and mealies when roots get scarce on the mountainside. On the very top is an old Hottentot cave, supposed to have been the refuge of runaway slaves. But one cannot help feeling that only a very foolish or very frightened slave would leave the comfortable life of the valley for the inhospitable mountain heights.
THE FAMOUS OAKS
If you read through the dispatches of Simon van der Stel, you will come across this letter the Landdrost, Ditmars, of Stellenbosch, dated July 13, 1701. “We send you, for the benefit of the Stellenbosch community, a wagon laden with young oak trees, which with the co-operation of the Reverend Hercules van Loon, are to be planted – wherever possible. They are at once to be put into the ground, lest they perish through delay.”
This accounts, in part, for the beautiful old trees to be found everywhere in the valley. It was part of the governor van der Stel’s policy to plant plenty of oak trees, and he guessed how well they would flourish in this fertile soil. At Rustenberg is a giant oak tree filled with stones and cement to hold it up, as its core has long since rotted. Yet it still produces its crown of green leaves every summer, and gives every indication of robust life. It must be more than a hundred years old, and many generations must have sheltered beneath its gnarled branches.
TREES OF MANY KINDS
Besides oak trees, there are poplar woods, delicate and silvery; tall rows of Lombardy poplars to shelter the orchards, which in autumn are a golden delight; avenues of plane trees and flowering gums; a silver tree plantation; Spanish chestnuts in sheltered gullies; wild olives and fir forests on the mountain slopes. At Schoongezicht a giant mulberry tree bears its yearly crop of crimson berries. At Rustenberg weeping willows droop delicately over the swimming pool, until they nearly touch the blue water-lilies below; and on their branches, weaver birds build their nests.
So far, I have not even mentioned the fruit trees – in Ida’s Valley one takes them for granted. Since the business of the valley is fruit, every bud is watched with care, every south-easter dreaded once the fruit has formed, and all market prices studied with apprehension. The busiest time of the ear is the fruit season, starting in December and ending in March or April, when the last pears and apples have been placed in their wood-wool nests in the fruit boxes and consigned to foreign ports or home markets, according to their size, quality and degree of ripeness. The summer months mean constant toil to the fruit farmer as his merchandise is perishable. It must be picked and packed at an exact stage of ripeness, and like time and tide, it waits for no man.
Yet it would be impossible to get any real sense of hustle in this valley of green trees and cooling streams. One feels that land may be bought and sold, men may come and go, and farmers may sweat to wrest a living from the soil; but the tranquility of the year will remain in Ida’s Valley – a snare for settlers, a benediction to the world-weary, and a constant tribute to the good taste of Governor van der Stel. – The Hon. Yvonne de Villiers

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