Wildekrans Country House: A countryside escape and cornucopia of culture
An incredible South African art collection and wild mountain trails punctuate this Western Cape getaway.
Nestled in the village of Houw Hoek, overlooking the Wildekrans (wild cliffs) at the foot of the Houw Hoek mountains in the pass between Elgin and Bot River, is a gem just waiting to be discovered. Driving from Cape Town along the N2 you’d be mistaken for thinking the signpost for Houw Hoek Hotel marks the end of the road. Beyond that, intentionally not signposted, lies the historic 1811 homestead of Wildekrans Country House, named after the wild cliffs that lie beyond the rambling garden.
A Cape Dutch farmhouse turned three-bedroom guesthouse has all the markers of colonial South African tradition – the countryside dwelling houses an impressive antique furniture collection that includes two four-poster beds with mountain and garden views, while the nostalgia imbued in a full English breakfast served at the farmhouse family dining table makes one forget for the moment that the cosmopolitan epicentre of the country is only just over an hour’s drive away.
Historic family pieces like a regal 1800s portrait of owner and guesthouse host Alison Green’s great, great grandfather, the mayor of Southampton, along with a handwritten thank you letter addressed to him by Giuseppe Garibaldi, suggest that hospitality runs in the family. A library of bookshelves stuffed with old and new makes one think that a weekend spent here is not enough.
But it’s far from tranquil, sleepy hollow country living that is the main drawcard here (although that, too, has great appeal, as an escape from citylife). A peep over the garden fence shares a hint of something more intriguing… four unexpected stone figures march – or dance – in single file along the garden path, and further on, a couple – one imagines a pair of old lovers – quietly watches over the garden, through the blue gum forest, and beyond to their eternal mountain view.
A peek inside the doors of the farmhouse reveals another collection – of notable contemporary South African art, whose energetic style and politically charged subject matter yanks one out of the 1800s and into a far more interesting cultural artefact that has preserved, and tells, a broader South African story. The major part of the art collection comes from Alison’s former Johannesburg life in the ’80s and ’90s working as a civil engineer and partner in Bamboo Lifestyle Centre, home to Love Books and Service Station.
BELOW: William Kentridge artworks: charcoal drawing from SoHo Eckstein animation in a guest room and a Kentridge Head in Alison’s living room along with a photograph of the artist by Ronnie Levitan (photographs: Michelle Hodgkinson)
A lifelong collector of South African art
A love of art developed in Alison as a young adult, inspired by her San Francisco student days spent trawling art museums as free entertainment on days off, and a crash course in contemporary art by an LA friend’s parents, who were “California art people”. Alison’s art collection features some of Johannesburg and South Africa’s greatest artists, the likes of William Kentridge (including one of his rare works in colour and two drawings from his pivotal Soho Eckstein animation), Diana Hyslop, Robert Hodgins, Colbert Mashile, George Pemba and Simon Stone, and ceramic artists Hylton Nel and Wilma Cruise, along with sculptors Guy du Toit, Nikki Swanepoel, Llewelyn Davies and Anton van Wouw and land artist Strijdom van der Merwe, whose work began to adorn the garden when the walls of the homestead were full.
Food for creativity
Outside, there’s a barn that’s been converted to serve dinner, with its own kitchen and dining area for guests. Alison also uses the space to host an annual art exhibition towards the end of the year alongside Elgin Open Gardens, on whose programme their garden art collection is a highlight. In past years, young local artists the likes of Alice Toich and Greta Davis have held solo shows at Wildekrans Country House. Earlier this month, they held an art weekend with Jill Trappler teaching a group of artists. Drawings still hanging in the barn alongside dinner tables – left and right-hand studies of some of the sculptures – illustrate how the art in the space becomes food for other artists’ creativity.
Alison’s parents bought and restored the house when she was living in California. Later her sisters ran the guesthouse, and after that, 22 years ago, Alison and her husband, Barry, relocated from Joburg for a change in pace. It wasn’t initially a natural match for Alison, she says, but she quickly learnt that to attract the type of guest she would have an affinity towards, they would need to shift the focus of the space into one which aligned with their own interests. And so art, food, the garden and hiking became those pillars. And to visit Wildekrans Country House today, one would assume Alison was born to be a host. One of the things she thrives on now is the diversity of guests that come to visit, often from Joburg and Cape Town, accenting her country life with connection to the kind of ideas and energy that underlies her art collection.
The Kogelberg Biosphere on its doorstep is at the heart of the Cape Floral Kingdom, and it’d be remiss not to wander beyond the country garden, with its roses and vegetables and sculptures and swimming pool, along the Follow Your Heart path, to enter into the wonderfully undesigned and wild natural wonder beyond. In fact, Alison also runs popular overnight hiking trails as Green Mountain Trail, a 60km walk which traverses these mountains and nearby farms and which includes a comfortable night’s stayover at Wildekrans Country House along with their signature home-cooked meals and wine tasting.
A sidebar on the adjacent wine routes
It’s worth mentioning that the area is increasingly gaining reputation for excellent artisanal wineries in neighbouring Bot River and Elgin – many of which easily stand up to the more famous Hermanus, Hemel-en-Aarde, Walker Bay region just beyond, but which come with a certain humbleness and family welcome that the more established Western Cape wine regions start to lose. Must-visits for wine lovers include Beaumont Family Wines (home of the five-star Hope Marguerite wooded chenin; they also do a delectable contemporary light lunch that pairs just so with the refreshingly considered architecture), Gabriëlskloof winery (who might humour you to an afternoon of blind tasting if you wink at the right person) and the Ecology Lifestyle Farm where you’ll find the Paardenkloof Estate Wines’ tasting room (whose unassuming collection includes big, bold Bordeaux and Rhone reds, unusual aged Sauvignon Blancs and delightfully light Pinot Noirs – all of which totally surprised and hit the mark).
To come full circle, it also deserves a mention that Alison Green’s husband both makes his own wine under his own name, Barry Gould Family Wines, which may be available again when you visit Wildekrans Country House, and also is the architect that designed Beaumont’s new tasting room. A visit to the Country House includes, of course, an introduction to some of these wines, along with other local favourites, the Genevieve MCC bubbly, Oak Valley Sauvignon Fountain of Youth and the well-known Paul Cluver Pinot Noir.
Book to stay at Wildekrans Country House or for the Green Mountain Trail at greenmountain.co.za.