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Oude Werf – the Oldest Inn in SA

Oude Werf – the Oldest Inn in SA

Looking for somewhere to celebrate Heritage Day? Oude Werf, a boutique hotel in the picturesque Cape Wineland’s capital, Stellenbosch is just the ticket…

If ever there was a shining example of sensitive development that stays true to heritage then Oude Werf Hotel, is it. South Africa’s oldest continuously running inn sits unpretentiously in Stellenbosch’s Church Street. But once inside the excavations and the walls, with their exposed sections of old wallpaper and stonework, tell stories of the history of the place.

The inn as portrayed by Leighton in 1889

Fiona McIntosh delved a little into the past incarnations of Oude Werf, a Stellenbosch landmark…

  • Oude Werf is built on the site of the first church in South Africa, a Dutch Reformed church, commissioned by Governor Simon van der Stel in 1687. The original church was a humble rectangular building described by German astronomer and early Cape chronicler, Peter Kolb as “a barn more than a church”. It measured just “22 x 40 Rhenish feet” and was built of wood, clay and stone, with a high-pitched thatched roof topped by a small bell tower.
  • The church was razed to the ground in a fire in 1710, for which the Landdrost was blamed and demoted. During a strong wind, he told a slave to fetch an ember to light his pipe. As the slave hurried back, the wind whipped a spark onto a thatched roof and much of the town was razed in the ensuing inferno.
  • Though attempts were made to rebuild the church, little came of it. Over the next 70 years the vacant plot earned its popular name ‘d Ouwe Werf’ (literally, the ‘old churchyard’)
  • In 1783, on now-deconsecrated ground, JB Hoffman is credited with the building of an “elegant Cape Dutch gabled residence”. By 1802, according to the accounts of one author, it offered “amiable lodgings for three Rix Dollars a day”, which he felt excessive, nonetheless admitting that its “tables groaned under the daily ration of fruit”.
  • In Gleanings in Africa, published anonymously in 1805, the author (who according to the editor’s preface was a British officer stationed at the Cape) states of the inn: “This house being crowded, during the summer season, with visitors from the Cape, may with propriety be called the fashionable resort … Here may be procured the finest fruits in the colony; our table groaned under a load of excellent peaches, apricots, and grapes… [and] we were well provided with excellent Roman fish.”  “I could be contented to pass the remainder of my days there.”
  • The essential Cape Dutch appearance persisted despite improvements during C19, with the last picture of the inn, drawn by Leighton in 1889, still showing familiar thatched, gabled building with its ‘voorstoep’ and arched side entrance. By the end of the century the inn, like the early church, was reduced by fire “to dust and ashes”.
  • In the 1800s a new two-storey inn, with a fashionable neo-Georgian façade was built on the same spot. Since then the property has changed names, changed facades and changed hands, but its soul and walls and foundations remain intact, with its transformation into the chic, modern boutique hotel that we see today being achieved while respecting the site’s rich heritage.
  • The interior design of Oude Werf is a clever mix of old and new. At the entrance is “A small wall of ‘Africana’ then and now” which includes pieces of blue and white crockery pieces that were unearthed on the property, incorporated into wire and shared garlands. Also displayed are trophy heads of kudu and gemsbok made from old wire, plastics shopping bags and other recycled materials by artist Magda van der Vloed.
  • Many of the older rooms, including Room 101 in the historic old manor house, perfectly illustrate the how the expectations of modern travellers have been achieved without compromising on the heritage. The bedroom still has its original beams, a big, traditional wooden bed and antique furniture, while old chandeliers in the ultra-luxurious bathroom juxtapose old-fashioned charm with modern amenities.
  • Stairs from the restaurant take you down to the excavations of 1982, which revealed stone works and timbers from the original church.
  • An interesting feature of the stylish open-plan restaurant is an ancient American Cyprus. Apparently there were originally two such trees in the walled courtyard. Gert Lubbe (owner for 21 years) wanted to put a gate into the low wall to allow guests of what was then ‘d Ouwe Werf Inn’ access to the parking area but permission was refused as the wall was part of the historical site. During a storm the tree fell through the wall and he got his wish.
  • If you stay at Oude Werf, be sure to chat to John Slingers, the guest relations officer who has worked there for 28 years. He’s a fundi on everything to do with Oude Werf and its colourful past.

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