Somerset House in the Media
Somerset House has been the subject of a number of articles in various publications. Here are a few examples.
A World Apart in the Great Karoo, by Don Pinnock (Getaway, July 2003)
While many of the little Karoo towns I'd passed through on the way seemed to be unravelling, Somerset East had the feel of a busy tapestry still very much in thread.
Somerset House confirmed that. Once a school and more recently an industrial storage space, it has been lovingly restored by Vega and Stephen van Niekerk into a guesthouse that rivals any in Southern Africa....
Before my suitcase had hit the floor Vega was organising adventures. "Paulet Street is full of wondeful old houses to photograph. And the museum is just great. Go talk to Emile Badenhorst who runs it. They've also got a Walter Battiss collection. You know he was born here? Old Ma Dora's grave is also in the grounds: she lived to well over 100.
"You must talk to Sheilah van Aardt, she knows the whole history of this town. Oh, and this afternoon we're going fly-fishing in the Mountain Dam with Kevin and Kerry McCaughey, they run the pharmacy. You want to climb the Bosberg? Really? It's high! Maybe Emile will go with you, he runs the hiking club. Or I can get hold of Tina Engelbrecht, she a great hiker.
"Pity you've missed the Biltong Festival. If you hang around long enough, though, you can run the Bruintjieshoogte Marathon."
Talk about small-town networks. I was soon whizzing round drinking coffee, eating sweetcakes and being introduced to life beneath the Bosberg. We did go fishing, way up on the mountain and until after dark. Emile's museum is chock-a-block with small-town history (the best kind of history). Sheilah van Aardt duly arrived with scrapbooks going back several hundred years and later I stood, thoughtfully, beside Dora's grave in a shady bower wondering what it would be like to remember the Anglo Boer War from the vantage point of the 21st century. And Vega was correct: Paulet Street is extremely photogenic.
On a Monday afternoon I drove out to the fields of Gill College to watch cricket. It's a fine old school which started life as a little university. Under the trees I was surprised to find a crowd of parents, with cool boxes of food and drinks, cheering on their lads. Now I ask you, where else would you find parents camping out on a Monday afternoon to watch their children play cricket?
After a lazy lunch at Jacques Restaurant, which also seemed to double as the midday pub, I bade Vega farewell...
Masterful Makeovers by Alex Cremer (South African Country Life, September 2003)
When Stephen and Vega van Niekerk decided in 1998 to leave their farming enterprises to their sons and move into Somerset East, the biggest challenge was to find a suitable house in town.
"Stephen was quite relaxed about the move, but I wasn't prepared to suddenly scale down from the spacious farmhouse we'd lived in to something smaller," says Vega.
That's why the couple focused on an old school building. Built in 1905, it had a basic H design with a hall in the centre, flanked by classrooms, offices and utility rooms. After the devastating flu epidemic of 1918, the place became the Hofmeyr Institute, an orphanage started by Isabel Hofmeyr to care for 100 orphaned children.
The orphanage struggled along until a tragedy in 1936. Boys from the orphanage held a picnic up in the Boschberg, but when it was time to go home, eight were missing. Runaways, some said, trying to escape the harsh conditions at the orphanage. The next morning, four boys returned, but the others had perished during the cold and wet night on the mountain.
Soon afterwards the Hofmeyr Institute ceased to exist, and the building became a normal primary school for boys and girls. It operated until the early 50's when the last schoolmaster, George Rossouw, finally closed the doors.
For years the place stood empty. Then it became a factory making animal feed pellets. When this closed, it was used as a workshop that produced wooden furniture, but that venture also did not last.
An attempt was made to change the building into a guesthouse, complete with a restaurant, but this too was never really successful. Later a church group took over, and this group was still occupying the place when the van Niekerks arrived on the scene.
Although Stephen initially had doubts about it, Vega immediately saw the potential of changing the fairly neglected building into the combined home and upmarket guesthouse she had always wanted.
But many obstacles had to be overcome first, including the step of merely acquiring the old property. However, when they learnt that all the church group really wanted was a venue, Stephen approached them and suggested swapping it for a modern church complex in town.
With the help of Port Elizabeth architect Tony Rumsey and interior designer Alison van Zijl, the task of converting the school was tackled in stages. The first step was simply to clear away everything the previous owners had done to the place that was not in character with the architectural style or not needed by the van Niekerks. This alone took more than five months.
"When we lifted the carpets in one of the old classroom blocks, we discovered that someone had removed the original floor planks and simply filled the voids underneath with loose rubble. They'd then covered the rubble with a thin and cracked cement screed," says Vega. "Something had even fermented down there and was starting to boil out - a total mess that took weeks to fix with excavations, proper filling and new concrete floor slabs."
Fortunately, the original as well as some relatively new pine flooring in the rest of the building was in good condition. Structurally, the building was quite sound and was left virtually intact. However, one major change made by the van Niekerks was to lower all the old school windows, which had originally been set so high so that the pupils would not be distracted by the outside views. A few badly weathered windows were replaced by similar units in better condition salvaged from other parts of the building where they were no longer needed.
"Stephen did most of the sash window repairs himself," says Vega. "Then under the architect's direction, we installed eight custom-made, double patio doors so that all the living areas, and two of the six bedrooms that were once classrooms had access to either the front or back porches. The cottage-paned doors also brought more daylight into the interior."
The covered back stoep with its view towards the Boschberg was rebuilt to match the original design, as seen on old photographs, while the new front porch with its gabled portico at the main entrance was carefully planned to blend in with the original architectural style. All the stoep floors and the steps were paved with Mpumalanga sandstone tiles, some with most interesting floral fossils clearly visible,
A new sliding door was set into the dividing wall that was erected to divide the old rectangular school hall into twin areas for the main lounge and adjacent dining room. The lounge also received a classic-styled fireplace to ensure warm cosiness when the chilly winters of Somerset East set in. All the interior doors were renewed, custom-made in a characteristic colonial six-panel pattern.
On the eastern side, the original three classrooms, small book room, and two offices for the principal and secretaries, were changed into a trio of spacious en-suite bedrooms, plus a small linen room along the wide passage linking this section with the rest of "Somerset House" as the van Niekerks have named their new home/guesthouse.
Similar changes were made in the western flank, but here the old classrooms were changed into a single en-suite bedroom, a small TV lounge, and a modern kitchen. Part of one classroom became the en-suite bathroom and a dressing room for the main bedroom that was added on to the school building, but with care taken to keep everything in the same architectural style.
"The woodwork that was good enough to salvage, including the Oregon pine ceilings, had been painted a dark brown," says Vega. "This was too sombre for us, so everything was painted white, which helped to brighten up the interior. The outside walls were painted a pale yellow and the woodwork white, with the corrugated iron roof done in traditional green."
Alison van Zijl handled the decor with skill and flair, making use of the many family heirlooms inherited by Stephen and Vega. The various fabrics for bedding and window dressing, as well as reupholstered furniture pieces, were carefully selected to complement the elegance and olde worlde atmosphere the owners had in mind for this thoughtful conversion.
If you want to experience superb hospitality, excellent accommodation, delectable country food, plus the beauty and diversity that this historic part of the Eastern Cape can offer, you'll find Somerset House a perfect stopover on your way to holiday destinations along the Cape Coast.
Rare Find by Lyndall Popper (Food & Home Entertaining, August 2005)
Somerset House is a must-visit B&B in the Eastern Cape town of Somerset East. An elegant, immaculately maintained , colonial, green-gabled single-storeyed building, it was once a schoolhouse. Vega and Stephen van NIekerk rescued it from dereliction, adding their own special touches within the spirit of its architecture. They own and run it and can advise on the best sights and activities in the town to give you an understanding of its beauty. Among them is a museum housed in an old Georgian parsonage, which opens onto a Victorian herb garden and the Walter Battiss Art Gallery, dedicated to one of our most significant artists, a son of Somerset East. This is a national monument - simple, white and beautiful - and was once a temperance hotel run by the Battiss family. It has been renovated with a grant from the Lotto. Bird watching, walking, golfing and trout fishing are other options.
Vega started life here. The daughter of a well-known doctor, she has a passion for this corner of the country and is enthusiastic about awakened interest in the area saying, "I want to be involved in Somerset East - I want it to work."
Vega's B&B is comfortable, luxurious and serene, and each room has soft carpets and lavish bathrooms. Breakfast is abundant with crisp fresh fruit, whisky porridge on icy winter days, waffles - you name it. Shades of pale yellow, wheat and cream, and perfect air conditioning make for delicious coolth and calm in the heat.
Sitting out on the wide stoep, gazing out over the greenest lawn towards the lush bush clothing the Bosberg rising steeply beyond, is to experience that quiet so elusive to the city dweller. A pre-dinner drink here and then a short walk down Paulet Street to Janet Teilan's new restaurant Rosehope makes for an evening to remember.
Janet is now living in Somerset East where she's cooking as beautifully as ever - good news for all those who love her food and wondered what had become of her.