Secret Gardens

Dave Pepler seeks out Stellenbosch’s timeless corners, both public and hidden, where mystery and plants grow side by side.

Everybody should have a secret garden. Just like my mysterious Aunt Ella had, living in a large Victorian house next door to Grandma Lilly and Oupa Boy. Ella and Susie, both spinsters, shared this lifeless house, its silence broken only by the weekly playing of redemption songs on the harmonium. After the Salvation Army service, where Ella also played the organ, she would come home to play again, mournfully and slow, until she folded her arms over the keys and wept softly. Ella had secrets, like her garden.

The garden, though, was suffused with light and life. Out of control, wild and lush, it was filled with the sounds of large, grey, Plymouth Rock hens bathing in the dust, of mousebirds in the figs and mulberries, sparrows in the sultana trellis and doves, always doves, in the giant pear trees where Aunt Susie sat in the shade, patiently weaving beautiful cane seats for the chairs made by her carpenter brother across the street.

Ella worked silently in the garden, much like Miss Hare, that strange madwoman in Patrick White’s soaring novel Riders in the Chariot who was “whipped by the little sarsaparilla vine, of which she could have drunk the purple up. Stroked by ferns, and ferns.” Ella understood her garden, as Miss Hare did, because their understanding was instinctive and pulsed by the timelessness of their days. When gardens sense the presence of such souls, they become receptive and give up their secrets.

Stellenbosch, much like Spain’s Granada with its narrow streets mute in stone and shadow, does not reveal her gardens to the casual stroller. Through portals and gates, and behind the formal street there are hints of greenery, sometimes of water. For Stellenbosch is foremost a town of old-fashioned gardens, fed by the ancient furrows
of the Meulsloot, its water clear as gin. Look anew at the old sluices in Dorp Street that hint at gardens no more. Follow the furrow upstream and it will take you to our university’s truly magnificent botanical garden. Recently rejuvenated, it stands proud as one of the world’s finest. Where else in Africa can you witness the sheer spectacle of a
Victoria lily opening after dusk, glowing like the delicate heart of a tropical shell and enveloping the pond in one of nature’s finest perfumes? Where else, outside the Namib Desert, can you look upon that weird link to prehistory, Welwitschia mirabilis, its twisted leaves impervious to passing time?

Herte Street is another passage through time and into the gardening  history of our town. Peer over the wall of Johnman House and see what a great Victorian garden must have looked like. Fly, if yo could, over the slave cottages and you would see their walled gardens, little private islands of green. The same holds true for the Stellenbosch
Museum with its classics of yesteryear: pomegranate, fig and pear trees, gnarled like the hands of the gardeners who tended them over the centuries.

But for sheer splendour, you need to drive out of town to Rustenberg. Hints of what is to come can be seen through the gates of Idas Valley and Ida Minor farms, where ancient wild olive trees are like skeletons signifying riotous, yet planned, abandon. At the end of the road, the great garden at Rustenberg stands proud as one of our town’s very
finest imagined landscapes. Everything about it is redolent of the deep thought and planning that lead the eye, over still water and hedge, to the towering Simonsberg behind. This garden achieves the near impossible by being both accessible and deeply mysterious at any hour, any season.

The historic gardens of Stellenbosch are a common resource and, as conveyed by the wonderful inscription above the old northern gate of Yellowstone National Park, they are “for the enjoyment and the benefit of the people”. Our town is studded with living gems, free to the eye and free to the imagination.