The fascinating history of Berg Cottage

The History of Berg Cottage

This history of the cottage was told to me by the second owner –Jannie van Wyk, from whom I bought it in 1981. The story began when Hendrik Grobler wanted to marry Sarie, the daughter of a local farmer. Hendrik had been working as a ‘bywoner’ on various farms in the district, and Sarie’s father considered him a bad prospect. However, before he would allow Hendrik to marry his daughter, Sarie’s father told him that he must first build a house in which they could live.

With the help of his father, who was a stonemason, Hendrik finally completed the cottage in 1929. The sandstone blocks were hewn from the mountain behind the cottage and various materials for furbishing the interior, were scrounged from the farms where he worked.

The original painted tin ceiling (now covered with board) in the ‘sitkamer’ was made from bits of corrugated iron, which had been straightened out by having a donkey cart ridden over them.

The cornice in the bedroom is a trifle unusual, as are the doors made from ceiling board and the ceiling of planking. The rafters are hand-hewn poplar, some of which could be seen in the vine shack.

The cottage originally consisted of a bedroom, sitkamer and kombuis with an open front stoep, later closed in with small windows. The back bedroom and kitchen area were added by him later. The back stoep was open with a mud floor. Both the original front and back doors are still in lace within the cottage.

Sarie’s sister, Tant An van Zyl, who lived in the middle house in Short Street, off Berg Street, was quick to criticize, “What’s the use of THAT house, rooms as big as chicken coops!

Between the dining area and the kitchen – where Jannie put in the arch, a cupboard was built, with a secret compartment, within the thickness of the wall, possibly to house the rifles during the 2nd World War. Those planks from the cupboard were used for the grocery cupboard. The front door off the stoep, was in line with the bathroom and afforded little privacy, which is why Jannie turned the doorway from the lounge into a bookcase/grocery cupboard.

The kleinhuisie also lacked privacy, being in full view of the road, where the lilac tree is now, and was moved to where the present one is (updated to waterborne)

The whole place lacked any shred of imagination, with unkempt, open unterraced garden, no little hoekies as now, and as Hendrik earned a living as a mechanic, the present vine shack was his workshop, a simple iron building with nothing of its present-day charm and no vine pergola.

The creator of the charm about the cottage, Jannie van Wyk, bought it from Hendrik in February 1963. Few people nowadays will know that Jannie (christened Jan, being the seventh daughter born to her parents) built Maluti Lodge in 1960, after having inherited some money from her family, on a site which she chose with care, and where her guests could enjoy the breathtaking view of the distant Malutis. She had a hard battle with the dorpers, who wanted the hotel (the first in Clarens) sited within the village by the old Fouriesburg turnoff (presently corner of Main and Malherbe streets), to persuade them that her guests would prefer to wander up the mountain without seeing lace curtains moving! Subsequently, the five –year drought, 1969 – 66 took its toll and the unrelenting dorpers blamed it on Jannie for obtaining a liquor licence for her hotel!

After a severe personal tragedy, Jannie sold Maluti Lodge and bought the cottage which she named ‘Solitaire’, as she thought it was the only house with a cellar. She subsequently learnt that this was not so, Oom Awie and Tant Teg also had one!

At the time, many cottages could be picked up for about two hundred pounds, but they were cracked and not safe to live in. This was the only one available without ‘iron crosses’ (put in to secure cracked walls), and the price of five hundred pounds was an enormous amount to pay in those days. The cottage was no great proposition by modern day standards. No waterborne sewerage, no electricity (only arrived in Clarens in 1972), a very cold, draughty sitkamer, from an inadequately closed-in front stoep, and a mud/concrete kitchen floor.

Over the following 18 years the cottage developed its inherent warm character with Jannie’’s innovations – electricity, Raeburn stove (from the building now the Street Caffee) fiberglass ‘lights’ in the kitchen and bedroom ceilings, proper floor covering in the dining and kitchen areas. The original framing around the stove and the charming vine shack lined with board, with a pergola outside complete with rings for a hammock, all bear testimony to Jannie’s inventiveness.

Thus has the place achieved its warmth and character and we were the tremendously fortunate people who happened to be on hand literally at a moment in time when Jannie decided that the name plate “Solitaire’ must come down and ‘Net Hier’ be put up outside another house across the village where she had decided to move. The cottage now being without a name, it was not difficult to decide on Berg Cottage, a good mixture of Afrikaans and English, with the street name being directly outside the gate.

The roses, vines, fruit trees (unfortunately decimated during the ’81 –‘85 drought – we appeared to attract the same curse as Jannie!)And endless interesting flowers which appear throughout the year, purple lilac in spring, blue vitex in summer and beautiful irises of unusual hues, which pop up in different places each year as the moles transport them around, are all due to Jannie’s garden expertise.

The garden on the corner across the road was planted with leftovers from the garden and kept going for many years but sadly only the peach tree remains. The cover of Garden and Home, November 1961, which is in the Berg Cottage Diary, shows how the corner used to be.

But the place of magic on the top terrace of the garden is our favourite spot and worth a visit in the evening, as the setting sun produces a variety of magnificent spectacles on the distant Malutis. Always worth waiting for is the afterglow or ‘crepuscule’ when the landscape, which has dulled after the last of the sunset, - about half an hour later –gradually, develops a glow which lasts about 10 – 12 minutes, absolute magic! The times of this phenomenon during the year, are noted in the Berg Cottage Diary.