Activities / Attractions / Mpumalanga

Casterbridge in White River, almost a Hardy novel setting

Updated Tuesday, 24 January 2017

White River is linked to Nelspruit by the R40. The two towns are so close (20 minutes’ drive) that it is only time before they merge, incorporating the rather innocuous Rocky Drift that at the moment serves as a buffer between them.

The secret to travel, anywhere, is to do as the locals do – ‘when in Rome’ and all that. I realise more and more that it isn’t about reading travel brochures – they’ll send you where they want you to go – but following the trail of locals, as they’ll lead you to spaces and places where spending your hard-earned dosh will feel that much more rewarding.

And so we ask around Nelspruit before leaving for White River. Locals unanimously agree that when in White River, Casterbridge is the place to be. When we finally get to White River it is heartening to see that, despite its being a week day, the Casterbridge Lifestyle Centre’s parking lot is already obviously filling up.

Calling it a lifestyle centre is a little misleading though, as it brings to mind a mall of sorts, which it isn’t. It gives the appearance at first of being on the grounds of an old farm. The buildings are all beautifully overhung with ivy and creepers, the gardens are reminiscent of those of the Palace of Versailles (in a far more diminutive way, of course) and there are enough trees dotted in and around the series of buildings to add to the feeling of being on a farm.

Casterbridge lies on a slight rise just outside of town. It began, I believe, as a motor museum, which is still there and really worth a visit. But today the centre is an assemblage of shops and restaurants, a couple of art galleries, antiques, a cinema, a pilates studio and spa, a boutique hotel and a series of offices one can use as one’s base (bags the corner office, close to a tea shop!)

Casterbridge Centre in White River

I find that my eyes kind of glaze over at most of the boutique style shops until I stumble upon Africa Joy. I’ve already got my camera poised for some shots of the eclectic mix of gifts, décor, jewellery and other nick nacks, all original, local and supporting either a community upliftment project or eco friendly in some way, when Marlize strolls in.

This is Marlize’s shop. She and Dudu run things, but it is Marlize, whose background is in design and architecture, who has put it all together. She shows me her Fullcycle worm bin, which she keeps just outside the shop, and says that one of the reasons she chose this shop was because she could keep the worms there. I get the impression that she’s intent on roping in everyone in the centre to recycling their organic waste, and am impressed at her ambition.

I’m really taken with her shop and this side of the centre. It is tucked way at the back, just opposite the entrance to the hotel and, admittedly, there must be many visitors who don’t even venture down the corridors beyond the initial restaurants and tea rooms, nut and flower shops to this side of things. However, it is just beyond the motor museum, to which I am dragged, midway through my exploration, by my overly-eager son who wants to show me a couple of the cars.

It’s a remarkably informal set-up – simply a series of, admittedly awesome, cars lined up down the two sides of a warehouse, and what seems to be a couple of offices above them. You can enter, stroll around, and leave, without any of the usual ‘museum’ formalities. It’s fun.

Casterbridge Centre in White River

Just across from Africa Joy is Rottcher Wineries Avalencia, orange wine for the tasting. I’ve heard a lot about wine made from oranges here in the Lowveld, and I’m quite keen to hear more about it. They are not the only orange winery in South Africa, but they are the oldest, and the shop also serves as their cellar where oranges are fermented to produce a sweet drink that is something like port, and which I find I don’t enjoy, much to my dismay as the concept of drinking wine made from oranges rather tickles my fancy.

It does come served in the loveliest clay, stoppered flask made by the potter across the corridor from here, Antjie Newton, who creates mainly tableware in her high fired ovens in beautiful earthy colours.

Just down from Antjie Newton’s studio is the White River Art Gallery, presently exhibiting a selection of prints by artists from The Artists’ Press, called the Art of the Lithograph. Marlize has impressed upon me to visit.

I am entranced by Judith Mason’s Pomegranate print, a seven-colour lithograph that I immediately want to own. I sit doing rough calculations as to whether or not the budget can possibly be stretched to accommodate a limited edition print, whilst my husband paces nervously behind me. I finally decide to simply enjoy the exhibition for its beauty and simplicity, rather than trying to own a piece of it.

The Artists’ Press began in 1991 when Mark Attwood met David Koloane and Sandy Burnett. The group of artists began meeting at the Fordsburg Artists’ Studios in Newtown, Johannesburg. Today, work editioned by the studio graces collections all over the world, including the Museum of Modern Art (NYC), the Smithsonian Institute, the SA National Gallery, Metropolitan Museum of Art, and numerous others, including individual’s private collections.

Casterbridge Centre in White River

The main thrust behind the Artist’s Press is to introduce South African printmaking to global audiences, to give artists the chance to collaborate with master printers, to produce high quality original prints, and to introduce artists to print techniques, often a new medium for many of them.

My overall impression of the gallery is that it is unassuming and unpretentious, its walls allowing the art to speak for itself, the sun streaming in from high windows  not enough to distort one’s appreciation of the art. On the other side of a concrete box room that acts as a room divider, an artist sits working in what can only be deemed a studio. But it gives visitors like me the chance to peek.

Just outside is an artfully placed children’s play area with a swing and jungle gym. On the far side of the quadrangle, another restaurant. In keeping with Thomas Hardy’s Mayor of Casterbridge (based on the town of Dorchester in Dorset), which is considered one of Hardy’s best works, the Casterbridge Centre is easily the highlight of a visit to White River.

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