Hartford House

The Home of Good Conversation, Fine Wine and Classic Horses.

Award-winning hotel and restaurant situated at Summerhill Stud on the picturesque KwaZulu-Natal Midlands Meander, South Africa.

Filtering by Category: KwaZulu Natal History

A VOICE FROM THE PAST

Winston Churchill in Laurenco Marques

Winston Churchill looks pleased with himself - dressed  in civvies astride a horse. And, he probably has every right to be,  after making a daring escape from Pretoria to Lourenco Marques, now  Maputo, at the height of the Boer War.
(Photo : Sunday Times)

"A unique photograph of Churchill after he had escaped from Boer captivity, surfaced in the Sunday Times"

Farm tours at Summerhill Stud and Hartford House are popular items. Students of history, fans of racing and those who are mesmerized by the Midlands and the mystique of our sport, travel from as far afield as Johannesburg for the day, take in the tour and a bit of lunch at the nation's Number One restaurant, before they are back on the N3 northbound.

Others prefer to do it the leisurely way, and they check in for a couple of nights at Hartford. While we'd recommend the latter for its relaxation, we'd not want to deny you the pleasure, either way.

If you've done the tour, you'd know that in the summer of 1899, a young Winston Churchill was a visitor to the Moors of Hartford. We all know too, of his capture up the road from us, and his presence at the mother of all battles, Spioenkop. Remarkably, on Spioenkop that day (just 45 minutes from us,) and drawn together by dint of the peculiar attractions of our region, were five of the most influential people of the 20th century. Louis Botha, the first Prime Minister of South Africa, (who together with Hartford'sSir Frederick Moor and his brother, John (the former a colonial Prime Minister, and the latter a senator in the first South African government, attended a class of just 10 students at Hermansburg Junior School;) Denys Reitz, former Deputy Prime Minister of South Africa and later a Field Marshall in the British army, he was there; our man, Jan Smuts, the man the world chose to write the charters for the League of Nations and the United Nations after the respective World Wars, and the man Churchill appointed as his successor in the war cabinet should anything have become of him, he was there. In the pantheon of great South Africans, you'd have Smuts up there with Nelson Mandela, who ironically was captured just to the south of us seventy two years later; Winston Churchill himself, later to become Prime Minster of England and arguably the greatest Englishman of all-time, he was on Spioenkop that day; and amazingly, the man who liberated India in 1947, Mahatma Ghandi, was there as a stretcher bearer.

Just recently, a unique photograph of Churchill after he had escaped from Boer captivity, surfaced in the Sunday Times. It's apparently coming up for auction in England shortly, and there's been a bit of a story about it. It turns out the picture was taken in our immediate vicinity, after Churchill's escape from Boer custody.

From 1896 to 1897 Churchill served as a soldier and journalist in India. In September 1898 he fought at the battle of Omdurman in Sudan, taking part in what is often described as one of the last true cavalry charges. In 1899, he resigned his commission, and was assigned to cover the Boer War for the London Morning Post.

In October that year he accompanied a scouting expedition in an armoured train near Ladysmith, in what was then Natal, but was captured by the Boers. Although he was a war correspondent, he was armed with a pistol when captured, so was treated as a prisoner of war and held in what had been the Staats Model Skool in central Pretoria.

Churchill managed to escape, and the Boers put a £25 price on his head. Travelling by foot and train - where he hid under coal sacks - he eventually reached safety, 480km away, in Portuguese-controlled Lourenço Marques. The escape made him a celebrity back in Britain and he was elected to parliament in 1900.

HAPPY BIRTHDAY SOUTH AFRICA

General Louis Botha / SA Military Museum (p)

General Louis Botha / SA Military Museum (p)

SOUTH AFRICA CELEBRATES A DOUBLE CENTURY

Hashim Amla’s outstanding knock of 129 in Dominica, West Indies, yesterday was not the only a century not out South Africans have woken up to this morning.

On the 31st May 1910, the Union of South Africa came into being, anointing a man with close ties to Summerhill and Hartford, as Prime Minister. That this farm is steeped in old history is well known, but it’s a lesser known fact that Louis Botha, the second Anglo Boer War’s most successful general, took command of the Boer forces at the foot of this farm.

Besides, apart from the Lord Chief Justice, Lord de Villiers, the only one man to emerge from the Union talks (which brought about the Act of Union) with a knighthood, was Sir Frederick Moor, who together with his brother, Senator John Moor were the founders of what we know as Hartford House today. Of course, Hartford has been through many changes in its life, and today it celebrates the fact that it ranks as the only world-class hotel on a world-class stud farm in the world, as well as being home to one of the nation’s top restaurants.

Aside from these two gentlemen, Summerhill itself was home to Sir Frederick’s deputy (when he was Prime Minister of the Colony of Natal), Colonel George Richards, which means that for the last years of its existence as a colony, Natal was ruled from these two farms.

Happy birthday South Africa.

NEW ADDITIONS TO THE LAND OF LEGENDS COLLECTION

land of legends

Land of Legends featuring Beverly Hills Hotel and Ardmore Ceramics to name a few

A BLAST FROM THE PAST AND A PEEK AT THE FUTURE

Readers of these columns took a well earned rest this past week, as Cheryl and I were away on a bit of “R and R”, mingled as usual with a bit of business. Business for us, is a pleasure, because we work at the things we like to play at, like horses and hospitality. In the process, we reawakened some giants of history, taking in their old haunts enroute.

Thursday last witnessed a gathering of the “legends” at Umhlanga’s Beverley Hills Hotel, the grandest old dame on Durban’s glittering coastline. The occasion was the induction into the Land Of Legends of “The Bev”, as well as Fee Berning’s world famous Ardmore Ceramics, which is now at a point where an institution like Rovos Rail pull their great train up at the gates to Ardmore, for their international travellers to glimpse the remarkable work which springs forth from the creative loins of Fee’s Zulu artists. Yes, Rovos Rail, of all rail operators. There is no bigger compliment.

Back to The Bev, and the gathering of monumental proportions. There wasn’t a stopper unpulled. Instantly, if you didn’t know it already, you knew you were at a serious address. General Manager, Sebastian Berernato, is a veteran of the game, and he and Lorna Gourley’s deep-seated passion for hospitality, their embrace of the traditions for which The Bev stands and their preservation of its history, is everywhere.

The induction was unusual, as they led in three employees who were there the day Sol Kerzner “wowed” the world with the first opening of the doors, and each of these fellows, colourful in their own right, delivered their own tale about the “Sun King”. All told in camera, so none of that for repetition here. Since then of course, there’s been Sun City, Atlantis, the One and Only.

By definition, you have to be a legend to join the Land Of Legends, and the Beverley Hills slides seamlessly into a collection of properties which as recently as September included the top Lodge, the top Spa and the top Restaurant in South Africa, and for those of you looking for one of the best meals in the province, look no further than Executive Chef Sean Munro and his side-kick Attie, for as good as it gets. Yes, Durban is in the process of accumulating hotels almost as quickly as Dubai did in its heyday, but the Bev will stand its ground long after many of those have come and possibly gone, because they’ve been at it for 40 years now, they know how to look after people, and the service is up there with the best anywhere.

From a Summerhill perspective, it’s the connectivity with the great racing events of the Kwa Zulu Natal winter that matters, and like The Oyster Box next door, The Bev has any number of stories to tell of the great characters of our history. Besides being the hotel of choice for most of the best cricket and rugby teams of the world, the guest list reads like a who’s who of Hollywood, Broadway and the parade, including Sir Cliff Richard, Embert Humperdink and Whitney Houston.

Friday we took up a longstanding invitation from the General Manager of the newly renovated Oyster Box Hotel next door. Much has been said and written about the half billion Rand recently splurged on this famous landmark before its opening in October, and my goodness, you can see it in spectacular technicolour. You cannot sustain destinations on one great hotel alone, and I’m sure The Beverley Hills welcomes the introduction to Durban of another world class establishment like the Oyster Box, as much as they’re immediate neighbours, and the competition will be hot.

If we’re going to put up our hands finally to the rest of the world, and claim the right to be counted with the most favoured places on earth, We have to have establishments of the stature of The Bev and The Oyster Box, to not only to pull the crowds, but to reassure them that this is KZN’s time. In the end, we have the most diverse collection of visitor offerings in this country, if not the world, with outstanding venues at the Beach, in the Berg, the Bush and the Battlefields, and with its proximity to the new King Shaka airport and the biggest port city in Africa, The Bev adds a special dimension to our collection.

Before we leave the Oyster Box, names like the Durban July Room, the Flash On and Sea Cottage suites (ring some very old bells?). We stayed in the latter, at a sumptuous R17 000 night apartment on the beach with its own plunge pool gazing out over the warmth of the Indian Ocean). The Oyster Box, driven by the energy and enthuisiam of Wayne Coetzer, is well on its way to reviving memories of the greatest characters of our sport, Cyril Hurwitz, Laurie & Jean Jaffee, Graham and Rhona Beck, Eric Gallo, legions of them who decades ago, darkened their doors.

And so we passed on, to another Jaffee, Hurwitz, Gallo and Beck haunt, The Vineyard in Cape Town, for the annual Eat Out restaurant awards (for the full story, click on www.hartford.co.za). This place hums, and deservedly so, because as a world class operation, it carries the mantle as the best value-for-money in an overcharged world. Laid out more than a century ago by the much loved Lady Anne Barnard, family- owned and family driven, The Vineyard perches in one of Cape Town’s most spectacular gardens, and in the short time we were there, we renewed an acquaintance with the most powerful minister in the South African government, Trevor Manuel, and became acquainted with the King and Queen of Norway, out here on a state visit.

Wonderfully, The Vineyard traverses without fuss, the trappings of royalty and the trimmings of us normal beings, without so much as a whimper, a testimony to the values which it (and I like to think, ourselves) have come to respect. A wonderful compliment to a team who know what The Vineyard means to South Africa, and will ensure that our grandchildren will know it too.

If you’ve never been to The Bev, The Oyster Box or The Vineyard, you haven’t been anywhere.

LUXURY AND GOURMET FOOD IN THE TRANQUIL DRAKENSBERG

Drakensberg Mountains / Nigel Reid (p)

Drakensberg Mountains / Nigel Reid (p)

HARTFORD HOUSE
EXTRACT FROM TRIPADVISOR.COM

My wife and I spent 3 nights at this wonderful hotel on our recent visit to South Africa. While many tourists to South Africa head straight to the Game Parks, fewer tend to visit this region of South Africa which gets less publicity in the tourism literature.

Located in KwaZulu Natal, a 4 hour drive from Johannesburg or 90 minute drive from Durban on excellent roads,Hartford House is situated within a half-hour drive from the spectacular Drakensberg Mountains.

The accomodations are luxurious, the food is gourmet (voted South Africa's best restaurant in 2009) and nothing is too much when it comes to satisfying their guests. There is a Wellness Centre offering spa treatments and massage at reasonable rates.

There is lots to explore in the region including the Battle Fields from the Boer War, walks in the Drakensberg Mountains (from an easy stroll to serious hiking) and the Midlands Meander (a day trip spent exploring the local Arts and Crafts in the area). Fly Fishing is popular in this area. We were particularly impressed by the beauty of this region and the Drakensberg should not be missed.

The hotel is located on the famous Summerhill Stud Farm which is world renowned for its race horses. A tour of the farm is available.

In summary : A memorable stay in a beautiful part of South Africa. Highly recommended.

www.hartford.co.za

IT’S A SMALL WORLD INDEED

Mick Goss enjoys a moment with Ben Jonsson

Mick Goss enjoys a moment with Ben Jonsson
(Photo : Hartford House)

Among many anecdotes to have emerged from the Jonsson 80th birthday celebrations, were these two. According to the Guinness Book of Records, there is only one other set of living triplets who are slightly ahead of the Jonssons, the threesome having chalked up 93 years. The Jonssons trail by just 13 years, but knowing their history of longevity, it’s a good bet our “triplets” still have a good bit of wind in their sails. Either way, it’s a remarkable story of triumph against the odds, and it’s our bet the Guinness Book is in danger of having its pages rewritten. For the record, an elder sibling Hugh, was the breeder of Jet Master greatest South African stallion of all time, who’s just recorded his third consecutive Sires championship.

The second anecdote worth repeating is the connectivity in racing between Ben and the Goss family. As a young man recently out of school, Ben made his first investment in a racehorse, acquiring a colt from Mick Goss’s grandfather, Pat Goss Snr, in the mid 1940’s for the princely sum of £50, quite a bit of money in those days.

Legend has it that Ben had only £35 from his savings to spend, and had to borrow the remaining £15 from his employer, which he redeemed at £2 a month. Unable to afford the training fees, Ben leased the colt to the grandfather of David Pianel, famous for his association with the studs of the Rowles family (Ivanhoe) and Sydney Press’ Coromandel Stud.

For what its worth, Ben’s colt won two heats on the same day at the Lions River gymkhana, and then promptly suffered a heart attack which put him down. Prior to that he hadn’t been able to pull off a win at the major courses, hence his dispatch to a gymkhana meeting, though we shouldn’t demean gymkhanas too much, because they were quite competitive affairs in those days.

Either way, we’d like to think we’ve moved on at Summerhill!

Jonsson Family's 80th Birthday Celebration

IT'S NOT ONLY TOUGH HORSES:
IT’S TOUGH HUMAN BEINGS, TOO

The celebration by Summerhill this past weekend of the two most victorious racehorses of the past 50 years, Sentinel and Hear The Drums, coincided with the celebration of a quite remarkable triple 80th birthday for the Jonsson family.

In all its history since its establishment in 1875, only four families have darkened the front door to Hartford House, namely the Moors, who produced a Prime Minster and a Senator (1875-1937), the Jonssons, (1937-1939), the Ellises (the most successful private racehorse owner/breeders of their era), and the present incumbents, the Gosses. It was rare in the 1920s, for any family to remain intact from birth to 80, yet the Jonssons with their history of longevity, produced triplets which this weekend accomplished that milestone against all medical odds from those days.

Ben, Jeremy and Felicity showed us the ultimate honour in celebrating their 80th birthdays at their old home this past weekend, and each of them brings an enthralling tale to the table. Besides that, they’ve spawned a family of great diversity, spread across an enormous landscape, and despite their geographic spread, nothing has happened to diminish the calibre of their assembly. We were privileged to be of service to this unusual gathering, and sharing some wonderful yarns and a host of new insights on the history of our property.

“Benjy”, as he’s affectionally known to the racing fraternity of South Africa, served for many years as chair for the local executive of the Jockey Club of South Africa, and among his achievements in racing was his custodianship of the South African Jockey’s Academy. Under his stewardship, South African graduates of the Academy captured 17 of the last 18 jockey’s titles in Hong Kong, an extraordinary achievement unlikely to be repeated ever again.

Jeremy has been a mentor of ours ever since we made our first investments in the KZN Midlands 30 years ago, as the best property man in our area. Since then, we’ve never ventured investment here without either his or the counsel of his sons James and Andrew.

Not to be outdone by these two achievers, Felicity, the third of the triplets, married beyond our borders into the Wills family of cigarette fame, and in a second life she became the wife of Henry Douglas-Home, brother to the erstwhile Prime Minister of Britain, Sir Alec, but in his own right, famous for being the Royal Ornithologist.

As colourful a family as any to have occupied these historic acreages, this was a singular honour for the Hartford team: the tapestry of our lives has been enriched substantially, for which we give thanks.

Ardmore Ceramic Art - The Summerhill Collection

summerhill stud ardmore ceramic collection

Summerhill Stallion Day
"The day after the Vodacom Durban July"

What has become as much a tradition as the Vodacom Durban July itself, the annual Summerhill Stallion Day dubbed "Racing's Greatest Day Out", is always a grand occasion where the who's who of racing descend on Summerhill Stud to pay homage to some of Africa's most exciting Thoroughbred Stallion prospects.

Quite fitting then that this year's event will witness the teaming up of two formidable forces in their own fields, in a celebration of excellence and dedication.

South Africa’s premier ceramic studio, Ardmore Ceramic Art, and South Africa’s Champion Thoroughbred Breeder, Summerhill Stud, will unveil an exciting new Ardmore ceramic collection inspired by the horses, people and nature at Summerhill.

The Ardmore artists have created Staffordshire-like everyday farm scenes including Summerhill Stallions walking the lands, yearlings being bandaged, foals being born and Ready to Run graduates galloping to victory.

Most of Ardmore’s 80 artists live in the rural areas of KwaZulu-Natal steeped in tradition, where music, song and dance prevail. After two successful London sales held in 2004 and 2007, Christie’s labeled Ardmore “a modern day collectable”. Collectors around the world love Ardmore’s distinctive style - a fusion of African, Western and Eastern form and design embellished with sculptural African fauna and flora and painted in a kaleidoscope of colour.

Ardmore’s talented artists create with passion and freedom and many have intuitively found their own style. The decorative collectibles have an elegant charm as has the work of the realists who are inspired by nature. The exotic naturalists add an artistic fantasy to their painting. Then, there are the free spirits whose sculpture and painting is expressive of their imagination and is without inhibition or apology. Lastly, the ‘Storytellers’ incorporate the human figure as they sculpt and paint Zulu cultural and social events.

A percentage of Ardmore sales is contributed to The Excellence Fund, a non-profit organization that also receives donations from many people worldwide. The Excellence Fund assists the artists to advance their education and skills training, and provides health care. In the current economic situation marked by rising unemployment and health care costs, the role of the Excellence Fund is critically important.

The artists are proud of their achievements and are known amongst their community as the “isgwili” (fortunate ones).

So if you’re going to be at the Summerhill Stallion Day on Sunday, you’re in for a real treat... where the ceramicists have traded in their zebra stripes for the racing thoroughbred.

Marsh Shirtliff, Mike and Carol Bass make the Pilgrimage

mike and carol bass with marsh shirtliff at hartford house

Mike and Carol Bass with Marsh Shirtliff pictured awaiting their famous
Hartford salmon omelettes
(Photo : Leigh Willson)

With the 2009 renewal of Africa's greatest horserace, the Vodacom Durban July, now just a few days away, we have already welcomed an array of racing's eminent personalities through the gates of Hartford.

One of whom is Marsh Shirtliff. Marshis not a superstitious man, not as far as we know, yet he does know that there hasn’t been a July winner in the past twenty years whose connections have not made it to Summerhill for the July, or at the very least, for our Stallion Day on the Sunday afterwards. The trick is either to make it beforehand or to make sure you’ve accepted the invitation in advance for Stallion Day, otherwise you risk taking on history. So Marsh dragged Mike and Carol Bass to the farm on a spectacular Sunday morning, and they took up their lodgings in the Inkanyezi and Nhlanhla suites while the Bass stable was cleaning up in the big events in Cape Town.

Logic tell us Pocket Power is a shoe-in for the big race, but Mike Bass (and you’d better be listening, if you intend having an interest in the big event next Saturday) thinks River Jetez is twice the filly she was last season. Let’s not forget what a big race she ran in the 2008 Vodacom Durban July, and if she’s twice as good as that, Pocket Power himself will need to have made some improvement to keep her out. And that he undoubtedly has, having had a trouble free “prep” for the first time in his life.

Of course, with three of our own in the line-up, it would be uncharitable of us not to wish them everything of the best, but we really hope that if either of them fluff their lines, the gates will open for Thandolwami, Outcome or Catmandu.

Country Life features Summerhill Stud

summerhill stud south africa

Autumn evening in KwaZulu-Natal
(Photo : Summerhill Stud)

Country Life is a fresh, invigorating publication that captures the essence of life in the South African countryside. The pages entice readers with an armchair escape to a quiter, simpler life; an exploration of South Africa's natural beauty, delightful dorpies, passionate people, artists, crafters and the discovery of our bountiful Nation's fascinating heritage.

Country Life recently featured Summerhill Stud in an article written by Olivia Schaffer entitled "In a league of its own", an extract from which follows :

Summerhill Stud in the KZN Midlands is a thoroughbred establishment in more ways than one.

Countless rural folk seek better jobs in the cities, often overlooking the wonderful opportunities country life can offer. For instance, horse handlers in the KwaZulu-Natal Midlands are given unique opportunities to travel abroad on the Summerhill Stud educational programme. Following an intensive three-year life skills course on the farm, they are rewarded with working scholarships on the American and European farms of the horses’ owners.

Elliot Bhengu, a broodmare handler, and John Motaung, a work rider, were the most recent horse handlers to secure a place on the programme, and I happened to be on the farm when they returned.

“I have learnt so many different tasks,” said Elliot, still beaming with enthusiasm, “and it has made my work back here easier.”

John’s excitement was equally contagious, even though it was the second time he’d been chosen to go to America. “I learnt so much,” he says. “Now I look forward to sharing all that I’ve picked up with the other guys at Summerhill. I’m very grateful to Summerhill for what it’s done for me.”

Velaphi Mbanjwa, Siyabonga Mlaba, Robert Mbhele, Richard Hlongwana, Thulani Mnguni and Mali Zuma are others who have enjoyed work experiences abroad and who have thus benefited from the programme. They chose to remain in rural KwaZulu-Natal rather than seek jobs in the city and have reaped the rewards of their decisions.

Summerhill Stud, with its undulating emerald-green pastures in the foothills of Giant’s Castle, is as picturesque as it is unusual. As national Breeder of the Year for four consecutive years, and the only racehorse stud in the world boasting a five-star country house on its estate, it is one of a kind. Uniquely, it’s also home to stallions owned by the Rulers of Dubai, the world’s most powerful racehorse owners and breeders.

“Of all the studs in the world, apart from their own, Summerhill is the only one where the sheikhs stand their stallions,” says Mick Goss, the CEO of Summerhill.

As Mick drives me around the estate, he tells me there are between 700 and 800 thoroughbreds here. I’m also reminded that activities on the farm are determined by the changing seasons. It’s autumn, with the lush green of summer turning to shades of yellow and red, and the foals are being weaned from their mothers.

“We leave a herd of about 20 weanlings with an adult horse to ensure discipline is maintained,” Mick explains, adding that necessary procedures such as worming and hoof trimming ensure the young horses are handled extensively.

He tells me the more mature and better-bred yearlings are taken to the National Yearling Sales and that they are sensitively introduced to human contact so the handler can show them in the best light. “This is a vital process,” says Mick emphatically. The yearlings have never been ridden (the training starts when they’re about 20 months old) and they are sold to the highest bidder, who could be a trainer, a bloodstock agent or an owner who sees their potential.

The less advanced foals are kept for the Ready to Run Sales in October. These potential racehorses know what’s expected of them by the time they are sold because they’ve been taught the basics on tracks that have produced countless winners.

Winter in the racehorse industry also has its charm. Though it’s the time of the Vodacom Durban July, Africa’s greatest horseracing event, contested at Greyville Racecourse in Durban, things are quiet on the farm. Lands lie fallow, the veld takes on a golden hue, and although prospective young racehorses are being put through their paces, a certain peace prevails.

“With spring comes new life,” says Mick. “The trees burst forth with fresh greenery and budding flowers herald the return of warmer weather. Mares take on a nurturing role with the dependent foals and stallions go about the stud duties for which they are kept.”

Summer, I gather, is a busy time. It’s when international owners take up residence at Summerhill’s award-winning Hartford House “toescape the cold in Europe and the UK, to absorb the gentle Midlands sunshine as the lazy days drift by, and to visit the offspring their mares have produced.”

There’s lots of youthful activity, with newly independent foals frolicking in the fields as the guests look on in admiration. It’s also the rainy season, with balmy days ending in exhilarating thunderstorms followed by mild evenings under a star-studded sky. And so the cycle continues.

Summerhill’s horses are bred and reared as naturally as possible. They graze on pastures of erogrostis, rye, cocksfoot, clover and kikuyu, supplemented by Vuma Horse Feed, a commercial product manufactured on the farm.

This labour-intensive industry is an important job creator and Summerhill has a dedicated workforce, many of whom are the third or fourth generation of their families on the farm.

An exciting new project is the Al Maktoum School of Excellence, planning for which is at an advanced stage. “We see it as providing top class training for management candidates in the South African thoroughbred breeding industry,” explains its co-ordinator, Barbara Meier. “Our mission is to identify, train and develop the industry leaders of the future.”

The school’s first intake is planned for this month.

Whether its stallions, brood mares or people, all have played a role in the success of Summerhill. All are woven into its colourful tapestry.

Unveiling of South African “Horse Memorial”

british war horses

British War Horse Hospital
(Illustration : Fortunino Matania)

A memorial to horses, mules and other animals killed in service during human conflicts and particularly the Anglo-Boer War of 1899-1902, is to be unveiled at Weston Agricultural College near Mooi River in the KwaZulu-Natal Midlands, on 31 May 2009. The memorial is apparently one of only four in the world: the others are located in Port Elizabeth, Argentina and Britain.

Weston Farm and Weston Common were the site of the British Army’s Number 7 Remount Depot, in service from 1899-1913 and used during the South African War of 1899 -1902. It also served during the 1906 Bhambatha Rebellion. An estimated 30 000 horses and mules are believed to have been buried on the farmlands in the area, with thousands of these graves located on the farm where Weston Agricultural College, one of the area’s leading high schools, is situated.

Weston College farm manager Warren Loader, a military history enthusiast, and Jeannine Tait, history teacher and museum curator, believed that it would be fitting for military – and public – recognition to be given to animals lost in battles fought in this and other regions.

The Horses

“The memorial is not only in recognition of the thousands of British Army horses who arrived at Weston Remount Depot to be broken in and/or recover from the weeks-long sea and train journeys that brought them here, but also pays tribute to the thousands of Boer horses who served loyally alongside their masters during the Anglo-Boer,” says Paul Tait, Weston’s Principal.

Mounts for the British Army were brought to South Africa from Argentina, and suffered terribly during the sea voyage, with an estimated 13 000 dying before they even landed in Durban. Mules also paid a vital part in the war, and were imported for military purposes from America for the first time, also suffering terrible losses. Of 150 000 mules purchased, some 50 000 perished. Animals injured during battle were brought to Weston to recover from their wounds.

Boer mounts were hardy non-Thoroughbreds that could live off meagre grazing and travel for many miles a day. An assessment of the Boer ponies by an English source, concluded, “He is a hardy, in some essential respects a disease-proof, animal; his life has been largely spent in the open. Limited fare has rendered him both economical in use and an excellent forager...He is docile, hardy and wary, but small and frequently plain; he is light in both body and limbs, which leaves the impression that he is not up to the weight of the British soldier, although he mostly carries a man whose body weight is greater than that of the average mounted British soldier.”

The Memorial

Evidence of Weston’s history can be found daily, with horseshoes, buckles, bottles and other artefacts being unearthed all the time. The memorial has been designed in a horseshoe shape, mounted by an obelisk-shaped monument created out of old horseshoes found on the farm. The inverted horseshoes of this centrepiece are in keeping with the tradition at a cavalryman’s funeral, where his boots are reversed in the stirrups on his horse. The structure is topped with a specially crafted bronze statue of a horse that is the work of Weston old boy and acclaimed Midlands artist, Kim Goodwin. The monument is backed by a Wall of Remembrance where plaques commemorating the animals lost in the battle will be mounted. A box containing some bones of horses buried on the farm will be placed within the Wall of Remembrance.

The entire monument will be surrounded by shells donated by the Natal Mounted Rifles, one of the regiments to be present at the unveiling, which takes place on Sunday 31 May at 2.10pm. This is the exact time when the ceasefire between Boer and British was signed in 1902, when the Peace Treaty of Vereeniging was agreed.

Weston College will host the consecration ceremony, assisted by the Cavalry Association, representing traditional mounted regiments, and the Natal Mounted Rifles (NMR) and Umvoti Mounted Rifles (UMR). Regiments have been invited to display their Colours and flags of the day will be flown at half-mast. A mounted Guard of Honour will be in attendance.

Fun Day

The unveiling of the memorial will be the highlight of a public open day at Weston, starting at 9am, with various horse-related activities such as dressage and carriage-driving displays, tent-pegging by the UMR team, battle re-enactments by the Dundee Diehards, pony club demonstrations, talks by battlefields' tour guides and historians Ken Gillings and Maureen Richards, tours of the College (including its museum and significant heritage sites on the property), plus static displays by the Society for Preservation of Militaria and others. A commemorative booklet will be on sale on the day.

Weston’s Long History

In the 1800s, the town of Mooi River as we know it today did not exist. Instead, the village of Weston, laid out in 1866 and named after Martin West, the first Governor of Natal, was the centre of human settlement, with a store, a post office, a pound and a hotel.

At the end of 1898, mounted troops from Pietermaritzburg were sent to Weston to protect their horses from the deadly horse sickness that flourished in warm, wet conditions. In mid-1899, the 18th Hussars, the 1st Battalion Leicestershire Regiment, and a brigade of the RFA from Ladysmith were sent to camp at Weston to avoid the enteric fever that was rife in Ladysmith. When the Anglo-Boer War broke out in the latter part of that year, the Imperial authorities established a Remount Depot on the thousands of hectares of commonage near Weston, with the land being leased to the War Department.

Many of the original wood and iron buildings built for the remount depot remain in use. Three are provincial heritage sites – the officers’ mess, the commanding officer’s house, and a house built for doctors and nursing quarters for staff at Mooi River’s 600-bed, tented hospital. A 200-horse stable block, panelled stables for officer’s horses, old feed sheds and the original toll-house/post office (built in 1854 and today the farm stall), are in daily use. Some of the original red-brick College buildings were built in 1914.

Weston Agricultural College, its museum and the Horse Memorial are on the Midlands Meander tourist route, and as such are open to the public.

Weston Agricultural College

The College has a long-standing reputation as a learning establishment, with pupils combining an excellent academic education with hands-on farming experience in a genuine, sustained agricultural setting. As an operating farm, Weston is entirely self-sufficient and there are numerous farming enterprises underway on its 1200 hectare extent, set within a region with a rich farming heritage (dairy farming, cattle, potatoes, mealies, and world-class equine stud farms are just some of the agricultural enterprises that the area is known for). Surrounded by such a strong sense of history, many pupils become keen military history enthusiasts and trips to nearby battlefields are enjoyed. Horsemanship, too, continues to play a leading role, with the school producing many polo players of note.

A Memorial Ball will be held on Saturday 30 May at the college. The gate-fee for Sunday’s entertainment and the unveiling of the memorial is R5 per person.

Should you require further information, contact the school on +27 (033) 263-1328.

HARTFORD HOUSE DANCERS : A National Institution

hartford zulu dancers

Hartford House Zulu Dance Troupe
(Photo : Summerhill Stud)

About ten years ago, a group of local kids approached us with a view to auditioning as a traditional dance troupe. Mick Goss grew up in the heartland of traditional dancing in one of the remotest parts of South Africa, and he’d seen just about every traditional dance there was to be seen. Reluctantly, and only because they represented families of our disadvantaged, he and Cheryl agreed to attend an audition on Hartford’s front lawn. In the event, some 30 turned up, ranging from ages 8 to 18, together with six makeshift drums, strapped with animal hides and beaten with garden hoses as substitutes for the traditional drumsticks.

Remember, the judges had sat through more than a thousand renditions of traditional dance routines in their lives to that point, so this had to be impressive to become anything more than just another audition. Yet these kids were so good, when the show was over, it took the Gosses less than a minute to decide they would be a permanent fixture, on duty every Saturday evening at Hartford House for as long as the weather permitted. These youngsters were not just talented, they had regaled themselves in the full ceremonial gear at their own expense, yet they were part of an impoverished community. No doubt about their determination, not to mention their self belief.

Until three years ago, they’d never ventured beyond the confines of Mooi River, then, out of the blue, they were invited to perform at the Provincial Championships in Durban. There they won the right to represent KZN at the National Championships, and the rest is a fairytale. As the best dance group in South Africa, they were sent to Tokyo for the World Traditional Dance Championships, and on debut, they ranked third, in the whole darn world! It’s barely believable, we know, but here they were, the only team on the African continent to rank this high, and a year later, in Hong Kong, they finished second.

Reality is, this team is still a “work in progress”, and they’re getting better by the day, to the degree that we were confident, had it taken place as scheduled in the United States earlier this year, they might’ve returned with the World crown. Sadly, the present economic climate in the United States has led to the postponement of the event, but these youngsters will still have their day.

You need only ask those that’ve witnessed their routine to know how good they are. And while a man of Michael Jackson’s dance talents owes everything he’s knows to his African roots, he’d struggle to make the “bench” in the Hartford troupe.

DRAKENSBERG BOYS' CHOIR

   
DRAKENSBERG BOYS' CHOIR

"Could this be the best Boys Choir in the world?"

We’re fortunate at Hartford House in the many visitors that travel thousands of miles to visit us, and the tapestry of cultures they represent. People come from across the world to stay at the “jewelled buckle” of the KZN midlands, some of them connoisseurs of the arts and music, others with uninitiated curiosities of what this spectacular part of the world has to offer.

However, the one thing they all have in common, once they’ve made their first pilgrimage to the Drakensberg Boys’ Choir (an enchanting 45 minute drive into the Champagne Valley), is that this is an irresistible option for all comers. Even the Viennese, who have a proprietary interest in protecting the status of the Vienna Boys’ Choir, concede that the diversity and the talent on display, at times, eclipses the lofty standards set by their own, and for those who are with us on a Wednesday during school term time, this is a must.

To most of our guests, we recommend an early breakfast and a drive over the Drakensberg through the gloriously coloured cliffs of the Golden Gate National Park, and then to Clarens, a village not much bigger than Mooi River, but unmistakably the art capital of South Africa. Clarens is home to more than thirty art galleries, and is the starting place for most of South Africa’s young artistic talent. It’s in the bottommost most corner of the south eastern Free State, and apart from being one of the great journeys of South Africa, it’s a convenient distance back to the Boys Choir, whose shows start at 3:30pm. These exhibitions are generally over by 5pm, and it’s a comfortable meander back to Hartford, in time for a shower or a lazy bath, before dinner. Some dinner too, in a national Top Ten restaurant.

And then, if you’re with us through Saturday evening, we have another surprise for you.

www.dbchoir.co.za