RAMBLING ALONG THE OLD R103
WORDS AND PICTURES: SHIRLEY LE GUERN
It is amazing how resourceful one can be when you are banned from the beaches. I resorted to a day trip along the R103 between Howick and Nottingham Road – part of the far more extensive Midland Meander – to entertain my guests from upcountry who had tired of sitting in restaurants gazing longingly at the waves from afar.
It is always interesting to visit places that you have come to take for granted as special during good times as, I suspect, you get to sample the true mettle of the retailers and entrepreneurs who are trying to make the best of a pretty bleak situation.
Of course, we couldn’t stop off at every attraction and my young guests were also not interested in cheese tasting and other more ballie-like activities, so this is certainly not an exhaustive look at what’s on offer. But it also reflects some of those when I escaped while they were off taking their selfies.
Overall, we had a lovely day. The scenery along the R103 is truly beautiful and the whole place has a wonderful vibe as my companions said again and again. Often, simply driving through the beautiful countryside with its beautiful trees and green hills soothes the soul.
Some spots charmed us, many stalwarts that I specifically chose as certain pleasers were disappointing but, on the whole, it was a reminder of why I have to return to the Midlands again soon.
HOW ABOUT HOWICK?
A few years ago, on the many weekends I spent trawling the Midlands writing restaurant reviews for Eat Out magazine, this was always a much anticipated first stop. There was no reason for this trip to be any different. But on arriving at the Howick Falls I was very disappointed. The place looked unkempt with overgrown verges and closed up buildings.
It was good to see the falls overflowing with plenty of water. Known by the local Zulu people as ‘KwaNogqaza’, which means ‘Place of the Tall One’, local legend has it that the pool at the bottom of the falls is home to the dreaded Inkanyamba, a giant serpent-like creature – a story that failed to charm my guests given the large gathering of people washing their clothes above the falls.
We bought a few items from the stalls, including some lovely beaded agapanthus from a delightful gent who explained that he was trying to invent new products that stood out from the curio crowd. That is something that is desperately needed as most stalls tend to sell more of the same.
However, we did not take much time to visit the shops that I had trawled on many occasions as it was early and many were shut. Instead, we scrambled back in the car and headed off to a place where we felt less vulnerable!
Our route provided some lovely glimpses of Midmar Dam and wound past the Mandela Capture Site and Museum which is always a worthwhile stop off, if only to marvel at the work of artist Marco Cianfanelli and reconnect with the life and wisdom of our great statesman, Nelson Mandela.
THE BIG Ps – THE PLATFORM AND PIGGLY WIGGLY
But the highlight was definitely a stop at the Platform, a converted railway station shed at Lion’s River. The artworks in the gallery itself were stunning and the tour by part owner and artist Glen du Preez was inspiring to say the very least. I came away with a beautiful print of one of wildlife artist Vincent Reid’s pieces as well as the privilege of viewing some of his magnificent originals and the work of many other wonderful Midlands based artists.
Then there was great coffee from the local Terbedore Roastery which has always been a favourite and The Nguni Guy who sells leather goods – not my thing but great if you are in the market for anything from cattle hides to zebra skins.
We were even rewarded with the rattle of a passing train which completed the great ambience.
From there it was on to Piggly Wiggly which I remembered starting off as little more than a farm store and which is now a shopping destination in its own right surrounded by the beautiful vineyards of the Highgate Wine Estate.
In addition to running the gambit of the Covid protocols to access the restaurant for a mid-morning refresher, we spent quite some time wondering through the shopping village.
I was sad to see the wine shop that we always make a point of visiting shut for the time being, but we enjoyed stopping off at everything from Homewood (even if just for the smell of all that beautifully crafted wooden furniture), to Glass Cuttings, the Candle Dipping shop, the Linen Loft and finally, the Pantry which we left with some glorious bread and a smile after a heart-warming chat with the lovely man at the till.
From there it was on to another old favourite, Spiral Blue. Although I have bought many lovely pieces of silver and gemstone jewellery there over the years, this time it sadly lived up to its name. We left a little too soon as the somewhat gloomy man behind the counter made us feel uncomfortable while browsing through the fascinating collection of jewellery, clothing, candles, décor items and more.
A LACKLUSTRE LUNCH
Then it was time for a detour from the R103 and I headed to the gravel road towards the Caversham Mill restaurant for lunch. I’d written many a positive review about this eatery over the years, celebrated family occasions and even driven all the way from Durban for Christmas lunch one year.
A certain crowd pleaser? Not this time.
Although the venue remains one of the best in the Midlands, the menu was meagre and the food was nothing like what I remembered. My quiche was dry, overwhelmed by broccoli with little, if any, egg custard. My guests’ burgers were also dry and uninspiring. Dishes that passed by en route to other tables – mainly large steaks with chips and no sauces – looked equally basic.
More importantly, both the welcome and the service was lacklustre and we were not once asked if we were even happy with our food. Because we were determined to enjoy ourselves, we decided that the first person who spotted a smile from the rather dour front of house man would get dessert. But we left without sampling any.
I can only hope that those facing customers will soon be back to their usual selves as things begin to improve – meanwhile, it is a good idea to try to put on more cheerful faces to make visits from those who are, quite literally, going out of their way to support struggling enterprises worthwhile. People understand but they want to feel that their money is well spent on both the experience and the goods nonetheless.
RETURNING TO THE RAILWAY
Luckily, our next stop over was simply charming – the Railhouse Farm Stall at Balgowan.
It’s hard to know where to start here as this delightful spot is absolutely packed with beautiful goodies. Of course, I love all the farmhouse fare – from sauces to jams and marmalades, chocolate and confectionery, biltong, baked delights and more. Then there was the locally produced skincare and cosmetics (bought by my companions), exquisite décor items and all sorts of delightful gifts.
Even though it was now afternoon, the lady we met was helpful and engaging. A little research on my return told me that this was relatively new to the area and a family owned operation driven by passion. All I can say is that it is a welcome addition and one which I sincerely hope thrives. I only wish we had lunched there instead.
NOW FOR NOTTIES
I always look forward to winding my way towards Nottingham Road if only because the small town is so charming and full of character. This time, I felt sad to bypass favourites such as the picturesque Rawdons Hotel with its craft beers complete with goofy names and labels and the Bierfassl where many a perfectly prepared Eisbein has hit the spot.
Instead, we parked the car under a huge shady tree in the beautiful gardens of The Junction, another shopping collective that kept us busy for quite some time. I always enjoy spending time at the Ugly Duckling (now split in two with one shop catering for furniture) which has one of the most fascinating and eclectic arrays of goodies imaginable. We loved all the beautiful trinkets at the likes of Tin Pan Alley as well as the scatter cushions, tableware, tea towels, candles and other scented products at the Lilac Crane plus the antiques and collectibles at The Collective.
It is good to see that a large majority of products are sourced locally which not only supports local businesses but also enables tourists to take home something authentic.
But our real reason for stopping over was Chocolate Heaven. I’m not sure if it was because we were simply hot and tired but this seemed a little less heavenly than usual with many of the dishes behind the counter that are normally packed with scrumptious chocolates (including those with highly unusual centres like biltong) empty. But we did buy some and the good news is that they lived up to their reputation for being truly delicious.
From there, we decided to hit the N3 and head home, only stopping off at the Windmill for what I believe are some of the best pies to be had. With these for supper, we made our way back to the coast having enjoyed a revitalising day in the country.