“There is a high valley set like a saucer in the midst of hills where the quiet city of Grahamstown lies.”
– Grahamstown Magic
In 1980 Dorothy Randell, armed with a sketchpad and pencils, took a walk and explored the quiet city. From this exploration, Randell created Grahamstown Magic: Exploring with a Sketchbook. The short book is full of Randell’s sketches of buildings and described walks that visitors and admirers of Grahamstown could undertake.
Thirty-five years later, two young women armed with a camera, a car, and a copy of Grahamstown Magic retraced some of Randell’s footsteps to experience the difference between Randell’s quiet city of the 80’s, and the bustle of activity that they recognised as their own town in 2015.
“It is that quality which casts a spell on so many who come here. Unexpected beauties captivate you. The misty hills on a wintry morning; sunlight shafting through the oak trees in autumn making the turning leaves a glory of copper and gold; blue grey shadows on old white walls; cobbled street verges; a sudden vista through an old carriage archway; narrow lanes waiting to be explored.”
Randell was the first student to be awarded the Bachelor of Fine Arts degree by Rhodes University and lived at 1 Prince Alfred Street— now Rhodes University’s Department of Humanities.
Randell’s Grahamstown was quiet; a stark difference from the buzz of the city centre today.
From the Drostdy Arch to the Cathedral of St. Michael and St. George the High Street stands almost unchanged in outline for more than a century.
In 2015, the cathedral and the arch still hail the other from opposite ends of High Street. The street’s outline remains almost unchanged with the lines and curves of Victorian and Settler architecture snaking across the skyline of each side of the road. While the shape is similar, the street are vastly different.
On weekdays, High Street is a cacophony. Cars zoom past store fronts advertising anything from pies to pharmaceuticals, only idling at the foot of the cathedral in anticipation of a green light which will flash momentarily before flickering back to red. Young women walk with their handbags pressed tightly to their sides and young men lope down the street gesturing wildly and laughing loudly. Peeling wall paint flaps precariously with every breath of wind. A woman pushing a pram full of produce points to a bag of naartjies in the undercarriage and offers them to a group of passing university students. Delivery bikes growl into life outside Steers and Fishaways. A few meters down from a Settler’s memorial, in the middle of an island in the middle of the road, a man stands at the counter of Zuko’s Lunchbox.
On the weekends, it’s quieter. After 1pm on Saturday, High Street breathes a sigh of relief. Most shops close and the shoppers, vendors, hawkers and drivers are sparse and the streets are almost bare.
The two young women watch the trees that lined High Street in 1980 stand there still, if only a little older; their September spring green leaves brush the unchanged outline.
The Drostdy Gate, gateway to the grounds of the Drostdy, was designed by Major Jasper Selwyn and built by the Royal Engineers in 1841. In early days, an alarm bell over the arch was rung in times of crisis.
The Drostdy Arch, which was originally entrance to the grounds of the Dutch landrosters, is now leads to the univeristy’s lawns. It has become the first point of reference for any Rhodes University Student. First years meet here for walking tours of their new campus and new home. Graduates celebrate here; their gowns blowing in April’s warmth as academics, parents, friends and students mingle over congratulatory trays of sandwiches and lamingtons. Weeks before, Ellen Kuzwayo’s name was scrawled in black across the red bricks that lead from the arch to the university. Some lamented the vandalism; many more admired the protest art that was left in the hopes of sparking transformation conversation.
Years before, when Grahamstown was still unfamiliar and fresh territory in their minds, the two young women had walked near the arch. One walked straight under while the other took the side door,
“Didn’t you know there’s a superstition that you’ll fail your major if you walk under the arch?!” one shouted to the other.
“Well why didn’t you tell me before I walked under it!” the other shouted back.
The apparently cursed girl likes to remind the other of her friendship fumble. They both giggle at the memory.
Piet Retief’s Office
The old residency stands beside the Botanical Gardens near the entrance of which is a tiny building in stone with gun inlets in the walls. This is believed to have been Piet Retief’s office.
Piet Retief’s supposed former office has become the Blockhouse Coffee shop. It is a small eatery nestled into the trees bordering the Botanical Gardens – known fondly to students as Bots. Students sit on the benches between classes in the sun and scurry under cover during the rain. Although it’s sometimes overshadowed by the newly renovated Provost Coffee shop, the Blockhouse boasts dedicated fans that will celebrate the coffee shop’s delicious (and cheap) toasted sarmies.
The two young women have wandered past the small stone building many times over the years on their way to hike, study or lap up the sunshine in Bots, Neither knowing the Blockhouse’s history.
In central town, it may feel as if Randell’s quiet Grahamstown has disappeared but the pockets of the peace she captures in her sketches can still be found in areas such as Bots, which is a tranquil leafy relief from the buzz of town and campus, as well as on the edge of town.
Turn and walk down South Street. Rhodes University lies before you in the valley. When you cross the Great Field you can drop into the Student’s Union for refreshments. The clock on the building is in memory of Joe King, a well-loved lecturer and warden.
Today, stopping at the corner of South Street and Worcester Street offers a view of Rhodes University’s campus reaching out from left to right. The greenery of the new season blocks some of the view but the 1820’s Settlers Monument is still visible perched atop the sentinel hill. The corner is quiet bar for a few cars and truck that pause briefly at the faded, red stop sign and rattle past. University students rarely seem to venture up South Street’s hill to get a view of their campus rolling out below.
Joe King’s clock face looks out across the Great Field and out at the neighbouring Diocesan School for Girls. The hands don’t seem to move and neither of the two young women can remember anyone who knows about a Joe King or his clock.
A line of shops. A heritage for us is to preserve is this group of buildings with its Victorian facades. Grocott’s Daily Mail’s fine old building, with dates 1869-1906, is a reminder for the struggle of the freedom of the press. Grocott’s pennymail, one priced twopence, is now 10 cents! The war memorial at the rear of the Cathedral is to “Men of Albany and Bathurst”. “Remembering these let no man think too highly of himself or meanly of mankind”.
Church Square in 2015 mirrors the commotion of High Street. Motorists wait impatiently at traffic lights, which change after what seems like a marathon and stay changed only fleetingly. Pedestrians dart across tarred roads, metres from painted zebra crossings. A car guard in a bright yellow vest carries a parking meter and darts from car to car to collect his due before returning to his rest under the shade of one of the trees that line the Church Square. People taking a break from work sit on stone benches sharing talk and lunch.
New shops in old, sometimes restored, buildings line the streets. The recently painted green and white walls of the Clicks building flash behind branches. A woman sits behind a corkboard dripping with gold jewellery at the entrance. The necklaces and bracelets wink as shoppers as they pass. The Grocott’s mail building is one door down, but the office and staff have since moved into the African Media Matrix found on campus. Grocott’s Daily Mail has now become Grocott’s Weekly Mail and vendors peddle papers every Friday for R5.
Church Square itself, which was once a site to commemorate soldiers of the past, is now a site for political and social gatherings. This year alone, hundreds of purple-clad figures with black taped mouths gathered on the bricks to protest sexual violence. They lay on the floor; a symbolic death. Many more gathered on a Friday afternoon in March when Grahamstown’s residents grouped together to say no to xenophobia. The two young women stood side by side then amidst a sea of international flags, posters denouncing hate, and cries of love and acceptance.
Today, people went about their usual business. At the rear of the Cathedral, the memorial Randell describes still stands. Chunks of stone have fallen; victims of time and Grahamstown’s infamous weather. Metal plaques commemorating bravery are faded as if someone has scratched at the surface with a pocketful of coins. But with a squint and some imagination, the words are legible; “Remembering these let no man think too highly or meanly of mankind.”
Words by Heather Cameron. Photos by Sarah Beningfield