Finding Southwell – The Land That Google Forgot

A spur-of-the-moment afternoon’s foray into the deepest, darkest Southwell area of the Eastern Cape.

Words by Kylie van Zyl. Pictures by Carey Finn.

The road to Southwell – or at least the one we knew about – starts at a right turn off the R67 just outside Grahamstown on a narrow two-lane down the side of a thickly-bushed valley. Just the ticket for an afternoon out, except that there are no guard-rails, and a few turns with an ill-timed tap on the accelerator would definitely lead to increased insurance premiums.

The obscure hamlet of Southwell has a long history. It was founded in the late 1820s as a military garrison on the farm Lombard’s Post. In 1836, after the end of the Sixth Anglo-Xhosa War, Benjamin Keeton who owned Lombard’s Post, named the surrounding area after his British hometown. A mission was established in 1849, and the wooden building housing the Anglican church of St James was replaced by a stone one in 1868. A mission was attached to the church, and included a school. That, it seems, was that.

southwell eastern cape
The Southwell area is rich in wildflowers: this tiny beauty, smaller than a 10c coin, was found growing in the parking field of St James’s Church.

But Why Southwell?

Simple: because nobody goes there. Google Maps kept trying to send us to the seemingly oblivious Nottinghamshire. But how could I resist trying to find a place that the omniscient digital eye had missed?

As it turned out, we couldn’t find Southwell either. The road wound on for longer than one in The Lord of the Rings. Eventually, sure that we’d gone wrong somewhere, we thought we might as well keep going and hope to end up in Kenton-on-Sea or Bushman’s River. Blinded by visions of garlic prawns at the Sandbar Restaurant, we drove straight through Southwell.

Before you write us off as a pair of city-slicker dimwits for managing to miss an entire village, hear me out. Southwell, as it stands today, is a loose confederation of farms with a tennis club, cricket oval, and the Anglican Church in the middle. That’s it. Blink, and you’ll miss it. It’s not what we usually understand as a charming rural hamlet. It’s just in the middle of nowhere. You go there because you want to get away from everything.

Having made a U-turn, the first thing we found was the Southwell Country Club. Past a small strip of vegetation, the steeple of the St James Church poked into the sky.

southwell eastern cape
The Anglican Church of St James, Southwell: This church was established in 1849, but the stone building seen here was erected to replace the wooden original in 1868, thanks to the efforts of the gloriously named Reverend Robert Stumbles.

St James, Southwell: an Unexpected Gem

One of the sadder things about traipsing about the backcountry is that churches and old houses tend to be in a state of collapse. But not St James’s. In fact, it’s still in use for services. We drove through a wrought-iron arch, parked in a field dotted with tiny flowers, and got out. It was quiet but for the wind and the pock of tennis balls in the distance.

The church stood in the sort of sunlit splendour that would have reduced Wordsworth to tears. It was solitary and still, and aloes bloomed in the churchyard. We circled the outside of the stone edifice and its freestanding bell-arch. Then – after being scared nearly into backflips by a hare that popped out of a shrub – we (respectfully) investigated the graveyards. One was neatly gravelled, with some restored settler-era graves. The other was older and overgrown with tombs and headstones dating as far back at the 1840s.

After contemplating the fate of all flesh, we were ready to move on. The road looped homeward over the hills. A quick stop at the abandoned building we’d seen on the way in and then – a flat tyre.

“You’re where?” asked the tow-truck guy.

“On the road to Southwell.”

“Yes, but which road to Southwell?”

As it turns out, there are three.

Southwell can be found at coordinates, 33°32′09″S 26°41′19″E. It’s situated roughly 23km from Port Alfred and 35km from Grahamstown.

southwell eastern cape
The belltower of St James’ stands apart from the church.

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