A Perfect Weekend Retreat for Writers

By Susan Roberts

I discovered the South African Writers’ Circle one May weekend back in 2007 when, on a whim, I enrolled for their annual writing seminar weekend. I enjoyed myself so much that I became a member before that weekend was over. In addition to monthly meetings in Durban, I enjoyed the regular newsletter and surprised myself by doing well in the monthly competitions. But the most fun was the annual weekend away each year in May. Sadly these came to an end after May 2011.

Until this year. Last weekend, eight years after my first weekend seminar, I attended what will unfortunately be my final weekend of the kind, because I will be departing for Australia at the end of June. Amidst all the sorting and packing (I might have mentioned something of this in previous blog-posts), I decided that I needed to treat myself to one final blast. Literally a blast with the past, because this year’s theme was historical fiction.

The venue was perfect: King’s Grant Country Retreat in Ixopo is steeped in its own unique history. The land was granted to the family of Dick King in 1871, not only in recognition of King’s heroic ride to Grahamstown, but because the man was a peace-broker of his time, uniting tribes, calming the warring settlers and soldiers, and generously using his lore and his love of the land to make his country a better place for all.

This land was later sold to the German Trappist monks who needed to create a fully functioning, self-contained farm to supply all the food and building needs for the Catholic missions of Natal. They named their farm St Isidor, after the patron saint of farmers, and built a small chapel in the centre of their humble dwellings, separating the living quarters of the nuns from those of the monks. All who lived there worked on the farm, along with several local farmhands.

The chapel of St Isidor

The people of St Isidor made everything from scratch: bricks, staircases, roof beams, even a mill for the grinding of the corn grown on the farm. This mill was run by a feisty nun who stood no nonsense from anyone. The machinery in the mill still works, although today it is only used for demonstration purposes.

Inside the Old Mill

During the last years of the twentieth century, dwindling numbers in the church led to the sale of the whole estate in 1996, to the people who had farmed next door and knew most of the monks and nuns personally. This family has spent nearly twenty years restoring it and turning it into the country retreat and conference venue it is today. They re-instated the old name, but kept the name of St Isidor for the beautiful church where weddings are held more often now than at any other time in its history. They converted the storage rooms next to the old mill into a conference centre, upgraded all the rooms with en suite bathrooms, and planted a wilderness of beautiful gardens amongst the trees. The clutch of little buildings surrounding the church have been newly decorated for today’s guests, but the brick pathways between them are original, as is the huge barn that is now used for wedding banquets.

One of the cottages

All in all, a perfect place to hold a weekend retreat for writers ruminating on the pros and cons of historical fiction. Our guest speakers were well-informed, at the top of their respective fields, and they imparted many interesting insights. They were also great fun to be with after hours.

The refreshment lounge in the conference centre

What did I take away from the experience? My mind is now overrunning with ideas which I hope to put to good use the next time I write anything even vaguely historical. I also experienced a definite feeling of synchronicity that this weekend happened in exactly the right time and place in my life. For a while now I’ve had the nagging feeling that perhaps I should write more historical fiction than I do. I love the genre, am fascinated by history and enjoy the time spent researching anything from the past, no matter what the reason.

But above all I will take with me lasting memories of a beautiful place where I spent a joyful weekend in the company of close writing friends whom I will miss.

Escargot – WHAT?

Jac Dowling

This month’s blog was a bit of a toss-up; April 23 has come and gone – shall I write about Shakeapeare’s birthdays I have known – or the theatre – or the latest banking shenanigans? No, none of those I decided. The current global news offerings are so tragic that I thought a happier scribble might be the better option, so here we go – a regular salad of bits and pieces.

Some years ago we set out to explore the villages over the mountain, proper Boland stuff: grapes, wine, leiwater, cheeses, black springbok and a donkey sanctuary: the tranquil thatched village of McGregor. The day was hot, brilliant bougainvillea shaded broekie-lace stoeps and roses tumbled across the walls and gardens in a riot of blowsy colour; huge blooms in full summer dress, like Edwardian ladies at a garden party.

A small restaurant, hidden in a garden ablaze with flowering shrubs, lured us in across cool polished clay tiles to a vine covered patio. It was quiet there, peaceful. Just birdsong and a hidden trickling stream. The wine, light and chilled arrived in a bucket of ice shortly followed by smoked chicken salad – mounds of crisp lettuce, cucumber, baby tomatoes all glossy with olive oil, and crusty seed bread. A French couple sat nearby, deeply engrossed in their aromatic mounds of bobotie and sambals.

I gently disturbed the sculpture before me, in search of smoked chicken lurking below. A lettuce leaf moved, unforked. Thinking it was the wine working its early magic, I watched as it continued to twitch, and a slug the size of snail-100183169a small frog sleazed its way onto the plate, antennae working the four points of the compass as it slid its oily way through my beautiful salad. Now I’m not a lover of snails, cooked or on the hoof as it were. In fact I can honestly swear that I have never, knowingly, eaten one. So my OTT response to the unwelcome extra protein excited the attention of our French neighbours, who left their bobotie to inspect our find. ‘Ah bon!’ they exclaimed exultantly. ‘Escargot sans maison.’ Which described it perfectly and had the waitress in a tizz of mortification. The salad was replaced and the maison-less escargot despatched without further ado.

In 2005 our son and daughter-in-law were married at The Old Mill, not far from the restaurant. A beautiful day: the air still, the sun warm. We sat on baleimages1s of straw under jacarandas in full bloom as the simple and moving ceremony took place: the ground carpeted with compacted apricot pips, purple jacaranda blossom and golden acanthus. That evening tables were set among the vines with little candles lighting the way under a full moon. No sounds other than roosting birds, cicadas and happiness. A perfect setting for a wedding feast.

Last month we celebrated ten years of their marriage, and a special birthday with a weekend at The Old Mill , now renamed Green Gables. The vines have gone, but the old eucalyptus trees remain, their bark bronze and gold in the setting sun. Dinner (sans escargot) was candlelit, under a splendid Victorian chandelier. There was a full moon that night, no sounds other than that of roosting birds, cicadas and happiness. I thought how very fortunate we are to still find that sort of peace and simplicity, and the friendship, love and warmth of our children and their friends.

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Is Mother to blame?

The Power of WordsSword in the mouth

by Penny M

In a world of horrors, created by men with no ‘hearts’, those still blessed with functioning minds cry  for those that lost their heads and more to the evil that lurks behind innocent faces. Justice is sought, but there is none; for no man can give it.

Thinkers worship creation. Yet, when the earth swallows human flesh and spews forth fire from the hell hole within, Mother Nature bears no blame. Those who claim ‘there is no God’ still focus their curses on the one who created the ground they walk on and the air they breathe. It wasn’t Mother.

As creation waits to see Words, sword and dragonif nuclear warfare will be unleashed in futile attempts to control destinies of nations, man has forgotten the creative power in the sword of the tongue they write with.

Lead with healing words and worlds will follow. Turn fortunes around. Make love not war. Stop the hurting that creates monsters of pain and forgive broken hearts. You have been given the power of words. Use them wisely; whether written or spoken, their blades have two edges.

Photos free from freedigitalphotos.net