The two people who loved Matjiesfontein the most are no longer there, but their legacy remains, a baton of custodianship having been passed to a young team who understand the ethos of this eccentric relic of an era many no longer want.
If anything screams “colonial” it is Matjiesfontein, with its Victorian architecture and street lamps. It’s a living museum piece, yet new life has been breathed into it to ensure it retains a place in a new present.
Before the late hotelier David Rawdon died in 2010, he asked his friend Liz McGrath, dowager matriarch of the Liz McGrath Collection of fine hotels, to keep an eye on the place and its traditions. McGrath negotiated a management contract to run the Lord Milner — in fact the whole of Matjiesfontein Village, all of which is a part of the hotel complex.
My association with Matjiesfontein is deep and I found myself interviewing both Rawdon and, more recently, McGrath, not long before their deaths. The last time I met McGrath, she arrived in the passenger seat of her car, the back piled high with lamps, cushions and boxes. She told me the mission to redecorate Matjiesfontein’s many rooms — including revamping all the bathrooms and building showers in every one — was “keeping me alive”. She was very elderly, yet managed the venture herself. We chatted in the coffee shop, but I was never to see her again.
I revisited recently with a private mission to see what was happening in the absence of Rawdon and McGrath. It was a relief to find that the team put in place by McGrath is still there and that both manager Johan Dippenaar and food and beverage manager John O’Reilly are passionate about steering the place into the future.
There are others in the background. Peter Tempelhoff, the chef/manager who oversees all the restaurants in the hotel group, hired Tronette Dippenaar, Johan’s wife, as chef, and together they created a small à la carte menu that respects the traditional fare at the Lord Milner while upping the game, something that had been overdue.
Soft furnishings have enhanced every room, from lamps and cushions to mattresses and bedcovers. The bathrooms, long neglected, are now tiled in checkerboard black and white, with new baths and taps.
But most exciting is the return of the former Logan’s Masonic Hotel, the original lodge when the Scot James D Logan was building the town in the late Victorian years. It has been transformed into a farm stall with plans for an art gallery, so that the precinct incorporating the coffee shop and the lodge is one disparate entity. O’Reilly, who calls the venture his “baby”, says the idea is that “you can have coffee in the coffee shop and then pop into the farm stall next door to buy something to take home — it’s a value-add more than a money-spinner.”
The coffee shop now has tables on the street, with more on the rear patio which abuts the farm stall.
“By doing this the whole place has been refreshed,” says O’Reilly. “The coffee shop has become a gold mine. Everything in the farm stall is locally produced, from pomegranate syrup to kweperkonfyt to home-made rusks and quail eggs.”
The farm stall cost not a cent. Furniture and fittings were found in storage in the village, some items having been brought to Matjiesfontein by McGrath in her last months. The front room of the farm stall was once bedroom number 1, and later, for a while, became Jimmy’s Tavern. The rooms across the passage are earmarked for a “mini art gallery”, says O’Reilly.
Visitors can choose their piece of droëwors or biltong and get it sliced, and buy a loaf of Tronette’s freshly baked bread or vegetables grown in the community vegetable garden, which supplies the kitchen.
“The bread and vegetables can live in the farm stall for a day and rotate into the kitchen, so you can have fresh stock in here all the time.”
Matjiesfontein is a bit like one of those grand country piles in the UK where Lord So-and-so once lived and where weddings are now held which are given spreads in Tatler. You finally finish the painting job you started three years ago only to find that you have to move back to the other end and start all over again. The gardens have to be tended every day, the swimming pool is a maintenance manager’s nightmare, and it’s the wise manager who never stops looking for problems when they’re walking the corridors or grounds.
There is old and new at Matjiesfontein today. Weddings happen several times a month, often in the transport museum Rawdon built for his car collection (they’re still there), and there are conferences and celebratory groups. The vintage fire engine is ready for use at any moment, and among the staff is a crew of trained fire respondents. Weddings also take place in the old pink chapel, or the tiny garden one, and small conferences in the courthouse.
And there are ghosts here, for those who have the sight. I have never seen one, but I have heard the hooves of horses that weren’t there, and once, in room 20 in the main hotel, I saw a lamp slide to the edge of a table and fall off. Barely a minute later, in the opposite corner, another table lamp did the same thing.
Inevitably with Matjiesfontein, there will always be something that needs maintenance, just like a country pile in the UK of the ilk of a Downton Abbey.
The dowager countess may still wander the corridors, brushing shoulders now and then with the spirit of the laird, and they will raise an eyebrow and sigh when they hear a guest mutter that the place could do with some upkeep.
But anybody with a long association with this maverick village knows that the day that Matjiesfontein is perfect will be the day it has lost its soul.