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Made by members

Hands across the water – a South African journey

03 Mar 2023 | Written by By Elsa Browne

The Joy Club member Elsa Browne shares details from her recent road-trip to Caversham, a South African town steeped in history and natural beauty…


… and we’re so easily called away.
Hands across the water (water)
Heads across the sky …

(Lyrics by Paul McCartney).

“Shall we escape the London winter?” I asked my husband towards the end of last year. It’s not difficult for us to decide where to go – I’m fifth generation South African and my Scottish husband grew up there, having arrived in Cape Town on a Union Lines
ship at the age of 10 with his parents and siblings in 1963 – on the very day that Kennedy was assassinated, which is frequently added as a rider when people ask. I think of our South African connection as hands across the water from the song and I hum the
tune whilst I’m packing.

A week later we’re in a scorching Durban. Shall we do a road trip? Head for the Midlands? The next day, summer clothes thrown into a backpack, we take the Shesha lane at the motorway toll, indeed in a hurry to get there. (Shesha is Zulu for fast, hurry).

 

 

The area in the centre of the province of KwaZulu Natal known by all simply as the Midlands is particularly beautiful, with many appealing getaway hideaways tucked away amongst the farms and small towns. Such as Caversham Mill, a small hamlet on the confluence of two rivers, near Howick. Installed in our rented cottage, watching a hummingbird taking nectar from the glorious Agapanthus flowers, their lilac heads swaying in the breeze, I make myself comfortable on the stoep to read the history of this place with interest.

I read that, in 1850, 17 year old Richard Gower Hodson and his 15 year old brotherJames Jefferies sailed from London aboard the Nile, a ship that belonged to John Lidgett, who had acquired land in Natal and divided it up for sale to immigrants, with a settlement scheme in mind. The brothers were in the care of their uncle and aunt Dr and Mrs Gower, who were accompanied by their four daughters.

On the same ship were Mr and Mrs G Franklin, their two sons and four daughters. On the four-month journey to South Africa, the teenagers Jane Franklin and James Hodson fell in love. On docking in Durban harbour, supplies were purchased and transport arranged and the two families set off for what was then called Lidgett Town (now Lidgetton). The Hodson brothers had secured three plots, one of which was on the Mpofana River. They named it Caversham. (Some time after 1860, when “the last lion in the district” was shot, the river was renamed Lions River).

It is estimated that the brothers James and Richard – now in their late teens – built Caversham Mill around 1852. The wheel buckets were made out of yellow wood cut from the local surrounding bush. They made planks and erected a building on stone
foundations. The millstone was purchased in Pietermaritzburg and so the first water driven mill in Natal was opened.

In the meanwhile – and sadly for the young lovers – the Franklins who had been on the same ship as the Hodsons with their four daughters, upped and left for Australia, where they remained for four years before sailing again to South Africa and returning
to Caversham. James and Jane were married in January 1857, their love affair having survived the separation. Over time, they became parents to seven sons and four daughters.

In 1887, a terrible fire raged through the valley and destroyed the settlement at Caversham. But the mill survived and in 1888 James replaced the mill workings with metal cogs, and millstones made from Scottish granite. Caversham ground meal became much sought after and farmers came from the then Transvaal and Orange Free State to have their maize and wheat milled. Jane died in 1928 and James died 18 months later. Both were in their eighties and are buried in the local churchyard.

In the years that followed, the Mill became an abandoned and derelict building. However, in 1978 it was purchased by a keen conservationist and potter and much of it was restored. Since then, the original property, including exquisite original wood-
and-iron cottages have changed hands several times and are currently offered as holiday rentals. A restaurant was built overlooking the river and weir. The remains of the Mill are still there, quietly adding to the charm of the place.

 

 

In the Caversham Mill restaurant, the menu has to be deciphered. ‘The discombobulation’ (deciding whether to have a starter).
‘More seriously’, the main course, which includes: TBS (Turkish Bride Stew – a delicious spicy mix of bulgar wheat and vegetables).
Slab of meat – Steak, of course! ‘Winding down’ (Dessert, all in code and patrons are not permitted to ask what the code means until they have finished their meal!). I’m happy to disclose that BCH is Baked Cheesecake with Hazelnuts and BCC is Baked Crème Caramel. And the prices are in South African Rands, so … divide by 20!

And thus we spend a marvellously restful week, steeped in the peace of our surroundings, lulled to sleep at night by the sound of the mighty Lions River having worked our way through the restaurant menu and earning dessert. The river – high from recent rains – would draw us for evening walks and to sit on the bank, our backs still warmed by the setting sun.

 

Caversham Mill is part of a successful art trail known as the Midlands Meander and many artisanal crafters sell their wares, so day trips are a constant delight of discovery.

One day as I walked down to the river to watch the noisy weaver birds at work on their abundant nests, I noticed a neatly dressed young man sitting in the shade of an open sided lean-to in the garden. As I got closer, I saw that he was carefully making precise lined drawings in an exercise book. He looked up, directly at me and I smiled and spoke to him in my rusty Zulu, keen to revive
it. But he replied in perfect English, a new generation South African student.

So I asked “What are you drawing?” His soft-spoken reply was “I am learning to do technical drawing. I study here because it is quiet.” He showed me his work, and impulsively I asked “Do you need anything to help you learn?” The reply came back almost a whisper. “A special pencil for drawing.” We arranged to meet again the next day, a small gesture from me with my English pounds in a country beset by economic inequality.

After a week we reluctantly say goodbye to Caversham and on to our next stop, the spectacular Drakensberg mountains.

Sources for Caversham info: The Hodsons: A family history by Jacquie Yallup.


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