THERE are some very unusual sights and sites in Africa, but a full-sized repro Mediaeval castle, almost hidden in thick bush on the outskirts of Zimbabwe’s second city, Bulawayo, run as a luxury hotel, takes some beating.
Nesbitt Castle is perhaps THE Matabeleland venue for up-market wedding receptions, conferences, company launches and the like and has built an international reputation as a destination of choice for discerning travellers visiting southern Africa.
I stayed there recently for two nights on a five day expedition to Matabeleland, being allocated the Crown Turret Suite, which I only noticed was perfectly circular when lying on its huge comfortable bed. That was after a muscle-and tension-easing half hour soak in a large, comfortable, steaming bath.
Nesbitt Castle is an ideal base for exploring Matabeleland and a popular venue for safari clients to spend a first or last night or so in town before descending on the bundu to photograph, film or slaughter a wide range of animals and fish.
The Coach House Restaurant has won awards for its imaginative menus: fine dining African style with exciting creations served in man-sized (and outdoor man-sized at that) portions.
Amuse bouches are served in the friendly pub, but on my first night — after helping judge a potjie competition — my bouche didn’t need amusing and I declined, so as to do justice to an Amarula-and-butternut soup, with croutons, which proved pleasant, but a little too sweet for my palate and a delightful kingklip fillet presentation.
Breakfasts are in a separate dining room, which reminded me of an officers’ mess or senior common room. I had a perfectly acceptable omelette day one, but could have kicked myself for missing pan-fried kippers on the menu. This was rectified the next day, when the relative merits of Craster and Manx kippers were fully debated with a husband-and-wife hunting team from Kansas City.
Sunday roasts are a speciality and the luscious lamb served at supper was superbly flavoursome and tender. I always feel roast potatoes, preferably roasted round it, are the only acceptable way of serving spuds with a joint, but there was nothing wrong with wedges.
Shadreck the Shangaan Chef’s Yorkshire pudding would have had my Yorkshire-born mum in tears: it was something like hot béchamel sauce! Asked, I gave him a few hints on how to cook them properly.
It’s widely thought the man who originally built The Castle must have been either a genius or raving mad! and there’s some dispute about when it was actually constructed.
Theodore Garde was born June 13, 1877 in Bathurst, Eastern Cape, South Africa, of yeoman 1820 Settler stock. His father, Thomas Garde was a teacher and missionary. His mother, originally from Merseyside, was previously married to a Mr Holden. Theodore combined the two names as a young man, calling himself Holdengarde thereafter.
He’d been at the Cathedral Grammar School and Rhodes and fought in the Boer War, after which he sailed to England to attend Durham University with a church career in mind.
He soon forgot about taking Holy Orders, returned to Africa in 1907 and by 1909 was financial director of Holden & Co Ltd. Although many books refer to him starting work on the castle in Hillside, Bulawayo in 1905, it seems he only arrived in this country between 1908 and 1910, forming Hogarth’s Metals Ltd and settling in two Kimberley brick-and-thatch rondavels at Bushman’s Haunts, now above the aloe garden at Hillside Dams.
He bought around 100 acres at £5 an acre, where the castle stands today, but the land holding is down to about 16 acres.
He’d been fascinated by mediaeval castles, ancient buildings and history of the north of England and Scottish borders and started almost immediately designing and building “Holdengarde’s Folly” as it was smugly known.
Working without plans, everything conceived in his mind’s eye and passed on to labour using primitive “machinery” (mainly wheelbarrows) and equipment Holdengarde’s castle, of hand-hewn rock and manually mixed mortar (many walls more than the span of a man’s arm thick), went up steadily, despite several sections collapsing in torrential rains.
Holdengarde married Maude Kelly of Somerset West, who’d come to this country as a secretary. He went on demolishing and rebuilding various sections and doing the entire wood panelling of the sprawling building himself until 1946, a year before he died.
Involved in Bulawayo’s public life, he was mayor in 1938 and 1940.
His widow continued to live at the castle until she died in 1967, it being maintained by one of the couple’s sons. After her death, the building fell into disrepair until son Paul moved in. An ex-Plumtree boy, he was a WWII pilot, then worked on the railways.
In old age and failing health he was unable to maintain the huge labyrinthine castle and it became prey to vandals, squatters, Satanists and arsonists, who burnt the reception area in 1974. Part of the structure collapsed; there was graffiti on many walls.
Paul died in August 1988, a few months after selling the place to Chiredzi businessman Digby Nesbitt who, with friend John Osborne (later first general manager) decided to restore the castle to substantially better than its original glory.
Impeded by a lack of plans and haphazard original construction, they found many rooms bricked in and one room curiously built entirely within another.
They re-plumbed and re-wired it throughout, reinforced walls, replaced ceilings and floors, restored and copied antiques.
After two years’ solid graft and the expenditure of multi-millions they renamed it Nesbitt Castle and opened to the public as a very exclusive hotel and fine dining restaurant with a distinctive personalised touch in August 1990. Improvements and extensions continue. In addition to nine de-luxe suites, there are conference facilities, the complex now has its own dinky fairy tale chapel for weddings and a huge permanent marquee is erected on site for cocktail parties, company launches and the like.
Nesbitt Castle is open, strictly by prior booking, for lunches, suppers, accommodation with breakfasts and many types of private functions. Children under 14 are usually not permitted, but several pre-teens had supper there on the Saturday night, so there may be a change of policy under newish general manager Dustin Kennedy, who was away during my visit?