- This article is the second, and final, in a series of two articles on the main area of Stellenbosch. Read the first article on Plein Street here.
- Visit the published article on Stellenbosch restaurant De Volkskombuis here.
Stellenbosch is the Cape’s second oldest town. It is not surprising, therefore, that its most historic street/avenue, Dorp Street, has been declared a national monument. Dorp Street in Stellenbosch, the “City of Oaks”, represents one of the longest rows of old buildings and oak trees in any of the major towns in South Africa. This gives Dorp Street a very special status.
The street was the original road between Cape Town and Stellenbosch, a wagon route used for transporting goods and post. The planting of oak trees comes already from that time – it was strongly encouraged – and from them also came the oak barrels for maturing wine. The oaks that are to be found in Stellenbosch today are one of 600 different species that are known to exist in the world; their scientific name in Latin is Quercus, related to the beech family of trees, Fagaceae.
Together with the oaks lining Dorp Street are the buildings, many of which are in the style of classic Cape Dutch architecture. The trees are well counterpoised and balanced by several art galleries, shops, boutiques and restaurants/eateries. The writer’s stay in Stellenbosch was in the heart of winter, so at the time, a few of the eating places and restaurants were closed. But, here follows more than enough for the visitor or tourist to do in the City of Oaks.
Just a little above where Dorp Street starts at the top end is the Eerste River. It is so called because it was the first of a series of rivers to be named by the Dutch when they came to the Cape in the 1650s. It flows steadily from the Dwarsberg down through the Jonkershoek Valley, along the length of the town, and then further down, another 35 kilometres to the sea into False Bay.
Here follows a list of things for the tourist and visitor to do in Dorp Street. There is much to discuss, and so it is safe to suggest that Dorp Street might require more than just one visit.
One of the architectural gems of Dorp Street is the Old Evangelical Lutheran Church building on the corner of Dorp and Bird Streets, constructed in 1851. This building, in the neo-Gothic style, was designed and erected by Carl Otto Hager and consecrated on 28 November 1854. As far back as the mid-1850s, the Lutheran church and the Rhenish church were both fully represented by separate buildings. Still today, there is an active Lutheran church community (contact them here) and also an active Rhenish church community on the Braak (read more here).
Today, the Old Lutheran Evangelical Church is attached to the University of Stellenbosch (Gallery University Stellenbosch – GUS). Celebrating 100 years, it was established in the same year as the birth of Nelson Rolihlahla Mandela, South African international statesman (1918 – 2013). Read here for Nelson Mandela’s timeline. Visit the site for the museum here.
The building where the Stellenbosch Hotel is today was first erected in 1706, but burnt down and was then rebuilt. It is sometimes also referred to as the Swart House, and was once the residence of the town doctor, Jan Cats. Today, there is a wine named after him with the following accompanying historical description: “Dr Jan Cats was a respected physician in Stellenbosch … but, like all physicians, he did have his share of failures … and in a unique way, to get the bodies out of his surgery and into the morgue without upsetting business!” The reference here is to the building across the road, which today houses a bookshop called Verbatim. Once, it was the morgue.
Perambulating down Dorp Street gives the tourist so many options: taking photographs, and not just trying to find nice eateries, but also appreciating the distinctive styles of architecture that line the street, such as Cape Georgian, Cape Victorian and Cape Dutch. Below is a photograph of an example of Cape Georgian architecture, with its elegantly proportioned lines, sash windows and three by six glass panels per frame, with an eight-paneled door and semicircular fanlight with surrounding architrave. In the foreground is a youngish oak tree, one of the many that line the street.
Across the road from the Cape Georgian building is the Mill Coffee House at 132 Dorp Street. The benefit of this coffee shop is that it opens very early each morning (6:30 am), so it can cater for the early bird. It’s also good for panini and fries.
Below, one can see its pride of place / location halfway up Dorp Street as you turn left into the central business district of Stellenbosch.
The Mill Coffee House is strategically situated in Dorp Street, well placed for one to sit and watch the day go by – although the primary motive behind this coffee shop’s hours is to open early and catch the early bird wanting his cup of coffee at the break of day.
Further down, as one proceeds towards the R44 intersection, is a language school.
If you plan on staying in the town for a few months, why not enrol for a language course – here, you can learn English or Xhosa, among other languages (contact them here or via LinkedIn); and, while the site might say “English for Italians”, it’s not just for Italians. Look carefully at the paneled (eight panels) Georgian door and the semicircular fanlight with an equal number of panes.
Just opposite the language school is one of Stellenbosch’s most majestic residences, La Gratitude. More recently, it was the home of the pioneer of wine to Stellenbosch, Mr Bill Winshaw, founder of Stellenbosch Farmers’ Winery (Distell). It stands resplendent at number 95 Dorp Street, with its magnificent gable and paneled door of teak. The renowned architect Sir Herbert Baker declared it to be “the most beautiful domestic architecture in the world”ii.
It was built in 1798 for the Reverend Meent Borcherds, who was the parson at Stellenbosch from 1786 to 1830. He was from Jangum in Eastern Friesland, where he was born in 1762. The home is in a U-shape and sports one of the earliest neoclassical pilaster gables, with pilasters (columns set into the building) between the windows. Hence this building’s immense dignity. Any visitor to the town will certainly be impressed by its beauty and fine lines.
One of the town’s landmarks is Oom Samie se Winkel, selling merchandise from “a previous age”. It’s a must for the visitor; but, he will most likely get lost … in time. As one enters, very prominent is the smell of dried fish – the traditional salty fish that can be preserved for lengthy periods of time, referred to as bokkoms. The fish itself is Southern mullet (Liza richardsonii), called “harders” – mostly fished along the west coast of South Africa. Call it fish biltong, if you like.
Walking down Dorp Street reveals its art attractions – there are several galleries and examples of open-air art. The following are examples:
View art in The Red Carpet on Dorp Street, well known for its excellent carpet merchandise, located opposite the BP garage. The internet address for the venue is given with the next photograph, below.
There are several eateries that line the lower end of Dorp Street. Here is a list to follow:
Close to these eateries lower down Dorp Street is Ackerman House (48–50 Dorp Street), in which former prime minister of South Africa, Jan Christian Smuts, lodged while he attended Victoria College in 1886. It was here that he met his wife Sybella Margaretha “Issie” Krige, whom he married on 30 April 1897 – the Krige family lived in number 54.
Also at this lower end of Dorp Street are some exceptional sites for the visitor/tourist to experience. A little further out of town, in the direction of Cape Town and opposite where Distell wines are produced (at the robot intersection, turn right and follow the signage), is Oude Libertas, an amphitheatre housing an art gallery and the headquarters of Distell. On Saturdays, there is a slow food market here.
Back in Dorp Street itself is the Libertas Parva (meaning Little Libertas), an old farm and now a national heritage site close to Deluxe Coffeeworks in Aan-de-Wagenweg, and characterised by a large wooden wine press, which one can see from the Dorp Street-R444 robot crossing. The Libertas Parva complex was purchased by the Rembrandt group in the 1960s, and today it houses an art and wine museum called the Oude Meester Stellenryck Wijn Museum.
The exhibits relate the story of how wine was made across the centuries, including in the display a very rare French wine press dating as far back as 1784. Included at the Rupert Kunsmuseum, across the road from the wine museum, are rare art treasures from the Rupert family’s personal collection, including works by the South African colourist Irma Stern and the sculptor Anton van Wouw. Any visitor or tourist displaying an interest in South African art is advised to pay this site a visit. More history of these sites is available here. Read here for more information on the art museum and directions to find it.
Unfortunately, Oppie Dorp at 137 Dorp Street, at the time of preparing to write up this article, was closed (this means the place could not be photographed by the writer). This is a superior place for fine dining and an excellent restaurant. Read here for precise details and visuals.
At 146 Dorp Street is the Blue Crane & the Butterfly, excellent for its roaster. Visit their website to see the menu for breakfast, lunch or tea, with home-baked comestibles to choose from.
On a bit of an eccentric note, right at the top of Dorp Street, at the end on the right as you proceed up, are the gardens of the theological seminary. The original gateway and gates to the gardens were erected in about 1769 as part of the Drostdy at that time – this makes it one of the most historic sites in Stellenbosch. This site has its close associations with Simon van der Stel, and the Drostdy (magistrate’s offices) was formerly situated here until, in 1859, it became the seat of the theological seminary.
A very historic building on Dorp Street is the Oude Leeskamer, at 182 Dorp Street (corner of Drostdy Street). Out of all the “addresses” in the town, this must rank among one of the ultimate places to live in Stellenbosch. It is such an honour for a building to be standing on the corner of Dorp and Drostdy Streets, two of the most historic of all streets in the “City of Oaks”.
According to research, this was the building originally used by the College of Landdrost and Heemraden as offices. The foundation meeting for the educational institution, which was to become known as the Gymnasium, was held here in 1863. Before the completion of the Gymnasium building in 1866, the Oude Leeskamer was used as a school building for three months – until it then became the Paul Roos Gymnasium. However, one should ask whence the name “Leeskamer” as part of the name of this building comes.
According to further research, there were, in fact, already several reading circles/clubs in Stellenbosch in the early 1800s. One was the Reading Club, established in 1847 (which today is the Oude Leeskamer); another was called the Book Society (1829), and there was a Dutch one called De Hollandse Leesgeselschap (1840). Before this form of reading society emerged in Stellenbosch, residents would have to rely on the postal service to transport books from Cape Town.
Yet further research shows that the Oude Leeskamer, in fact, had several other functions over the course of its early existence; for instance, while the Anglican church was under construction in the 1850s, the Oude Leeskamer was used for church services. According to information found here, as late as the 1950s, the building was used by the University of Stellenbosch Debating Society. The following interesting extract about the Oude Leeskamer reads: “Recently restored (1970s), the building has over the last two centuries served as a magistrate’s office, school, political meeting place, residential home, architect’s studio and originally a Reading Room – hence the name ‘Oude Leeskamer’.”iii Read here for some interesting pictures from the archives of the building, tracing the life of the Oude Leeskamer.
Just as the road right at the top of Dorp Street dog-legs towards the river, there is a street statue – in the photograph below – with inscriptions for the visitor to read.
At the very top of Dorp Street, your perambulations have, by now, taken you into the dog-leg and above towards the river, leading to a totally unique experience, into nature and all that that side of Stellenbosch and surrounds has to offer the tourist/visitor. But, just at the dog-leg, to the left of the wire statue, is an interesting site. You might have to ask around or search a bit to find it. (See the description below.)
At the top of Dorp Street, one finds an interesting story, which today still has much relevance. You might have to ask your hotel/B&B concierge or management for directions, as it’s hard to find. Nevertheless, almost wedged between the buildings is a plaque commemorating an event which is enshrined in the history of the town and hugely significant for the Afrikaans language.
There, where the mill once stood, is the place where an argument arose between the magistrate of the town, Johannes Starrenberg, and a youth of foreign descent by the name of Hendrik Bibault, whose family had come to South Africa from Mecklenburg in northern Germany. The Bibault incident was preceded by a situation in early March 1707, when it came to the attention of the farmers of the Stellenbosch district that there were illegal provisions of meat, wine and wheat being taken to the market.
The provisions were coming from the officials of the district themselves, thus undermining the supply operations of the local farmers. Should this continue, it would mean their financial ruin, and they might have to resort to the work they once did as sailors and soldiers. Then, the news came that some of these officials had been sent away, which was a great cause for celebration among the Stellenbosch farmers. Some became overexcited, even to the point of becoming unruly, and, as a result, they received a flogging from the magistrate, Johannes Starrenberg.
One of the youths was Hendrik Bibault (also sometimes written as Bibouw), who was jailed and subsequently flogged in public, at which point he uttered: “Ik ben een Africaander! Ik zal, nog wil niet zwijgen ...” – iconic because, for the first time ever, the term “Afrikaner” was used to indicate a European living in Africa. (A fuller version of what he said reads: “Ik wil niet loopen, ik ben een Africaander, al slaat die landdrost mijn dood, of al setten hij mijn in den tronk, ik sal, nog wil niet swygen!” [Translated, this reads: “I am an African (Afrikaander); even if the magistrate were to beat me to death, or put me in jail, I shall not be, nor will I stay, silent!”])
The importance of this statement, according to the South African historian Hermann Giliomee, is that, historically, while at that time coloureds residing at the Cape referred to themselves as “Afrikaners”, the Bibault/Bibouw incident represented the first official record of a European appropriating the term “Afrikaner” for himself – at a time of potential deportation and with absolutely no desire to return to Europe. His protestations, however, did not help very much, as, according to the 1708 census, he was gone (“weg”); he had either been deported or somehow disappeared, perhaps by escaping somewhere inland.
Giliomee’s version, however, is that he was probably banished to Batavia, but that the ship was wrecked en route along the Australian coast, and he linked up with the inhabitants of western Australia. Whatever the finer details of this story might be, the principal feature of it is that the young Bibault chose to call himself an Afrikaner, and not something along the lines of a boer, or Boer, which is what the farmers of that time were called.iv
Dorp Street is a very significant street in the City of Oaks historically, and for the general interest of those who perambulate along its walkways, it brings art, architecture, history and the experience of nice food within practical reach.