Somerset West, Western Cape: Upper Main Road

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The coordinates for the town of Somerset West are 34.0757° S, 18.8433° E. While this town is included in the greater metropolitan municipality of Cape Town, it technically constitutes its own municipal suburb, called Helderberg, and takes approximately an hour to reach from the Mother City.

Its colonial history dates back to approximately 1672, when the Dutch administration in Cape Town established a cattle post there to supply passing ships with fresh meat. The Cape was a midway station between the European continent and India, with India being the attraction for trading in spices and cloth. It was where Somerset West is now, that the Tweede Rivier was named, being the second river from the city of Cape Town.

Today, not far from Somerset West, is still a town named Eerste Rivier, which was the first of the rivers to be named. In those days, people did not have the modern technology that we have today, and so obviously travel was a lot slower.

So, when we hear the name Vergelegen – a most beautiful estate at the foot of the Helderberg Mountain in Somerset West – we can appreciate its meaning: a place lying far away (from Cape Town). Any visitor to the area of Helderberg is strongly recommended to visit this stunning wine farm. Today, it ranks as one of the country’s leading wine estates, and meals are provided in breath-taking settings. Go to https://www.stellenbosch.travel/wine/vergelegen-wine-estate.

The town of Somerset West got its name from Lord Charles Henry Somerset, an English baron and soldier born in Badminton, Great Britain. He was the British governor of the Cape from 1814 to 1826, especially well known for encouraging British settlers to make South Africa their new home.

For more details and information on Somerset West as a place to visit, go to https://www.google.com/search?q=somerset%20west%20tourism&rlz=1C1GCEU. There are a host of other sites to visit, covering travel and very comfortable places to stay.

The following article will take a nostalgic look at some of the features of Somerset West, where the visitor will find many interesting things to do.

This is a photograph from around the 1960s of upper Main Road in Somerset West. There was parking for motor vehicles in the middle of the street, flanked on either side by shops, banks and other businesses. Many of the buildings remain today; in fact, other than a few shopping centres, little has changed over the years. Main Road remains a hive of activity. This photograph was taken by Norman McLeod, and permission for it to be published was given by Brian de Villiers.

The exterior of the art deco building, where the Tria Bioscope used to be, is the same today as it was then. Today, it is an arcade with shops.

Today, upper Main Road in Somerset West still has several art deco buildings from the 1920s lining the street. For more on the art style of art deco, go to https://www.britannica.com/art/Art-Deco.

As school pupils from the 1960s and ’70s, we used to attend Saturday afternoon movies at the Tria Bioscope (cinema) – the great shows such as Psycho; The good, the bad and the ugly; Goldfinger; Mary Poppins; Butch Cassidy and the sundance kid; and – how can one forget that classic – The great escape, with Steve McQueen in Paul Brickhill’s 1950s classic.

And, how we rolled in the aisles from The pink panther, with the inimitable British actor, Peter Sellers, as Inspector Clouseau. Those were the days when it used to be called a bioscope.

Today, it’s “the movies” – or Netflix, the American media services provider founded in 1997 in Los Gatos, California. There is no Tria there anymore, and residents from Somerset West can attend film productions at the Somerset Mall. Or, for those who still prefer watching videos, only a matter of 20 metres from where the Tria used to be are two video stores, Vee’s and Mr Video.

A nostalgic photograph of Main Road from the 1960s. Much of what one sees of the buildings in the photograph remains today. Photograph by Norman McLeod, permission by Brian de Villiers.

Vee’s on upper Main Road. There is a very large selection of videos, both classic and modern.

The Dutch Reformed Church in Somerset West. Its Gothic Revival style is noticeable in its belfry, with the church standing on the corner of Andries Pretorius and Dirkie Uys Streets. These streets are named after the Voortrekker leaders who, in the 1820s, moved inland away from the British administration at the Cape.

The active Dutch Reformed congregation was established in Somerset West in 1819. This denomination is named for the teaching of the Reformation scholar, Martin Luther. More than 500 years ago, Martin Luther nailed his 95 theses onto the door of the Castle Church of Wittenberg in Germany. This is when the Protestant Reformation began in Europe.

Out of this came the exclamation “Ad fontes!” meaning that in the interpretation of the holy Scripture, believers should go back to the original biblical sources to get to the truth of what was being said. Unfortunately, the Dutch Reformed Church supported the system of racial segregation during that dark period of South Africa’s history.

From 1992, the church acknowledged apartheid as a sin, confessed the great wrongs of the past and admitted that it was guilty of spiritual and structural injustices. It is here that it issued a public apology; for more on this, go to http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/despatches/africa/33032.stm.

One of the town’s very old churches is the Methodist Church, built in the Gothic Revival style. The church has recently been restored (2014), after it collapsed sometime in 2010. It remains one of the town’s classic landmarks, and is one of its oldest church buildings. Some thought that after parts of it had collapsed, it would need to be demolished, but instead, it has been carefully restored.

The church has a remarkable history. The original building was once a wine cellar, and, at the time of the emancipation of slaves in the area, it was converted by Barnabas Shaw into a building fit for religious worship.

By 1860, it had become too small for the congregation, and consequently it was demolished – only to see a new building erected the following year, in 1861.

According to local historian, Peggy Heap: “This was certainly a bold project when viewed in connection with the comparative poverty of the people, the lack of skilled artisans and other difficulties. It was, however, undertaken in faith, and prosecuted with energy and zeal, and the effort was crowned with success. Reverend Ridgill undertook the superintendence of the work, and, by means of the local freed slaves – skilfully directed – the neatest and most commodious Wesleyan chapel in the Western Province was erected, as a lasting monument to the genius, zeal and liberality of the missionary, the people and the friends who so nobly united their efforts in its erection” (from https://www.artefacts.co.za/main/Buildings/bldgframes.php?bldgid=10454).

There are many B&Bs in the area. One of the classic places to stay is the Cape Dutch-styled Stellendal, situated at 169 Main Road (https://www.stellendal.co.za/, info@stellendal.co.zahttps://www.booking.com/hotel/za/guest-house-stellendal.en-gb.html).

At the top end of Main Road is Mangiare Trattoria (171 Main Road, 021 851 2618, https://www.facebook.com/MangiareSW/), which serves Italian food (above).

Also at the top end of Main Road, at the same site, is Opa Greek Taverna (171 Main Road, 021 851 2618, opatavernas@gmail.com).

Across the road from Mangiare and Opa is Henri’s Restaurant and Wine Bar, on the corner of Main Road and Lourensford Road (021 852 6442, info@henrisrestaurant.co.za, https://henrisrestaurant.co.za/).

Pierre and staff welcome their guests to a heritage house serving comfort food with a global influence. They offer a selection of beers and wines, and the place’s contemporary charm and winter fires offer a suitable place for a relaxed dinner with friends.

At the top of Main Street is a treasure trove, Memory Lane (collectables).

Visitors will be pleasantly surprised by their finds in this shop, which sells antiquities and collectables. They will certainly be transported down memory lane. Visit https://www.facebook.com/NowandThenVintage/.

It’s been there for 40 years now, and it’s still going strong. The nice thing about it is that there are many bargains; the owner puts only a certain fixed percentage on the original price that she pays for the goods.

A photograph of upper Main Road

Looking down the road, in the direction of the mountains (Helderberg Mountain), one can see the row of art deco buildings flanking Main Road. On the right is Memory Lane; the following photo cluster reflects some of the merchandise that can be bought here.

Merchandise that the collector can find at Memory Lane in Main Road

The four interlinking Ds, the emblem of Royal Doulton

At Memory Lane, it is still very possible to find excellent marks, such as Royal Doulton, the English ceramic manufacturing company that produced tableware and collectables.

Operating originally in London, Royal Doulton emerged as one of the most sought-after manufacturers of china crockery, alongside Royal Crown Derby, Royal Worcester, Wedgwood, Spode and Mintons.

The way to identify Royal Doulton is to check for its mark or “backstamp” on the underside of the ware.

The most common Doulton mark is circular, with the central four interlinking D symbols.

Royal Doulton is still very much sought after, although as a company it no longer exists, having become part of the WWRD group.

Look out for this exclusive tableware at Memory Lane. 

This is a view of upper Main Road, taken by Norman McLeod in 1952, from a vantage point roughly near where Memory Lane is today. Further down, on the left, is where Central Fisheries once stood. The Helderberg area is well known for its fish and chips shops, of which there are a number. Today, Mike’s Take-aways and Fisheries is situated on Main Road, a little higher up on the left, as one goes in the direction of Cape Town. In the photograph below, one sees the freshly fried fish and chips, which can still be purchased for a very reasonable amount at Mike’s. One can also see the row of art deco buildings on the right-hand side of the picture.

Mike’s Take-aways and Fisheries, at the top end of Main Road

Mike’s fish is freshly caught, and the potatoes from which the chips are made are firm and fresh from the fertile Boland soil. The nature of the chips is “slap chips”, as they are not of the crispy kind. It is traditional to have copious amounts of vinegar and salt poured over the huge helpings of freshly fried fish at Mike’s.

On the corner of Caledon and Myburgh Streets is a lovely coffee shop with surprises for the breakfast lover, called the Farmhouse.

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Try the menu:

Sunrise 
Early bird
Frankie Lane
Health 
Farmhouse 
Uitsmyter 
Putu, pap and meat 
Chicken livers 
Omelette
Divvie

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Recipe for an uitsmijter – in English, it’s more commonly known as a “bouncer”. (The recipe has been specially composed by Paul Murray, who remembers the uitsmijters enjoyed as university students at Stellenbosch).

2 slices of white bread
2 slices of gypsy ham
2 slices of cheese, each the size of a slice of bread
2 fried eggs, well fried
A few slices of gherkin
A few lettuce leaves

Toast the bread in a pan.
Bake the ham in a warmer.
Bake the eggs over the ham.
Place the cheese on the baked bread.
Add the ham and egg.
Add the gherkin.
Add the lettuce for garnishing.
Enjoy with tea or coffee.

Serves one person. Repeat the measurements per person exactly.

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The inside of the Farmhouse is filled with items of home industry – everything from freshly baked rusks, to collectables such as bone handle knives and enamel ware items from yesteryear.

The German Food Store

Globalvegs was formed in Germany in 1994, and was based in Osterhofen in the Bavarian part of Germany. It is here that the best vegetables are grown. The company originally imported gherkins and mustard, which are still the cornerstone of operations. Added to this core business, there are now numerous brands of groceries that originate in Germany.

The store also offers online shopping. To subscribe to the newsletter, go to http://www.thegermanfoodstore.co.za/Newsletter_1.

For opening hours, go to https://all-opening-hours.co.za/0162922/The_German_Food_Store.

For more information, go to https://www.facebook.com/thegermanfoodstore.co.za/.

For information about a great haircut and an espresso served while they cut your hair, go to https://foursquare.com/v/hair-espresso/59a963b49746177ce4c194f7. It’s there that you can get the James Dean look. About it, someone said: “Nice little barber shop. Friendly staff, and they do a nice job. Recommended!”

Go to https://southafricaplacesmap.com/Hair-Espresso-Gents-Barber-Somerset-West-170298/ or Facebook (https://www.facebook.com/HairEspressoSomersetWest/).

Solid Ground, for freshly roasted coffee on the spot

Solid Ground is a coffee shop in Lion’s Square, at the top end of Main Road. It’s best to enter the shops in Lion’s Square from the top end, where there is a secure parking area, and access all the shops from there.

The staff at Solid Ground are friendly, and the coffee is good – nice and strong! Find them at 17 Lion’s Square (074 663 7859).

According to the write-up for Solid Ground, it is described as a local coffee roastery that supplies mainly the Western Cape area, but which has clients even as far as Mozambique!

They stock both 250 g packs and 1 kg packs; 250 g is R65 and 1 kg is R220. Delivery is available anywhere in South Africa.

Visit them on Instagram: @solidgroundroastery. Jonathan, a tour guide, gave them a thumbs up for the excellent coffee.

Inside Lion’s Square on upper Main Road, in the courtyard of the building, a Mercedes Benz coupé is followed by a row of other Mercedes. For more on this, go to https://za.pinterest.com/shorthairgent/mercedes-benz-1925-1940/. In the picture, we see the 1950s W189 making its way up an incline, the vehicle in concourse condition.

There is a Kwikspar in the Lion’s Square complex, from which one can purchase groceries if one is lodging at a nearby B&B. There is secure parking there, and there are many different shops, several of which are included below.

There is a spa, where clients can get relaxing treatments, such as facials.

Some of the comments on this venue’s Facebook page reflect the experiences of clients. One said that “the therapists are incredible people”, another said that it was a “fantastic spoil”, and yet another, that he/she “had the most wonderful experience at Selah Day Spa … and was pampered”.

Check it out at https://www.facebook.com/selahdayspasomersetwest/.

The name of this eatery derives from cumin, a seed which is ground into powder and used in cooking. Cumin is widely used in spice blends, has a strong aroma and is considered a staple spice in many cuisines, especially those of Mexico, India, Africa and Asia. 

For more information about cumin and its medicinal properties, go to https://www.medicalnewstoday.com/articles/319562.php.

Roman’s Pizza

According to the publicity about Roman’s Pizza, it began in 1993, when the owner, Mr A Nicolakakis, a restaurateur by trade, purchased a pizzeria that was struggling financially.

He quickly decided that to get the operation back on track, instead of raising prices to try make the business profitable, he would offer two pizzas for the price of one.

Today, Roman’s is a nationwide operation, with some of its stores selling up to 2 000 pizzas on one night! The operation is a franchise, with opportunities for budding entrepreneurs.

Seen parked in Main Road: a little Mini and a Merc

One of the pleasures of visiting towns, versus cities, is that the pace is slower. More time is given to customers, as contrasted with the rushing that one finds in cities.

The Western Cape has many such smaller towns and, in fact, some larger ones, too, but Somerset West is a “cool” place to visit – with a bit of retro, like the little Mini or the classic Merc parked in Main Road. The town is ready to take the visitor all the way down memory lane!

  • All the photographs are taken by the writer, unless otherwise documented. Permission to publish the black and white photographs was obtained from Brian de Villiers.
Buro: MvH
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