These beautiful windows are in the chapel of the Diocesan School for Girls in Grahamstown.
“Won’t it be fantastic to have a decent shopping centre at last?” Elise delicately wiped the muffin crumbs from her mouth with a paper serviette, her eyes sparkling with excitement. Louise sounded more cynical.
“I’ll believe that when I see it. Local businesses won’t stand for that sort of development on the edge of the central business district.”
“Rents in town will still be much cheaper,” Ursula agreed, “but there is no reason why any of those businesses should move.”
Elise was not to be put off. “Just think, no more parking problems!” She gulped her coffee so enthusiastically that some dribbled down her chin. She hastily dabbed at it and continued, “I wonder if they’ll carry a wider selection of goods? I get so frustrated with the ‘this or that’ choice we have at the moment.”
“I’m more interested in what other shops will be attracted to the shopping centre.” Ursula looked at the fading roses on the coffee house table and sighed meaningfully. “This whole town really needs a shake-up,” she commented while digging in her purse for her share of the bill.
Rumours about a new shopping complex had spread like wildfire, for it had been the most exciting event to occur in that small country town for years. The residents eagerly scanned their weekly newspaper for confirmation. Even though they were used to the slowness of time in their area, their hopes ran high. All looked forward to a much needed injection into their flagging economy. Genuine confirmation came a few months later when the artist impressions were finally published for all to see. “You see, they are going to build!” This time Elise sounded triumphant. “Don’t you think the shopping centre is going to look beautiful?”
“I’ll hand it to them,” Louise answered somewhat grudgingly. “No brick and steel structure this time; the whole complex is in keeping with the local architecture.”
“Perhaps Woolworths will come?” Elise wondered dreamily. She faced her two friends and smiled happily. “Wouldn’t it be wonderful to have our own Woolies?”
“Another supermarket chain would be good too,” Ursula commented drily. “It’s about time there was some competition around here.” She picked up the newspaper to peruse the drawings again and had to agree that this was going to be a swish place indeed. Their town was going places at last!
Advertisements filled the local paper, feeding excitement at the prospect of more jobs and especially fuelling the hope that there would be a greater variety of shops to choose from. The whole square was filled with earth moving equipment and large building cranes. Everyone was impatient to see what would emerge from the rubble of the building site. It seemed many months later before any physical progress showed behind the corrugated iron barricades and once these were removed Elise and Ursula drove into the new parking lot to look at the white and green painted building which looked as though it had arrived from their closest city.
“Oh, it’s so beautiful!” Elise couldn’t hide her excitement. “Those poky old houses and the tatty old post office were such an eyesore.”
“I’m glad they kept the palms though,” mused Ursula. “They must have seen a lot of changes in their time!”
“Palms or not, I can’t wait for all the shops to open! It’s a shame there’ll be no Woolies though.” Elise began counting the list of potential new tenants on her fingers. “There’s going to be a jeweller, a new furniture shop, a discount store, another take-away – we could do with one of those. Pity it’s not Kentucky. We must be about the only town without one.”
Excitement in the sleepy little town reached fever pitch as the day of the official opening drew nearer. The leading chain store had moved from its cramped quarters in the centre of town and promised to offer a wider selection of goods and better service. Customers thronged to the supermarket, jostling each other impatiently for bargains: the chickens were on a fantastic special, they commented, and when last was washing powder so cheap?
Some months after the opening the three friends again met for coffee, their conversation still centred on the new shopping centre. Elise, who had long felt their town needed a facelift, smiled brightly as she commented appreciatively on the beauty and spaciousness of the new building as well as the improved selection of goods in the supermarket. Even Ursula was unusually enthusiastic saying, “I hardly ever buy groceries in town now. It’s so much easier going there where I don’t have to worry about ruddy parking meters!”
“It’s a shame so many of the shops are still empty though,” Louise observed disappointedly. “That jewellery shop lasted only a month and I hardly ever see customers in the pharmacy.”
“That’s because the rent is sky high. They are charging city prices which small town people can’t afford.” Ursula was passing on the opinions that one heard so often these days. It was a widely known fact that their little agricultural town was not a wealthy one.
“Still, it’s a pity that such an attractive building should be so empty. It is almost as if the complex wasn’t needed after all!” Louise sounded sad.
“Who cares,” Elise countered cheerfully, “as long as we can buy our groceries in comfort!”
“I can hardly remember what the site looked like before,” Louise continued soberly, “I mean, it looks as if this massive building and car park have been there forever.”
“Don’t you remember those funny dark old houses with red polished steps and tins of geraniums or ferns on the walls of the dark stoeps? Then there was that huge open space where the taxis gathered. Now that was a real eyesore with all that rubbish lying around – not to mention the chaos of vehicles and long queues of people. At least this looks clean and our town is the better for it!” The others laughed at the passion Elise was displaying.
“Nevertheless, it’s funny to think people lived there once; that they had children, gardens, pets, hopes, dreams and made plans.”
“We’re better off without them, Louise. Once the economy picks up this place will hum with business.” Ursula was again recycling the desperate hope that pervaded every nook and cranny of that small town. They paid their bill and cheerfully bid each other farewell on the pavement.
In one of the remaining funny dark houses with potted geraniums and a mass of ferns crowded on the dark red-polished stoep, bent old Mrs. Tipp put a protective arm around her ancient cat, Fluid, who was so old he could barely muster a meow. Her mottled arm shook involuntarily as did her lined lips while she gazed out across the rubble in the open space in front of her house to the enormous white and green monstrosity which had been the death knell of the community she had lived in for fifty years.
The lace curtains in her crowded sitting room flapped idly in the warm breeze. They had become so impregnated with months of dust from the building operations that she could no longer get them white. The leather sausage dog with a gilt chain around its neck and a yellow bead for an eye bore testimony to the clouds of dust that had blown in under the door and infiltrated the small dark house which had become increasingly difficult for her to keep clean. Even the collection of bric-a-brac in the wooden show case with a mirrored back had been covered with a film of dust.
Mrs. Tipp released her hold on the cat and stiffly opened the front door. “Time to get your milkies my boy,” she croaked cheerfully. Having checked the buttons on her orange and white crimpelene dress with the large pockets, she slowly counted the money she required and pulled on a pair of towelling slippers with rubber soles. She carefully locked the wooden door, barely noticing the faded and blistered paint, and slipped the key into its familiar hiding place at the base of the third sword fern from the right.
She still felt ‘undressed’ without the comfortable feel of her handbag under her arm, but that kind policeman had warned them about muggers when he’d visited the Senior Citizen’s Centre. It had been shocking the way in which Mrs. Scott had been attacked and robbed of her handbag in Magellan Street, however, and this had convinced Mrs. Tipp that the policeman was right. Poor Mrs. Scott had broken her hip in the fall and those dreadful thugs had made off with all the money she’d drawn from her savings to pay her bills and buy her groceries!
Mrs. Tipp patted her deep pocket and picked her bent way through the remaining builders’ rubble towards the new shopping centre. She hardly noticed the wind whipping the hair from the plastic slides and casting it about her face. Instead, as she stumbled over the rough ground she remembered … Mrs. Stander who used to bake those melt-in-the-mouth milk tarts, Mr. Raso who sat on his front steps each morning to greet passersby, Mr. and Mrs. Topell who kept racing pigeons in their back yard and, above all, her dear friend Sarah Stickley, who had died soon after moving into the old age home, so stricken was she at the loss of the only home she had known since her marriage.
She fiercely wiped away the tears which always welled up when she ‘trespassed’ through the gardens of the past. She missed the little Corner Shop where she had bought her groceries for years and passed the time of day with old Mr. Gumbie. No-one took much notice of her at this fancy supermarket where the assistants sighed audibly while she painstakingly counted her coins which she kept in a plastic bank bag. These new coins were difficult to identify and she couldn’t stop her stiff fingers from shaking as she tried to prise them out of the narrow opening. There always seemed to be crowds of people waiting impatiently in the queue and she seldom found the tea she wanted. Mr. Gumbie had always kept a box of Earl Grey under the counter for her as well as a tin of those hard travelling sweets. The managers of this new supermarket seemed to change so often that there was no point asking them to do the same. Everyone was so impatient in that noisy place that it was quite frightening to go inside!
As she picked up her plastic carrier bag and carefully shuffled past the jostling shoppers near the cigarette counter, Mrs. Tipp reflected sadly that, worst of all, there was no-one left who cared to ask her about Fluid.
It was overcast and damp when we set off along a narrow dirt road, travelling through a portion of Mpofu Game Reserve, to reach the fort at Post Retief, used during the 8th Frontier War of 1850 both as a base supplying the campaigns of the surrounding areas and as a hospital for the wounded. The road winding through the hills was very rough and muddy in places. It was comforting to be in a 4 x 4 vehicle with a high clearance!
This is no place for a history lesson, yet the remains of the barracks and the loop holed stone walls capped with a double pitch to make it difficult to climb over provide an interesting insight to the building materials and styles of 1836.
Post Retief Barracks was designed by Major Charles Selwyn of the Royal Engineers and constructed from local sandstone – which is notorious for its poor quality – as well as bricks made from the local clay.
The kingpost trusses clearly visible in the Cape Corps stables are typical of the construction by the Royal Engineers.
In one building, the stone lintel is actually bending as it is not thick enough – one needs to bear in mind that these buildings were not meant to last forever – compared with another which remains straight, thanks to the thickness of the stone used.
Next to the officers’ kitchen is the officers’ stables, still containing a fully boarded roof covered with zinc sheeting.
A large tree is now growing in what were the officers’ privies at the end of this row of buildings.
The narrow gate in the wall opposite the officers’ quarters – facing the Katberg Mountain – was used to draw water from the Koonap River below.
The purpose of our trip to Fort Beaufort was to see the Martello Tower, which formed part of the extensive British fortifications authorised for the Eastern Cape by the then Governor of the Cape, Sir Benjamin D’Urban. The tower was constructed by the Royal Engineers in about 1844 and was manned until 1869. It is unusual for a Martello Tower to be erected so far inland, as they were more commonly used for coastal defence.
Dressed stone from local quarries as well as baked clay bricks were used for its construction. The base is 9,6 metres in diameter and the tower is 9,5 metres high. The stone walls are 1,9 metres thick. The garrison’s quarters were situated on the middle floor of the tower, with the magazine situated on the ground floor. There are four firing ports, each with a flue above it to carry away the smoke from the muzzle loaders that were in use at the time.
There is also a fire place for warmth during the winter and all the smoke from this and the weapons comes out from a chimney vent at the top of the tower.
That is where the flat gun-roof is, with a Machicouli gallery for defending the entrance from above.
The tower was originally equipped with a nine-pounder swivel gun that could traverse a 360 degree arc. A reproduction gun carriage is there to give visitors an idea of what the original looked like and a different gun is lying on the floor.
The Martello Tower was declared a national monument in 1938. It is disturbing to note that figs have got a firm hold on the walls – destruction of these is vital for the safeguarding of the masonry.
While in Fort Beaufort, we looked at the historic Victoria Bridge over the Kat River.
It is the oldest triple-arch bridge in the country. The bridge was designed by Andrew Geddes Bain and Major C.J. Selwyn and was built by the Royal Engineers in 1844. Having visited it some years earlier, I was relieved to note that several large trees that had been growing out of the stone walls have been removed in the interim.
There is a forest of alien vegetation growing on the banks below it though!
Have you ever listened to the 1956 song by Jim Low called The Green Door? It ends with the intriguing words:
Midnight, one more night without sleepin’
Watchin’ till the mornin’ comes creepin’
Green door, what’s that secret you’re keepin?
Green door, what’s that secret you’re keepin?
The song popped into my head when I saw this green door on the Vergelegen Estate in Somerset West: