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The wonders of Worcester

Written by  Nikki van Coller
| in op Reis
| October 16, 2015

Lessons in art, history and luck. With the focus of this month’s Plaastoe! being the Breede River Valley in general and Worcester in particular, I was tasked with seeing what this town is all about and what it has to offer the local or international traveller.

I have spent time in Robertson, McGregor and Bonnievale, whether camping, staying in a country cottage for a weekend, or visiting friends in the area, so I know the Breede River Valley quite well. But Worcester has always been the town I need to travel through to get onto the R60. I am truly interested to actually go in and explore.

Reached from Cape Town via the N1, either through the Huguenot Tunnel or by driving along the spectacular du Toitskloof mountain pass, this charming town is an important part of the Cape Winelands; as soon as you descend from the pass you know you are in wine country!

“As soon as you descend from the pass you know you are in wine country!”

The initial plan was to take my dogs along. They love adventures and are social and friendly creatures. Unfortunately Esperance Farmstay - which seemed the most likely to contain my Husky - was fully booked, and I settle for a friend looking after the dogs while I set off on my own.

october 2015 op reis worcester 1My concern about not having any dogs around me while I’m away is short-lived; when I arrive at Aan de Doorns guesthouse I am greeted – not by a receptionist or guesthouse owner – but rather by a young collie, a boisterous brak, and the biggest Great Dane I’ve ever seen.

I am shown around by a friendly Gloria, and I absolutely love the homely, farmhouse feel of the place. The room is clean and cosy and the ladies I meet very hospitable and friendly. And of course, there are dogs. The Collie brings me a stick and I throw it, knowing full well what I’m starting. After an hour of stick-throwing for the stick-obsessed collie, I decide to make the most of the remaining daylight hours and soak in some of the Worcester heritage. I have all the information I need to take myself on the ‘historical walk’.

The first thing I notice is how neatly laid-out the town is. Sea Point residents would give their eye teeth for streets this broad. According to my reading material, the town planning and architecture have a neo-classical influence, and the Worcester gable is now recognised by architects.

The streets are lined with double rows of firs, poplars and blue gums, making for a tranquil and inviting scene. I also notice that no matter where you are, you are surrounded by mountains. I like it already.

“Worcester truly has a rich and diverse heritage; the story is wonderfully told through the history of the churches, as religion played a large part in the town’s development.”

october 2015 op reis worcester 2Worcester truly has a rich and diverse heritage; the story is wonderfully told through the history of the churches, as religion played a large part in the town’s development. My walk down Church Street, along with my printed notes, paints a very vivid picture of the last 200 years.

Before the 1700s, the area was inhabited by San hunter/gatherers and Khoi livestock farmers. By 1714, the first farms were released to European settlers. The town grew slowly, and it was only in 1820, the official date of the establishment of Worcester, that the construction of a road over the Franschhoek mountains began, and the Dutch Reformed Church Congregation was established.  The ‘Moederkerk’ was built in 1832 and rebuilt in 1897. The church still stands proud and the pulpit is the original one from 1832.

After the abolition of slavery in 1834, the community of so-called ‘free slaves’ grew with the support of the Rhenish Missionary So-ciety, who also built Worcester’s first Mission Church in 1832. The church was converted into an old age home in 1922, and is still used for that purpose.

october 2015 op reis worcester 3The Anglican Church was established in 1851 and, due to the growing Malay community, comprised mainly of bricklayers, vat coopers and tailors, a Mosque was built in 1881 at Durban Street.

During the 1860s and 1870s, Germans began to settle in Worcester as skilled farm labourers and railway workers, who worked on the construction of the railway line. A Lutheran Church Congregation was consequently established and the Church building completed in November 1883.

In 1848, Dr. Diederich Fraenkel arrived in Worcester as the town’s first Jewish resident. Some 30 years later, more Jewish traders had begun to settle in Worcester, and in 1904, the first Synagogue was consecrated in Durban Street.

My tour takes me past many of these original buildings, and other well-maintained heritage sites, including The Barn, which now houses a coffee shop, art gallery and the studio of well-known glass artist, David Reade. Unfortunately it’s after-hours, so I make a note to return. 

october 2015 op reis worcester 5After my walking tour, I grab a great burger and an ice cold beer at the Dros and then head, with the setting sun, back to Aan de Doorns Guesthouse to soak in my enormous Victorian bath. Of course, I am no sooner back, than the Collie runs up to me with his stick. I play with him until the light fades, but even as I bath, I see the stick appearing on the windowsill, followed by that face!

I’m not feeling sleepy, so I decide to try my luck at the Golden Valley Casino. I haven’t been into a casino since the one time when I was 21; that night I won more than R1000. I hoped my luck would be repeated.

To my dismay, I find that things have changed a lot since the 1990’s. No more stacks of coins in tight rolls to break open; no big cups to hold your winnings. I pay R20 for a card, which I am to insert into the slot machine, before feeding notes into the machine. This money gets loaded onto the card. You press a button. You lose credits. You win nothing. And you leave when you’ve lost R130 in 18 minutes.  Well, that’s how it happens for me. Even the machines look ugly, with weird little characters and bad graphics. Whatever happened to pulling an arm and waiting for three sevens in a row?

october 2015 op reis worcester 4I’m back in my room 45 minutes after leaving it. I make a cup of tea in the guesthouse kitchen and read for a while, before sleeping like the dead. The bed is extremely comfortable.

In the morning, cereals, cold meats, toast and yoghurt are set out, along with orange juice, coffee and tea. Susan cooks me up two fried eggs, bacon, tomato and toast, with a cup of strong filter coffee. I say a sad goodbye to my collie-dog friend and pack up my things.

I have a bit of time to spare before my appointment with the Blind institute, so I stop by the Info Centre and find out about all the amazing outdoor activities in the area – camping, fishing, hiking, game viewing, picnic areas and mountain biking are just some. Of course I am not surprised – this is an outdoor person’s paradise!

I know Worcester has a large blind and deaf community, but nothing could have prepared me for just how large the institute is, nor how many disabled people are supported through the institute.

I meet with Freddie Botha and his team, who tell me all about the Institute, before Ledivia Hamman takes me around the buildings. My tour is interesting, informative and – surprisingly - incredibly uplifting. I find out that people from all over the country come to Worcester, because there is an entire community geared towards people with disabilities. Homes, hostels, and apartments house hundreds of visually impaired, blind, and multi-disabled people of all ages. There is even a home for the elderly blind. The institute provides accommodation, meals, schooling, adult education programmes, therapies, care services, recreational activities, career development and most importantly – employment; a salary; a sense of belonging and purpose.

october 2015 op reis worcester 6Walking around the enormous space (I saw just a fraction of the area occupied by the institute), the sense of camaraderie is easy to detect. Ledivia takes me through some of the industries.

The Creative Projects Department is the workplace of many multi-disabled adults, who find purpose in making various arts and crafts items. The weaving studio is spacious and light, with around 20 employees performing various roles in making the most gorgeous rugs of all sizes and various colours – from dying, to weaving to stitching – everybody has an important job and some ingenious methods have been put into place to ensure the highest quality and attention to detail. 

In a different warehouse, mattresses are made – from simple single bed foam mattresses bought by farmers for seasonal workers, to high-end sprung mattresses that are bought by furniture shops, including Lewis and Beares. To watch these men – most of whom are completely blind - manufacturing high quality, perfectly finished mattresses is really inspirational.

The woodwork industry is also incredible. I am stunned by the beautiful headboards, tables, chairs, cots and more that are produced here. The cane factory does some of the most impressive cane products I have ever seen, including picnic baskets, laundry baskets and all kinds of cane furniture.

There is also a metal industry, which is too far away for me to visit, but which I am told manufactures screws, nuts, bolts, washers, rivets and other items for various industries. The packaging factory, makes agricultural packaging products which are supplied to local farmers, many of whom support the institute’s business units.

Ledivia lets me taste the new coffee that the Blindiana Coffee Shop will be launching soon. The name is Kaleidoscope – not surprising when you consider that the institute has been working with advertising agency Saatchi & Saatchi, and the wheels are in motion to radically change the brand identity, along with a renaming of the institute to Kaleidoscope.

“I am really touched and humbled by my visit and would encourage anyone to go and do the tour and have a cup of coffee with the lovely Ledivia.”

I am really touched and humbled by my visit and would encourage anyone to go and do the tour and have a cup of coffee with the lovely Ledivia. I could spend the entire day there, but need to see what else the town has to offer.

october 2015 op reis worcester 7The town is situated in the largest wine producing area of the country, surrounded by grape farms which create employment opportunities for much of the population. There are 11 wine cellars and three olive estates on the Wine and Olive Route. I am keeping an eye on the time, because I would love to visit one or two on my way out.

On a whim, I pop into the Breëriviervallei Botteleringskoöperasie, where Gerhard agrees to let me have a look around and tells me a bit about the industry and bottling procedures. The enormous factory looks spotless, highly efficient and very impressive, rows of bottles moving slowly along conveyer belts; staff in crisp clean uniforms.

I am suddenly thirsty and would love a glass of wine, but I settle for a cup of coffee at the Barn. I look at the art and there are more than a few pieces I am instantly drawn to. I find out the artist is David Reade’s wife, Lorna.

“Glowing furnaces (at temperatures of more than 1000 degrees centigrade), a super-hot flat-topped table, and ridiculously hot glass are just some of the perils.”

The barista tells me that David has arrived.  I go out to the back studio and see three very alert young men, and David striding towards them, with purpose. I introduce myself and David says I am extremely lucky as they are about to make a glass sculpture. I wonder if I should’ve stayed at the casino a little longer last night.

october 2015 op reis worcester 8I know I should hurry if I want to visit a wine farm, but I cannot tear myself away and instead, proceed to spend the next hour watching, mesmerised, as David works. His assistants are on the ball, and in this space, they certainly have to be. Glowing furnaces (at temperatures of more than 1000 degrees centigrade), a super-hot flat-topped table, and ridiculously hot glass are just some of the perils. All of them are wearing gloves, as well as cut-off socks to completely cover their arms.
Over the course of an hour, I watch a little red ball of glass transformed into an exquisite blue and white almost boat-shaped sculpture (or at least, the phases before cooling). It goes into the furnace many times. Each time, it comes out slightly bigger, and then gets shaped and blown through a long metal pole. Eventually it is big enough for David to carefully cut and then ‘spin’ it into the shape he wants, before it gets chopped off of the pole and placed into another contraption to cool for the next phase. I feel very lucky to have witnessed the craftsmanship and precision that goes into glassblowing. I thank David and, feeling like I only saw an iota of what the town has to offer, head out onto the N1. I am sad I didn’t make it in time for a wine farm, but I will certainly be back in Worcester; The Reade’s gallery, Blind Institute, Hugo Naude Art Centre, wine and olive tastings and an exciting outdoor day are all on my ‘next time’ list.
october 2015 op reis worcester 9It’s a tradition for me to travel through the Huguenot Tunnel on my way in, and take the alternative route (R101) on the way home. The road is quiet, the weather temperate, and the scenery absolutely breathtaking. It is a scene I will never get enough of. I reflect on how lucky I am. I might not have won millions on my brief casino visit, but perhaps that was my lesson; that my blessings are so much greater. I have my sight and my hearing and my health; I get to spend time in beautiful locations, just a short drive from home; I got to see an amazing artist at work; plus, there are always dogs! Life is good.