The following article was first published in our magazine in December 2010. By now the children will all be teenagers, but the history of Ladysmith and the Battle of Spionkop is as true as ever, and the lodge is still there and can be contacted through their website.
Last year Father Christmas came to Spioenkop, no question. The chimney of the wood-burning stove in the dining-room at Three Trees Hill Lodge might be a tight squeeze for a traditionally jovial St Nick, but the lawn outside was churned up, an aloe shredded and there was slaver all over the grass. There was no doubt in some young minds.
“Santa’s reindeer have chowed the aloe, Mommy!” Neo came tearing in to tell Cheryl Blackburn. Though dad Simon’s eyes involuntarily strayed to where the eland often graze on the hillside, mum’s the word when faced with several pairs of shining eyes on Christmas morning.
Raising a family of four children aged seven and under in such a historic place, Cheryl and Simon are doubly conscious of creating a Christmas for them to enjoy now as well as a heritage of Christmas memories for them to carry into the future. It’s quite a challenge, though, given that all the stops have to be pulled out for the hotel guests as well as the family.
“That’s why our Christmas is a fairly quiet family affair so we can simply relax and enjoy the day,” smiles Cheryl. And Simon can’t help agreeing that’s absolutely in keeping with the spirit of Christmas past at Spioenkop.
The siege of Ladysmith
If you were to drift back more than a century you’d find the Brits besieged in Ladysmith and the Boers standing guard. A closer look will show that the war has been put on hold while they all catch their breath after the horror of Black Week in mid‑December 1899, when the British army had been routed at the three pitched battles of Stormberg, Magersfontein and Colenso, within just a few days of each other.
Because of this, Ladysmith was still besieged. But despite about three months of bombardment and casualties, the cool Gordon Highlanders defiantly played the Imperial Light Horse at soccer in sight of the Boer guns or sometimes organised some mule races for a change. When the sun went down, the townsfolk and local refugees sheltering in caves and elsewhere emerged for ‘pleasant social gatherings . . . innocent mirth and music,’ reported Daily News correspondent Henry Pearse.
By Christmas and New Year the sports would have become a full-blown inter-regimental tournament. Christmas trees were set up with gifts distributed to the more than 200 children by Father Christmas. Christmas dinner went ahead around town, even though prices at the town’s Christmas market had been decidedly steep.
Meanwhile, the Boers were kicking back in the long hot summer days up in the Ladysmith heights.
‘During the day time no guards were set at all,’ wrote combatant-turned-parliamentarian Deneys Reitz. ‘At night, although we went on outpost so close to the English sentries we could hear them challenge each other, and sometimes exchanged shouted pleasantries with them, we did not take our watch very seriously.’
Those Boers who didn’t take Nagmaal leave often received visitors from home, sometimes even whole families. As Rayne Kruger puts it in his highly readable Goodbye Dolly Gray, ‘For the besiegers, life became a glorious picnic.’
“A neighbouring farmer told us how his ancestors took refuge in Ladysmith,” says Simon. “But when the granny died, they sneaked her out in the wagon under cover of dark to bury her – and simply slipped back in again the next night.”
On African soil
Although many hundreds of thousands of Irish soldiers fought in the British army, a few hundred Irish formed a couple of commandos for the Boers. MacBride’s Brigade had been sent its own song from Ireland by Arthur Griffith, a leader of the Irish Transvaal Committee in Dublin and the future founder of Sinn Féin and first premier of the Irish Free State. With its references to Mother Ireland and valour in battle, it was sung with great gusto in the camp on Christmas Night:
Oh mother of the wounded Breast!
Oh mother of the tears!
The sons you loved and trusted best
Have grasped their battle-spears;
From Shannon, Lagan, Liffey, Lee
On Africa’s soil today
We strike for Ireland, brave old Ireland
Ireland far away!
Ireland far away! Ireland far away!
We smite for Ireland, brave old Ireland,
Ireland, boys, hurray!
If these ghosts of Christmas past around Spioenkop are all quite jolly, more sombre ones follow. Not as fleeting as the Christmas truces of the world wars, this slowdown in hostilities must have been bittersweet, with each side increasingly aware that they would soon have to screw their courage to the sticking place.
“For the British soldiers here, that moment comes on the night of 23 January,” muses Simon. “They were mustered in our valley and marched quietly up our hill under cover of dark, hundreds of them never to return alive. That’s why, if you stand on the deck, some people swear they can hear the tramp of their steel‑tipped boots on the kopje.”
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Ghosts of another kind
But it was a ghost of another kind that persuaded Simon to give up the career he’d built at exclusive bush lodges such as Kruger Park’s Singita with wife Cheryl, whom he’d first met at Shamwari in the Eastern Cape. In fact, it was a ghost in a machine.
“We came to visit my brother near here and could see it’s a beautiful spot. But we weren’t really interested when he said Three Trees Hill was for sale – because I’d hated history at school,” laughs Simon.
Then, even more oddly, Simon was given a set of tapes recorded by historian David Rattray for Christmas and quite unpredictably fell in love with the narrative and the humanity of history. Award-winning tour operator Nicki von der Heyde of Campaign Tours, who led Ian Hislop, editor of the UK’s Private Eye, on a horseback tour of Spioenkop, says it’s a spell she sees cast time and again.
“Quite often husbands sigh to me they’ve had to promise their wives a special shopping trip to come along,” she smiles. “By the end of the tour, the women are just as entranced as the men.
“Battlefields tours aren’t just about regiments, statistics and the calibres of the guns. We do plenty of those but they’re also about the people who were involved, how they felt, what the conditions were like, even the horses and dogs they brought along. That brings it to life and it’s what fascinates people and what they remember.”
To the summit of Spioenkop
So Simon bought Three Trees Hill Lodge three years ago and has now fallen so far under the spell of Ladysmith and the area’s history that he takes visitors on guided tours. The vexed summit of Spioenkop is the best place to see just why so much went wrong in this tragic farce of a battle, where more than 450 died in total and which nobody really won. From here, while the Cape Vultures skim past with you fixed in their beady sights, you can focus on how Boers and Brits were manoeuvring their troops and artillery around the other plains and hills.
As the cattle strut between the memorial cairns, staring at the intruders, their calves lowing as insistently as vuvuzelas, you may also feel another ghost whisper past you . . .
“Sometimes we finish the afternoon tour with a sundowner on top of the hill. One evening the sky was beautiful and the air still,” recalls Simon, “when suddenly the wide-open door of the Land Rover slammed shut.
“The four businesswomen on the tour went absolutely pale. Even after a stiff brandy all round, we had to give them different rooms to keep away the spooks . . .”
Pictures CHERYL & SIMON BLACKBURN, PATRICIA McCRACKEN & SUPPLIED