It’s almost impossible to believe that the little village of Philadelphia, but 20 minutes drive from Cape Town, has escaped attention. Any other village within a two-hour radius of Cape Town has become a satellite of the city because of its ease of access, and inevitably development in the form of conspicuous ‘country’ manors has blighted the landscape.
Possibly because most of Philadelphia’s land is still owned by the church, which has only just begun to siphon off little pockets of land in the last few years to hungry developers and Capetonians desperate for country living, the gorgeous little town manages to sustain its doll house quality and ‘village in the middle of nowhere’ atmosphere.
Philadelphia is picture card pretty. Perched on a slight incline below the town square in which sits the surprisingly unassuming NG church, school and the odd municipal building, the town is the equivalent of about five little streets, none of them tarred, roughly five or six houses deep on each side. At the bottom of the town, the road sweeps right past a large graveyard and on to a township that obviously services the town and surrounding farms.
As far as the eye can see from the old town, there is farm land. Just across the R304 though is what is regarded by locals as the ‘new town’. Whilst there is a tendency towards the Cape cottage style home with tinned roof in similar style to villages in Cape Town like Noordhoek, Kommetjie and Capri, there are also a couple of renditions that are enough to frighten away the average city hippy contemplating a move out here. That and the fact that property is no longer cheaper in Philly than it is in Cape Town, if a local private sale board is anything to go by.
Also missing in the middle of town is the local estate agency. And may it remain that way! What does serve as the heart of the little village is the Pepper Tree Art Stable and Coffee Shop. Perched almost midway down Louw Street, diagonally across the road from Magic Minerals, a popular shop stocking a huge array of rocks, crystals and specialist minerals and gemstones, gorgeous jewellery and an eclectic blend of gifts and décor items, the coffee shop / restaurant is set within the original stables of the town.
According to Aletta, who runs Magic Minerals and has a wonderful grasp of the town’s history, based on the fact that she’s lived here for the better part of 18 years, Philadelphia was, like many other towns in South Africa, originally a farm. A portion of the farm was donated to build a church as local farmers usually travelled all the way to Durbanville for Nagmaal (the Eucharist).
She laughs when she remembers that Oom Danie, who used to own and run the general dealership, which is now her shop, was still alive until a few years ago when he died at the ripe old age of 92. His shop served as the main port of call for everyone in the village, and the local farmers. From him you bought everything you would need, running up a tab that you then paid twice a year, after harvest.
Across the road from Magic Minerals is the local post office that also used to house an ancient branch of the Standard Bank. Next door to the post office, on the corner of the street, is the house where Oom Danie’s daughter (if I’ve got my facts straight) used to live, and which also once served as the local hospital, it’s wide wrap-around verandahs obviously the perfect spot for recuperation.
Wessel from the Pepper Tree Art Stable whirls me around his domain. Nestled against one of the walls, right next to a rather quaint set of toilets, is the original hut in which the town’s harness maker lived. It’s so tiny, you wonder how he ever managed to eke out an existence here, yet on one of the walls of the restaurant is etched the proof that J.W Louw was indeed in residence, like an old-fashioned poster.
The Pepper Tree art complex is in the very stables and barn that housed horses whilst they were shod and harnessed. Today it’s a combination of arts and crafts, a pottery studio well worth visiting not least because you can paint your own pieces of pottery here (as can children), an art gallery and the coffee and lunch time venue that serves fine light lunches and breakfasts both indoors and out, at a jumbled array of wooden tables, old school desks and antique tables, to the accompaniment of a local group of minstrels. To keep the kids amused there are a couple of huge pepper trees (I assume, given the venue’s name) and rope swings, and the locals stop in to swop gossip and pick up takeaways or their share of honey, preserves and free range eggs.
Wessel excels at running the cafe over weekends, whilst during the week he works in Cape Town for a design company. He’s as happy as a pig in muck about his situation and loves living in the little town. As he says, he can be in Cape Town to see any show, yet still sleep in his bed at night. He delights in showing me his abode, right next door to the Pepper Tree complex.
He snapped up the local bakery, which, on the outside, might not be much to look at, given that it’s but a rather long facebrick building (although he’s done his stoep out with local art and a series of garden furniture, none of which has been nicked), but inside is a different story. His place belongs on the pages of a magazine, as indeed it will be when Sarie bring out their edition on Philadelphia – a smorgasbord of 1950s kitsch, furniture and memorabilia. He says there has been a lot of recent interest in Philadelphia, and it isn’t surprising, really.
I wonder through town. Homes here are pretty and mostly occupied. It’s not a weekend town, this part of the old town, but it’s definitely geared for the weekend visitor. One can’t imagine that too much happens during the week.
Above the town, closer to the town square is Die Meul, which used to be a working flour mill. Well known South African artist Pieter van der Westhuizen who lived in Philadelphia, together with his wife Zebeth, lovingly restored the building under the watchful eye of the Monument commission, to protect the building’s historical value, so much of the original machinery inside the building remains intact.
Recently the old mill was bought by a group of women, of ‘De Malle Madonnas’ fame in Paarl, who have adjusted the name to De Malle Meul (understandably). Only open on Sundays, their buffets are reputed to be fantastic and their frequent shows, which have already included the likes of Amanda Strydom, are worth looking out for.
There’s a plot for sale down one of the side roads, and for a minute I allow myself the luxury of a pipe dream, the green grass and a bee hive more than a coaxing luxury. And then we return home, happy to have discovered such a charming town.