I had the altogether rare opportunity to get away from Gonubie for a day a few weekends ago, when Mom asked me to accompany her on a trip to Bedford, a small inland Eastern Cape village.
A friend of hers had returned from an extended stay in Kenya, and invited Mom to spend an afternoon with her. As eager as Mom was to see her friend, she wasn’t too comfortable with the idea of making the three-hour one way trip on her own.
Having heard only good things about the village, and suffering from a severe case of cabin fever, I was only too happy to go along. On the way there, I took a look at the town website, where I read that Bedford is home to the SA Rosarium; a garden of heritage and old roses. I knew exactly what I wanted to see while there.
The route we followed took us from East London to King Williams Town (not that one would necessarily know it’s called that, because some idiot went and splashed commie-red paint all over the signs), and, from there, through Alice, Fort Beaufort, and Adelaide, before bringing us into the centre of one of the loveliest villages I’ve ever seen.
Many of the buildings date back to the village’s founding, and it’s obvious that their owners take good care of them. Of its five or so roads, only the main one running through the centre of the village is tarred.
Cows and geese wander around between cars and pedestrians, and wild buck can be seen on the edge of the village. There also seems to be more churches than people.
It’s the sort of place one thinks only exists in novels and BBC period dramas. It’s real, though. Very, very real.
History Bathed in Blood
Like much of South Africa, the history of the Bedford area is bathed in blood, sprinkled with ashes, and soaked with tears. The village sits at the foot of the Winterberg’s Kaggaberg Mountain.
The region was well-known to the hunter-gatherer San people long before the 1700s. In the mid-18th century, however, two very different groups of people arrived on the scene.
Those two groups were the very first trekboers and the Xhosa. The trekboers were Dutch farmers and their families who had piled just about everything they owned onto ox-wagons before setting off into the unknown in an attempt to escape the Cape Colony’s corrupt and harsh government.
The Xhosa people who made their way into the area had done so to escape vicious power struggles within the Xhosa nation.
However, toward the end of the century, the Dutch authorities in the Cape negotiated with Xhosa chiefs to determine a new boundary for the Colony. The area in which Bedford is situated was just within the Colony.
Unfortunately, the agreed-upon boundary was not honoured by some of the Xhosa, which led to one of the first Frontier Wars.
That conflict lasted until 1781, but peace was not to last. A second Frontier War broke out in 1793 for the same reason the first one began. Some of the Xhosa simply did not honour the agreed-upon boundary.
It wasn’t long before the British arrived on the scene, and they soon found their hands full with… wait for it… yet more war on the frontier, again for the very same reason as the previous wars.
In the 19th century, the British authorities thought it would be a good idea to bring settlers from Britain to the eastern boundary of the Cape Colony. Going by what I read in the book Cape Epic by Hymen Picard, those poor 1820 Settlers didn’t quite realise what they were letting themselves in for.
Back in England, they were sold dreams of a veritable paradise. However, reality didn’t quite match the vision, unless their idea of paradise included uncultivated land, dangerous wild animals, and Xhosas chucking spears in their direction every so often.
After a few more years of struggle, the British and Xhosa agreed that the area between the Fish and Keiskamma rivers would be neutral ground. That worked well until 1834, when 15 000 Xhosas determined to wreak havoc on the colony.
The following year, Piet Retief decided he had had enough of life in the colony. Between despicable British governors, drought, and Xhosas on a killing spree, things had become just about impossible.
Retief and many others Boers set off on what is known as the Great Trek. It was that exodus that brought more farmers into the area where the village of Bedford is situated.
Yet more wars erupted between the Settlers and the Xhosas in the years that followed.
Sir Andries Stockenstroom, a farmer in the area, tried to broker peace between the Settlers and the Xhosa. The British, however, thought he was up to no good, and, behaving like true savages, burned down Stockenstroom’s library.
In a bid to restore his library, Stockenstroom sold sections of his farm to raise funds. In 1854, those sold portions saw the laying out of the erven on which the village, named after the Duke of Bedford, would be built.
The new village wasn’t safe from yet more war, although the years between 1899 and 1902 saw conflict between Boer and Brit, rather than Settler and Xhosa. Thankfully, a lasting peace was established, and the village grew to become an important centre of livestock farming.
I’m told that many of the farmers in Bedford are descendants of those brave, determined early Settlers.
Bedford’s Human Beauty
The Bedford of today is a far cry from the Bedford of the Frontier and South African wars. I’ve no doubt that its inhabitants face conflicts and battles of a different sort, but those are the same conflicts and battles faced by virtually every hamlet, village, town, and city in South Africa.
What I can tell you is that, despite those socio-economic challenges, I didn’t see one single person who looked unhappy. I saw black, brown, and white people embrace and laugh and smile together, and I heard beautiful and encouraging stories of how the community rallied around people who were in need of help.
I have no doubt that the village’s people still have much work to do. It’s not paradise, but it’s obviously a place where small town values run deep, and there’s something to be said for that.
Lunch and Laughter
Mom, her friend, and I had lunch at a small restaurant called Apprentice. A cosy blend of modern and home-style in what seems to be a fairly new building on the same block as the gorgeous old hotel, the Duke of Bedford Inn.
Apprentice is run by Marelise, a warm, welcoming woman who trained as a chef. Shelves, tables, and counters were piled high with all manner of delicious goods; from cakes and pastries to jars of olives and preserves.
Portia, our waitress, brought salt-of-the-earth small town charm along with our drinks and food, and what food it was!
I had a pancake stack served with a salad. The stack was layered with courgette, sundried tomato, and cream cheese, while the salad was a mix of greens and herbs, pickled vegetables, and a dreamy, creamy basil mayonnaise. It was altogether delicious.
We couldn’t resist taking a few treats home with us. Among them were salmon and caper, and biltong, caramelised onion, and blue cheese quiches.
Alone Among the Roses
After lunch, I left Mom and her friend to catch up while I spent some time in the South African Rosarium. I had to collect the key from someone, which gave me the chance to admire beautiful old houses and quaint churches as I wandered Bedford’s dusty streets.
The Rosarium, a large enclosed garden on the edge of the town, was opened in 2012 with the intention of collecting and conserving roses of national, international, and historical interest.
A sign in the garden reads:
“The garden is born out of the necessity to preserve and perpetuate our old roses brought to the Cape of Good Hope, by Jan van Riebeeck, in the early 1600’s.
“The Old Rose is known for its robust and vigorous growth; its strength to survive many harsh elements; its resistance to disease & above all its breathtaking beauty & heady perfume… The Old Rose must not be forgotten as an attractive and effective security hedge…
“This project forms part of the vision set by the World Heritage Rose Foundation which encourages its members to provide a garden sanctuary to tell the sometimes forgotten story of the Old Rose, to preserve the mother plants and to encourage the propagation and perpetuation thereof.”
I was the only person in the garden that afternoon, and loved every minute of it. I didn’t see as many blooms as I had hoped, as most of the plants were producing buds. Had we travelled to Bedford a week or two later, I would have seen the garden in all its glory.
Still, my time there was magical, and I was able to see – and smell – a few heritage or old roses I had only ever read about. It evoked within me wonder, prayer, and memory, as well as the desire to one day have an enclosed rose garden of my very own.
“Let a new song of praise be sung
To the noble crowned Lady.
Fresh Virgin Maid,
First flower, new rose,
The whole world appeals to Thee,
Thou wert born in happiness.
Let a new song of praise be sung
To the noble crowned Lady.
Thou art the branch, thou art the flower,
Thou art the moon of splendour;
We have the will and the heart
To come to Thee, adorned One.
Let a new song of praise be sung
To the noble crowned Lady
Thou art the rose, thou art the lily,
Thou borest the sweetest Son;
Therefore, I set to work
To praise Thee distinguished Lady.”
– Laude Novella, Mediaeval Baebes
Reflections on My Bedford Visit
After exploring every square centimetre of the SA Rosarium, I returned to Mom’s friend’s daughter’s house, where we had tea and cake before Mom and I returned to Gonubie. I was all fired up to write about our visit, and did make a start, but, as per usual, work orders arrived on Monday morning, and that was that.
Weeks later, I’ve finally found a chance to finish writing this piece. The delay gave me further chance to reflect on the few hours spent in Bedford, where cows wander the streets, old gaols are turned into upmarket homes, old roses are cultivated and preserved, the food is good, and everyone knows everyone.
There’s a beauty there one doesn’t see very often, and it has inspired me to continue my search for a village I can one day call home. If ever you find yourself in this part of the world, do try visit Bedford.
Pop in to the Apprentice for lunch, say hello to Marelise and Portia, wander around the Rosarium, and immerse yourself in the warm and gentle energy of a truly gorgeous place. It restores the soul.
Much of the information in this blog post comes from the Bedford website, the Wikipedia article about the town, and the SA Rosarium’s website.