Just outside Knysna, the tiny village of Old Belvidere and its Holy Trinity Church offer a glimpse of the Garden Route that tourists seldom see…
Words & Pictures: Mike & Jeanette Simpson
In the village there is a sense of tranquillity, of perhaps being transported to the English countryside. Winding country lanes are narrow, unpaved and lined by huge trees with dipping branches that partly obscure picturesque, historic homes. There’s even a village green where a traditional Boxing Day cricket match is contested by local families.
Old Belvidere was first settled in the mid-1800s as part of the farm owned by Thomas Henry Duthie. He, in turn, purchased it from George Rex, his father-in-law and founder of Knysna.
Nowadays the highlight of a visit there is the Holy Trinity Anglican Church on the main road into the village, which attracts a steady trickle of visitors during the holiday season. Originally built as a place of worship exclusively for the Duthie family and their friends and servants, it’s tiny and holds no more than 20 people – although pews and chairs outside the front door cater for any overflow of worshippers at services in fine weather.
Consecrated in October 1855, it’s 157 years old and was designed as a miniature replica of an 11th-century Norman church. After conquering England in 1066, the Normans’ architectural style of round arches, small windows and thick walls influenced the design of many English abbeys, churches and monasteries for centuries to come.
Too small to be considered imposing or stately, Holy Trinity is perhaps regal in the manner of the late Queen Mum – much loved, finely proportioned and commanding of affection and respect in equal measure. Calling it ‘quaint’ simply doesn’t do it justice.
The church sits in immaculate gardens, guarded by the same army of towering oak and gum trees that inhabit the rest of Belvidere. Dotted around the grounds are gravestones and memorials of generations of the Duthie family, as well as other prominent names from Garden Route history. Indeed, a wander through the church building and grounds will turn up many names you’ll find on local buildings, streets, and other landmarks – Thesen, Bowman, Barrington and Metelerkamp, to name a few.
According to local historians, the impetus for a church on the Belvidere site came from Thomas Duthie, his wife Caroline and other prominent settlers, who were concerned that the nearest church was ‘sixty miles, two passes and nine rivers away’. They approached Robert Gray, then the Anglican Bishop of Southern Africa, for permission to establish a church, and Gray’s wife, Sophia, agreed to help with the design.
While apparently not an architect herself, Sophia had brought a large number of church designs with her to South Africa and adapted them to the prevailing local conditions. She is credited with involvement in upwards of 35 churches in the Cape and her work is still commemorated with the annual Sophia Gray Memorial Lecture and Exhibition by the Department of Architecture at the University of the Free State.
Much of the material used in building Holy Trinity was sourced from the Garden Route; local stinkwood and yellowwood is used extensively in the ceilings and elsewhere, while the sandstone was quarried in the area and shaped by three Scottish immigrant stonemasons. Indeed, the entire pulpit, with the exception of the parapet, is carved from a single block of sandstone originally nicknamed ‘the monster stone’.
The church bell, a gift from an English benefactor, almost didn’t make it to Belvidere as it was dropped overboard from its ship and lay for several months in the Knysna Lagoon before being recovered and hung above the main door. Three thousand roof slates were also brought by sea from England.
Holy Trinity was proclaimed a National Monument in 1973 and today continues to be part of the life of the community. Services are held every Sunday and Wednesday, with morning prayers on selected weekdays. It is also Parish Church to a large and diverse community on the west bank of the Knysna River.
Visitors are welcome and the building and grounds are open daily for people to take a stroll, absorb the history and serenity, and admire the craftsmanship of a bygone era. Small souvenirs and postcards can also be purchased and the money placed in an honesty box.