For many years now I’ve travelled the road between Mooi River and Giants Castle, our family’s favourite bolt-hole in the Drakensberg, my only thought being to get to Giants, or, on the return trip, to get home. I took little notice of anything along the road apart from the road condition – in the earlier times that road was a treacherous dirt road – and the myriad potholes that build up my arm muscles since it’s had a “tarred” surface. Some landmarks, such as telecommunication masts and towers were always noted as they were progress markers, but little else.
More recently, though, I’ve become aware of things that make a journey more complete, the mundane things that escape us in our rush to arrive or to return. I began to see buildings, people, scenes and details that had been there all along, and had disregarded or just not noticed. There was far more to a visit to Giants than the few days spent in the shadow of the Dragon.
The Weenen Country College had relocated from Highlands to a site along the Giants Castle road in 1901, and had come to form a substantial part of the population of that area. The College closed down after just eight years, in 1916, although there are still some buildings in existence, but I haven’t been able to find them.
In 1906 the Anglican community farming in the area west of Mooi River was able to erect a church building, taking away the need for a long trip to St Johns which stood to the east of Mooi River, to attend a church service. The two-acre plot of land for the project had been donated by John Evan Oates, and the design was reminiscent of a church in Kent, England. A local farmer, Percy Simmons, had been born in Kent, and was one of the main characters in the church project. The style of the building is an example of the work of the renowned architect, Sir Herbert Baker, designer of the Union Buildings in Pretoria.
The sandstone was quarried in the Mooi River area, and was laid by a Mr Nelson and his sons, all resident in the Hlatikulu area which lies between Mooi River and the mountains. This was done over a period of some two years, followed by the carpentry and woodwork, beautifully done by the woodwork instructor at the Weenen Country College, Mr J D Owen. Completed in 1906, the little church was consecrated by the then Bishop of Natal, the Right Reverend Frederick Samuel Baines, DD. It was a landmark occasion for the people of that community, and they were joined at the ceremony by the staff and pupils of the College.
The church bell, mounted as it is on a timber column in the gardens, was donated to the church by the Armstrong family, associated with the Weenen Country College. It’s been retained in the condition it sported at the time, missing a piece of the shroud, and the clapper. Paul is reluctant to try a “handyman” type repair, preferring to bide his time until the job can be carried out by specialists, probably available only in England.
The little church played its part in the diocese for many years serving the community as intended, but as communications, roads and transport improved, the need for the additional facility became less urgent. Gradually it fell into disuse and in more recent times there was talking of deconsecrating it and disposing of the property.
Paul and Jennifer Hindle, owners of the beautiful Indigo Fields Farm House and Spa near Nottingham Road decided to grasp the nettle and take over the property, releasing funds to the Diocese, and retaining the original church as part of the community, to be used as a venue for spiritual and emotional rejuvenation, a retreat. The property was purchased, and the Hindles set about restoring the premises to its former aesthetic beauty, while converting the interior, adding bedrooms, bathrooms and a very substantial kitchen.
There are three eminently comfortable bedrooms, each with its own bathroom. Two are on the ground floor, while a more spacious room has been built at a mezzanine level, its bathroom having an almost panoramic view of the rolling countryside.
The grounds were tidied up, new gardens established, water features and ponds built and a car port erected for visitors’ vehicles. Everything was very tastefully done, and the result speaks for itself. The church was deconsecrated in early 2013, but is still strongly part of the spiritual life of the community.
The Hindles consider themselves the custodians of the property rather than the owners, feeling that use of the facility is still for the benefit of the wider community, and are completely committed to the maintenance and upkeep of the buildings and gardens. Some wonderful items have been retained, and make for fascinating examination, such as this old Webster's International Dictionary.
So if you’re travelling to Giants Castle one of these days, keep a lookout for this lovely building that stands right at the roadside. Do yourself a favour, and stop, get out of the car, and spend just a few minutes taking in what Paul and Jennifer have done to build on the good work done by all those craftsmen of one hundred and ten years ago. Give yourself a moment to sense the atmosphere of tranquillity, the feel of the surrounding countryside, and even take a stroll among the graves and headstones in the country graveyard immediately behind the church.
You’ll not have wasted those minutes. And if you'd like to get in touch, here's how....