Simons Towns historical mile – seeing the seaside town through new eyes
The essence of Simon’s Town has been here since 1741. That’s a long time, I think to myself, as, with hat firmly clipped to my head with one of these huge slide things because of the south easterly that is hammering through here, I leave my car beneath a tree in a side road close to the station, and set off to see the village through the eyes of a visitor. I could have caught the train, it is true, but because the railway line looks as though it is has been used as a place to dump building sand, there is only a bus service between Fish Hoek and Simon’s Town. Pity, as for visitors it is a great way to come into the naval harbour to explore. The tourist information office assures me that they have finally begun work on the line. Considering it’s been at least a couple of months that the popular train line has been without its final destination, one wonders…
In the year 1741 the Dutch East India Company decided that Simon’s Bay would do as a winter anchorage for their ships. Later in 1813 the Second British Occupation decided to move the Royal Navy from Cape Town to Simon’s Town, where it has remained, and all around the bay sprang the many buildings, shops, schools, hospitals, churches and taverns that made it into a flourishing little town.
The historical mile extends from the station on St George’s Street all the way to the East Dockyard Gates – roughly one mile. I’m not an historian, and actually the little side alleys and upper passageways that lead off St George’s Street are what really fascinate me, but being a Capetonian and exploring this history makes it that much more special – besides, have you not noticed that visitors to the city often know more about its history than locals do?
Photographs – Left: The toll gate / Centre: St Francis Parish / Right: The Herbert Baker
And there are some really special moments on the walk. One begins at the obviously historical station building. I must say first off that the historical mile booklet that I bought from tourist information, whilst equipped with a map and some very informative descriptions, is rather confusing. Pictures don’t line up with descriptions, and often I found myself, sheltered from the wind, leafing through pages whipped from my hand by the gale force winds, trying to make the diagram of the street make sense to me.
Look out for the Toll Gate though – a bit of euphemism as there is no gate at all. Rather, there is a little stone memorial that marks the place where the original gate stood. It was around here that I lost my clip that held my hat firmly in place.
Admiralty House (Palace Barracks and Admiral’s Stables not withstanding – neither of these are that visible from the road) is a rather formal and beautiful looking building. The first house to stand here was erected in 1743. Actually, it was the first structure to stand in Simon’s Town at all.
Studland, with a building known as Yara Yara next door to it (wife of architect, JE Vixeboxse, was from Australia), is up above the road on the right, and was the town’s first national monument and built in 1797 as a winehouse away from the jetty – although it was only named Studland in 1898 after a bay in Poole (that’s Poole, England) along which Royalty once bred horses – perhaps they intended doing the same here? The building now has a modern wooden pergola.
On the corner of Court Road stands the beautiful St Francis Church, built in 1837, an Anglican church with a little garden of remembrance that is worth poking your head into. Roughly 300 people can fit into the little church. Behind it is the museum of Simon’s Town. And a little further on is yet another church right at the aerial ropeway that ascends the hill above the bay. Believe it or not, this used to be a very famous aerial ropeway that brought things from the dockyard below up to the naval sanatorium above the town.
Photographs – Left: Alfred Lane / Centre: Willet’s Masonic Building / Right: Other beautiful buildings
Interestingly, the sanatorium was built this absurdly high to make sure that recuperating sailors wouldn’t disappear to frequent the bars of Simon’s Town below. By now I’m rounding the corner that leads to the ‘high street’ proper and it is difficult to describe the wind in pleasant terms. I abandon the hat.
The church virtually in the dockyard is St George’s and has a lovely clock tower that makes good photo moments with the bay in the background. Across the road, just up from the Shell garage is what’s known as the Lankester Building, here since 1902. If you let your imagination work (wind aside) it used to have a full balcony across its front. Next to this is the rather sad looking Lord Nelson Hotel, the site of which functioned as some sort of hotel or lodging facility, for years, until 1929 when architects remodelled it to look like it does now. I rather wish they hadn’t.
A little further on is the famous and beautiful Prince Alfred Building, built in 1802. It’s a backpackers today. This is one of the buildings that always catches my eye when driving through here, and one of the reasons I did the mile. I love the balcony that stretches across the front linking all the rooms.
Look out for no 85 – the blue door at the top of a set of stone steps. This is Westgate Terrace. It’s functioned as a storage facility and a residence for officers of the navy.
Wedged in amongst taller buildings, a little further on, you’ll see a gorgeous little Sir Herbert Baker rendition, known as the De Beers Building. There have been a couple of fires here recently, the last in 1993. Just beyond this, still on the same side of the street, is The British Hotel – you can’t miss it. It was very popular during the Anglo-Boer War. The ABC (Attwell Baking Company) building right next door has functioned as a succession of bakeries. Now it’s used for shops and offices.
Photographs – Left: The Meeting Place / British Hotel next door to the ABC Building / No 85
The Central Hotel, here since the 1860s, lies just next door the The Meeting Place, where I collapse in a heap to drink a rather expensive carrot, ginger and apple juice. It serves sandwiches, pastries, cakes and the like, but lacks any soul. Women sit on couches, their pinkies raised above their tea cups, some perched rather carefully as it is difficult to eat genteely in a chair that swallows you. I smile. Things haven’t changed much then, for Simon’s Town. If I squint, I can imagine ladies bedecked in bonnets and parasols doing much the same.
Other buildings to look out for:
- the beautiful filligree on the balconies of the Willet’s Masonic Building, which today houses FNB
- Whytes Buildings, spoilt a little by the addition of Lewis below stairs, used to be a grocery store and bakery
- Simon’s Town Chambers (the narrow little building marked with the motif STM – Simon’s Town Municipality) – this used to be the first free school in the town
- Sartorial house – opposite Jubilee Square – the original site of a butcher, and which housed a tailor’s outfitters for years
- Constantia House, not as glorious as it sounds, on the corner of Alfred Lane – see the upstairs enclosed balcony
- Nooral Islamic Mosque, at the top of Alfred Lane, is the centre of the town’s Muslim worship
- Hospital Terrace, a large quarry stone wall
I ran out of steam at Hospital Terrace. But you can do the mile yourself. Stop at the Tourist Information on the main road, just beyond Jubilee Square, and get yourself a copy of the booklet. It costs only R20.