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Jo'Burg Days: The Laird's Dream

"At first sight, the Lord Milner Hotel...seems incongruously out-of-place... Like a faded snapshot, the Victorian buildings doze in the bright sunlight.'' Barbara Durlacher tells the story of James Logan, the Scottish emigrant son of a humble railway worker, who became the fabulously wealthy "Laird of Matjiesfontein''. The hotel that he built has now been lovingly restored.

Be warned. Barbara's wonderfully evocative prose will immediately make you want to don your travelling boots and set out for the place she describes.

At first sight, the Lord Milner Hotel standing foursquare against the rocky koppies seems incongruously out-of-place. Like a faded snapshot, the Victorian buildings doze in the bright sunlight. The fine, dusty leaves of the pepper trees rustle in a hot breeze blowing off the barren veld. The elegant tiered fountain tinkles it's tiny tune into emptiness. Seemingly frozen in time, the railway signal remains in the 'Up' position waiting for a train that never comes.

Today there are no happy crowds of visitors alighting for a drink and a meal before the long stretch north. The leisurely pace of far-off days has gone with a puff of the desert air. A few days rest in the comfortable hotel enjoying the health benefits of the dry climate and pure clean air is no longer de rigueur. Well-dressed Victorians no longer fill the hotel with their talk and gossip. The only reminder of elegant eight course meals and expensive champagne is the unexpected find of an old menu at the back of a drawer.

Some may know the story of James Logan, the Scottish emigrant son of a humble railway worker, who later became the fabulously wealthy “Laird of Matjiesfontein”. In 1883, weak from repeated bouts of bronchitis and colds, and with little prospect of a future in the cold wet climate of his native land, he took a chance that the dry, healthy climate of South Africa would help him to regain his health. Shortly after his arrival he got a job on the Cape Railways, and worked as a clerk on the suburban line for a few years.

Later, he obtained the concession to operate a refreshment stop at a watering point on the main line to the interior. At that time the railway was the only permanent link with the Kimberley diamond fields and the newly discovered gold mines of the Witwatersrand. An increasing number of fortune seekers moving upcountry broke their journey here, and realising the potential, he built the hotel. As time passed, he became a wealthy man and the hotel justly famous. Given to him in jest, he soon shrewdly adopted his unofficial title of “Laird of Matjiesfontein” knowing that it leant weight to his operation.

But, after years of fame and success, when he died in 1920, Matjiesfontein slid into a decline. The National road bypassed it, and gradually it was forgotten and sank into obscurity. As time went by, the buildings became run down and shabby. An air of neglect hung over everything.

But the potential was still there. All it needed was an imaginative and sympathetic owner, and as so often happens, the right man was waiting in the wings. Fresh from his success in bringing the lovely Hotel Lanzerac in Stellenbosch back to life, David Rawdon was looking around for a new challenge. When he saw Matjiestfontein, he put in a bid at auction, and to the surprise of many, bought the entire village. Within weeks he had started his labour of love and restoration, resulting in the charming present-day period village and hotel.

The hotel, an elegant double story edifice with three castellated towers, each with its own flagstaff, is in tip-top condition. The Union Jack and two South African flags snap in the breeze. The fashionable Victorian iron "broekie lace" decorating the front wall and balconies shines white in the sunlight. Inside, an imposing mahogany staircase leads to the comfortable bedrooms. Heavily padded armchairs wait for an occupant. A portrait of a shawled, lace-capped dowager hangs on the wall. The bouquet of wax flowers under a glass-dome, although faded, recalls front parlours of long ago.

All furnishings are authentically Victorian in style; furniture, fittings and even washbasins and toilets are the “real thing”, many of them salvaged from soon-to-be-demolished period buildings and restored by the tireless and dedicated new owner.

An unpretentious boarding house or "loesies-huis" adjacent to the hotel provides alternative accommodation. A well-stocked shop doubling as the post office tempts the visitor with its many treasures. The sunny courtyard mews at the back of the hotel overlooks the well-kept lawns surrounding the pretty swimming pool. Doves coo in the trees, the warm breeze whispers through the leaves, and peace and quiet envelopes the historic Victorian village. An air of secure immutability, spiced with savoury smells from the coffee shop and kitchen lures the traveller to stay overnight.

Parked in front of the hotel is a lovingly restored funeral hearse with gilt embellished windows. In the nearby transport complex a red London bus, a vintage train, and several cars are a wistful reminder of a more leisurely age.

Occasionally, parties of steam train enthusiasts from Cape Town arrive. Dressed in Victorian finery, they enjoy a convivial weekend, with fine foods, good wines and much good cheer. This unique resort, only 240 kms from Cape Town and 1000 metres above sea level, with air like dry champagne, still offers an excellent selection of accommodation and plenty to see and do. An adjoining sheep farm has 4x4 trails and walks. As an alternative stopover for travellers using the N1 between the Witwatersrand and the Cape, Matjiesfontein provides a comfortable overnight stay, a small window into the past, and a chance to relax. For those with less time to spare, the attractive coffee house offers light meals and refreshments.


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