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 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.
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.
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.
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.