Today we’re taking a walk on the Cliff Path, along what used to be called the ‘champagne mile’ of Hermanus in the 1970s and 1980s. The phrase referred to the renowned quality of the sea air in our town and was the major marketing slogan for Hermanus, before the wine and the whales came along. Our walk is less than 2 kilometres, virtually flat all the way and with nice even surfaces to walk on. Prams and wheelchairs are very welcome, except on the boardwalk, which has many steps.
We are going to start at the top of the steps leading down from the Marine Hotel to the tidal Marine Pool at sea level. The Marine Hotel was established in 1902 and is the oldest continuously operating hotel in Hermanus. The original hotel was built by Walter McFarlane and Valentine Beyers, but passed into the sole ownership of Beyers in 1903. He appointed as manager his son-in-law, P John Luyt, known as “PJ”. The Luyt family retained control of the hotel until 1947 and made the Marine one of the most fashionable hotels in South Africa. Princess Alice, Countess of Connaught, stayed there, while the entire Greek Royal family visited on one occasion. Sir William Hoy was almost permanently in residence. The building has been through several reconstructions, the latest being made by the present owner, Liz McGrath.
Once we have taken in the pleasingly understated facade of today’s Marine we set off towards the Old Harbour. The Cliff Path itself joins Marine Drive opposite the Village Square retail centre. Here we turn left along the pedestrian pavement, and, within metres, we come across two important historical sites: the Old Harbour itself and the War Memorial.
The Old Harbour is the reason European families came to Hermanuspietersfontein in the first place, in 1857. Families named Henn, Warrington, Paterson, Montgomery, Plumridge and Leff, with their extended families had been living and fishing at Herrie’s Bay, near present day Hawston, for some decades. However, one of the sons came upon an inlet that seemed more suitable than Herrie’s Bay and the families packed up, lock, stock and barrel, and moved, building small fishermen’s cottages along the cliffs overlooking the harbour. For the next 100 years a vibrant fishing industry (commercial and recreational) grew up. Unfortunately, unrestricted fishing resulted in a dramatic decline in catches and the industry shrank. This history is fully documented in the Old Harbour Museum, located within the Old Harbour itself.
The War Memorial was erected in 1929, in memory of soldiers from Hermanus who died in World War I. The central stone obelisk remains, but was originally flanked by two German guns captured by South African forces in (German) South West Africa. The guns weathered badly and were later replaced with the present two South African guns. The original plaque carried 11 names and 15 were added after World War II. These include the name of Roger Bushel, famous as the organiser of the Great Escape, who was subsequently executed on Hitler’s orders.
Going on from the War Memorial we follow the pavement around to the left (with the Burgundy Restaurant, once the famous Cypress Tree Tea Gardens, to our right) and soon come to the recently upgraded whale viewing sites of Gearing’s Point, named for a Mayor of Cape Town, Mr. H E Gearing whose holiday home was just across Marine Drive.
We leave Gearing’s Point at the south west corner, picking up the Cliff Path again. We will follow it for about 500 metres as it runs parallel to Marine Drive. This area was once distinguished by rows of hotels, in the days when visitors to Hermanus preferred to have full board and lodging in a reputable hotel. Much of this business has now gone to guesthouses and bed&breakfast establishments, of which there are currently 141 registered in Hermanus. The Ocean View Hotel, the Esplanade Hotel and the Windsor hotels all flourished here – only the Windsor remains.
Since 1981 this hotel has been owned by the Clark-Brown family, but it started as a Sanatorium in 1896, under Dr Joshua Hoffmann, who married one of the sisters of Field Marshall Jan Christian Smuts, one of the most famous of all South Africans, who often spent holidays in Hermanus. In 1930 the Sanatorium was bought by David Allengensky and converted to an hotel, named after the Union Castle liner the Windsor Castle. The hotel passed through several hands over the years, with the Luyt family owning it in the 1940s and 1950s. In the 1970s the building was allowed to deteriorate until it was bought in 1981 by Basil Clark-Brown, who renovated and extended it. This work was carried on by his son Garth and today the Windsor emphasises its history in its marketing.
Immediately beyond the Windsor we can diverge from the Path and take the boardwalk past the fountain at which the modern history of Hermanus began. A small stream of water runs down the cliff face and, on the flat area above Hermanus Pieters brought his sheep to graze sometime in the 1830s. Over the years local people started to refer to the area as Hermanuspietersfontein. In fact, from 1857 the town itself had this long name, shortened to Hermanus for the convenience of the postal service in 1902.
Returning to street level we continue west along Marine Drive, till we come to a small black and white house, very close to the road. This dwelling is unofficially known as the “Wendy House” and is privately owned. Its name has nothing to do with Peter Pan! Legend has it that a solitary whale visited Hermanus at the time the whales were still hunted. Locals named her “Wendy” and she spent most time basking in the waves in front of this building. By association, the house became the Wendy House.
Literally a couple of metres beyond the Wendy House we enter Hermanus’s official Heritage Plain. A feature of this area is the illustrated display board of Hermanus prepared by the Hermanus History Society and erected by the Municipality. The Board highlights key dates in Hermanus history, grouped into categories such as ‘education’ and ‘health’. There is also a memorial to the 1938 centenary celebrations of the Great Trek in the form of impressions in concrete of the iron-bound wheels of an ox waggon.
Today’s walk ends here. But there are places of interest along the Cliff Path, both to the east – the various beaches and surfing places - and to the west – Fick’s Pool and the New Harbour. Maybe you will come along on another walk sometime?
This is the fifth in a series of articles about Hermanus history, produced by the Hermanus History Society and written by Robin Lee. If you are interested in the Hermanus History Society please contact Robin Lee on (028) 312 4072 or firstname.lastname@example.org