Bedford is something of a chameleon town. One day it’s green and fresh as a bunch of parsley. As you stroll down its leafy streets, a breeze comes off the Kaga Mountains through the old yellowwoods on their slopes, and a platoon of geese marches bossily down a side road.
At other times it’s all wilted and dusty. Almost every year without fail, Bedford looks dry and tatty a week or two before their October Garden Festival. But then an annual weather miracle happens and the rain falls just before the botanical crowds gather, and the town sparkles again.
We are visiting just before the deluge, during heatstroke weather in which it seems quite possible to bake a muffin in the bakkie’s cubbyhole. There is, however, a haven of coolth and fascination around the corner at the Duke of Bedford Inn, in the form of a spruce little row of intriguing shops run by interesting locals.
Like a Christmas advent calendar
The Hope Street Hub is like a box of chocolates full of unexpected treats and flavours. It’s also like a Christmas advent calendar. Walk through any door and enter another world.
Each shop has a door onto both the street and the courtyard of the Duke of Bedford Inn, where children can be safe and run around on grass. The hotel grounds have the casual elegance of a beloved vegetable garden, sporting plants medicinal, fragrant, edible, herbal and indigenous, with two rather handsome fountains and a swimming pool.
Hope Street used to be a nondescript side road, mostly famous for being the place where the late world-class watchmaker Tony Mauer could be found, along with the best butchery in town and the pop-up restaurant The Butcher Bird.
It also runs along the flank of the old hotel, abandoned for decades. But its fortunes changed when the property, and several adjoining ones, were bought by East London businessman Tony Cotterell. The Duke of Bedford Inn is in its best shape ever.
Marcelle Ainslie’s shop, Twigg & Co, is closest to the corner of Donkin and Hope. She and Sue Wells stock casual clothes for women and children, as well as hats, ceramics, jewellery, leatherware, good socks, pewter cheese knives made in Bedford, and a few good books. They also joke about being the local depot, where people drop and pick up parcels. Every small town seems to have one.
“We’ve looked after everything from liver pâté and pets to guava-tree slips and pamplemousse syrup,” says Sue. Marcelle
is a born and bred local, and Sue is originally from Johannesburg. She used to organise weddings, “But it got too hectic.” On
a stopover in Bedford on the way to the Wild Coast, Sue saw a house. “I just fell in love. It took me years to move here, and now I’ve fallen in love with the community too.”
Marcelle married a local farmer Hugh Ainslie, and lives at Spring Grove farm, home of the famous Mill Cricket Ground (MCG). “I’ll tell you what just epitomised this place for me. I was sitting here in the shop with a sheep truck outside and all that mehhing, and then on this side, there was this opera coming from Charles Brett’s shop next door. That’s Bedford.”
Perfect timing. It’s just after lunch and Charles is opening his highly eclectic and rather erudite establishment, simply called Words & Music.
“This is the Centre of High Culture in Bedford,” he says with a smile. Charles is South African born but spent many years in
the UK, running estates for high-profile people. He too fell in love with this part of the world and is now the deputy principal of the highly successful Bedford Country School. That’s why his shop, run with fellow book and music-lover Gina Buijs, is only open in the afternoons from Wednesday to Friday, and Saturday mornings.
The latent artist
Adjoining Charles’s Words & Music is a gallery called The Art Lab. And here is another remarkable new Bedfordian, Ken Kropf, who used to be an engineer, a man who was all about mathematics and science. Then, at the age of 35, he had a temporal-lobe epileptic episode which had the effect of ‘switching off’ the analytical left side of the brain.
But the right side, generally linked with creativity, was unaffected, and his latent artistic side emerged. He began painting, and loved it. These days, Ken mainly paints portraits and a very popular line of Bedford streetscapes. He also teaches art at the school.
Next door to him is the highly popular Apprentice Deli. Marelise van Niekerk, who founded the deli here in 2016, remembers seeing the place when it was “still a vrot old building”. What she and her culinary partner Tanja Lötter have created is something impossible to leave without caramel-topped brownies with macadamias, or baked cheesecake crowned with red velvet cake. Or the venison pies, biltong and blue-cheese quiches with butter-flake pastry bases, home-made Turkish Delight, fresh-baked sourdough bread, and delicious Pastel de Natas, the Portuguese version of milktart.
Then there are local olive oils and jams on the shelves, interesting charcuterie in the fridge, the chatter of happy people over breakfast and lunch and, always, delicious smells emerging from the kitchen from 8am to mid-afternoon. Next door is the hairdressing salon called Art of Hair, run by another enterprising incomer originally from the big city, now relishing small-town life.
Out of the box
Some of Sandra Bishop’s clients are starting to drive up from her former base in Port Elizabeth, having rediscovered her. Now they can make an occasion of it, and stay overnight in the hotel. Others come from as far away as Kenton-on-Sea.
Everyone along Hope Street mentions Abigail White. Abbie has been central to everything at the hotel, its garden and the Hope Street Hub. She lived abroad for many years, then met and married a Bedford farmer, renovated “the old ghost house” (every dorp seems to have one) before being drawn into running an estate agency and managing the hotel properties.
Abbie’s gift is thinking up “out the box” ways the hotel can benefit the community. The townspeople are always welcomed and included here. We catch up with her sharing a slice of Marelise’s Double Trouble cake in a corner of another new shop called Woodstock & Willow, with one of the owners, Robyn Wienand.
Robyn – another city girl who married a local farmer – and business partner Bronwyn McCabe have taken over Tony Mauer’s old building and filled it with intriguing stuff. There are a few antiques, upcycled furniture, plants, exquisite prints of local birdlife, beeswaxed cloth, Ardmore wallpaper and fun Bedford-branded T-shirts. She and Bronwyn clearly have an eye for decor.
The young man has talent
Back across the road is Vuyo’s Gallery, operated by a very good local photographer. Vuyo van den Berg is the adoptive son of long-time Bedfordians Bennie and Lilette van den Berg. They helped to set him up in the photographic trade, buying him some decent equipment and sending him to intern with photographers in Uitenhage. Pop into his studio and just page through his ‘brag book’ of images. The young man has talent.
Across the courtyard at Bloom is the lovely Laura Bennett, fresh from a long stint on the yachts of Monaco. She’s currently relishing her new life as a Bedford landlubber and beautician. Laura comes from Post Retief, a farming community separated from Bedford by 50 kilometres of bouncy dirt roads.
Everyone has been talking about how popular the ice cream is at Munchies, the sweet little takeaway joint at the end of the Hope Street Hub. Ross Langston and Simonique Arends sort us out with a couple of strawberry soft serves for the road home. And all the way back home we wallow in sugary pink…
Duke of Bedford Inn
078 511 9689, www.dukeofbedford.co.za
Pictures Chris Marais