Lady Grey – secret of the Eastern Cape, and best kept that way
Lady Grey, the cutest little hamlet just inside the border of the Eastern Cape when coming at it from the Free State side, is one of those insider secrets about which I’m going to tell you, but about which you will say nothing. Let me assure you that when you finally travel there, you will appreciate why. Lady Grey is not a village that deserves the ‘crowd-pull’ appeal of places like Clarens!
Lady Grey is described as a rural village, which is a pretty apt account, although don’t expect to see cows and sheep chewing the cud in breeze swept meadows. You might see the odd alpaca if you happen to pass within the vicinity of Comfrey Cottage, one of a few accommodation options, where they grace the lawns, but this is a little Victorian-era town and fairly sophisticated if you compare it with its nearest neighbours – Barkly East, Rouxville and Zastron (although Zastron too has a comparable ‘something’ that makes these towns so attractive).
The first thing that strikes you about Lady Grey is its setting. You couldn’t ask for more beautiful if you’d chosen the location yourself. It lies right up against the Witteberg Mountains close to the Karringmelkspruit River gorge, roughly 55 kilometres east of Aliwal North (which is how we came to be there; something to do with the rather dismal state in which the hot springs that originally drew crowds to Aliwal North now find themselves).
At this height the little town gets snow in winter and during the rest of the year attracts visitors not only for its beauty but also for its access to nature – hikes, birds, fly fishing, mountain biking, 4X4 trails, and fine examples of San rock paintings up in the hills, to mention but a few. The town itself has been well looked after, if you consider that it has been here since 1858. There is an immediate feeling of a sense of community and pride in the town that translates into litter-free sidewalks, gorgeously restored homes, and a general bonhomie that is palpable – there is little to no colour divide in the town and most people know one another on a first-name basis. The Art Academy in town might account for much of this.
The streets are lined with historical Victorian buildings, including a gorgeous old Dutch Reformed Church right on the edge of town closest to the mountains, and a teeny rendition of an Anglican Church (makes you want to take up religion, if you haven’t already) closer to town. You can also still pick up an old Victorian-style house here for something of a song, although not that many ‘for sale’ signs graced the gates of properties, even if Pam Golding is already in town, which usually informs whether or not a town has been ‘discovered’.
I later find out that much of the town has maintained the traditional old facades according to architectural guidelines suggested by the town’s folk. Although these are not enforced, and there are a couple of modern homes that are something of an eyesore given that they don’t fit into the architecture of the town at all, most of them have remained single-storey, subtly painted and maintained with stoeps, verandas, fireplaces and wrought iron gates. It’s all extremely pretty.
The day on which we found ourselves there was graced with blue skies, and the town was the very picture of health. It was also a Saturday afternoon and Lady Grey had already taken on the yoke of ‘sleepy hollow’ hence little was open, and finding a late lunch was something of an epic search.
The town’s tourist information was closed. At Home coffee shop was similar, and whilst the historical Mountain View Country Inn was open, it’s menu was not what I had in mind (burgers and chips soon lose their appeal when you’re on the road) and its pub simply hummed with fans for the latest soccer or rugby match.
On the main curve of the road into town, however, we stumbled upon Anny’s Café. Anny runs a little coffee shop cum pub restaurant that serves just about any meal, even if there are only a select number of items on the menu. Her brother is an attorney running out of the same building next door and drops in part-way through our late meal that Anny agrees to serve us, despite the time, with a smile on her face.
Just as he leaves, after downing a coke, another local drops onto a stool at the bar to order take-away sandwiches and a quick couple of beers, whilst regaling us as to the obvious validity of global warming. We nod sagely (my husband and I write a green blog) but say nothing. We don’t have the energy to begin an intense conversation, given that our pea soup and chicken mayo sandwich have arrived (my son has already tucked into the chips that were brought first given the state of his hunger).
Anny smiles when we mention we’re staying in Rouxville. She can’t believe anyone would wittingly stay there, and whilst we enjoy the reaction our staying in Rouxville seems to spark off in others, we find ourselves defending the little known Rouxville, even though we can see that a stay in Lady Grey would be a good choice. (see my article about our stay in Rouxville here).
In this way we learn about the local Passion Play, held over Easter, that includes a cast of characters alongside dancers, a chorus, choir and live visual artists. It’s an affair that attracts visitors from far and wide, and is something of an event for everyone, as visitors get dressed up and participate in the event.
The average culture vulture gets more than their due as it takes place over three days, the cast and audience travelling from place to place in the village, including the Dutch Reformed Church and the streets of the town, where the scenes are enacted. The Lady Grey Arts Academy gets to strut its stuff during this time too as they actively participate in the drama (and the dance and singing). For some, it’s an annual pilgrimage to the town.
We leave having got a taste of what living in the little town might be like. And burning to return.