Of Cuffs and Castles

5 Mar, 2015

One man’s folly then; Makes for lots of fun now.

“Are you with the police?”, enquired the sternly unsmiling customs official as he motioned me over to view the screen of his x-ray machine. There in my luggage and in bald relief for all to see were two pairs of handcuffs. The x-ray had not picked up their pink furry covering nor the king’s inflatable crown lying alongside these suspected police accessories. I had packed some fun props for our visit to The Nesbitt Castle and was revelling in the surprise my fellow travellers would have when I presented them with these goofy gifts over a baroque dinner. Now it looked as if the surprise would be blown as I was taken aside to explain the offending restraining devices. I quickly decided that honesty and collaboration would be my best way out of this. Moving in closer to form a conspiratorial huddle around the computer screen, I whispered and motioned for quiet voices saying, “please don’t spoil the surprise, they are for my friends!”. Slightly wide-eyed with shock and with the beginnings of a smirk, the chief official waved me on with an amused admonishing “Ah, you are the naughty one”. I bolted as decorously as was appropriate while the screen continued to blink with the brazen bright whiteness of the steel cuffs. My secret was safe.

The Nesbitt Castle and its resident ghost beckoned.

In the heart of Matabeleland, in a regular suburb of Bulawayo, in an unassuming street hidden behind imposing metal gates lies one of the most incongruous, eccentric and delightful surprises to impress even the most blasé of travellers. A genuine fortified castle filled with antiques, coats-of-armour, trophies, memorabilia and historic photographs. Even Cecil John Rhodes’ original and elaborate bed lies in lonely splendour in the single occupancy Princess room. Ramparts, towers, gargoyles and gothic touches grace the exterior which is surrounded by magnificent gardens. So green and lush, one could almost hear the vegetation flourishing. The gardeners seemed to work overtime to keep the plant life in check and from engulfing the pathways or obscuring the windows. The early rains and spring sunshine had delivered a growth spurt the likes of which seen only by lanky teenagers leaping from shoe size 7 to 9 in one summer holiday.

Thomas Holdengarde arrived in the then Rhodesia between 1908 and 1910. He was an entrepreneurial and savvy businessman whose empire expanded rapidly. Not satisfied with humble accommodations near the present day Hillside dams, Holdengarde purchased 100 acres of land and began construction of his Gothic ambition which came to be known as Holdengarde Castle.

In an extract from the hotel’s history write-up, I learn the following:
“There were no plans for the building, no architectural drawings; nothing submitted to the council for approval, just a collection of distant memories, a practical disposition and a romantic dream. Over the next 30 years Thomas (who by now had acquired a wife) toiled away on the site with a small band of dedicated workers building turrets and towers, twisting passageways and crenellations. Sometimes he demolished his work and rebuilt, sometimes the vagaries of the African rains washed away his progress, sometimes he undertook major earthmoving & terracing armed with only a few wheelbarrows and his trusty staff, but slowly this extraordinary Victorian folly took shape”.

Even more remarkably, Holdengarde was only a weekend builder and as an obsessive authentic, he rejected the notion of running water, electricity or a modern telephone. These necessities were installed by his long-suffering wife soon after his death in 1948. Maude and the children struggled on for sometime but slowly the castle fell into a state of disrepair and finally abandonment in 1967. This stately landmark now became a ruin and an eery place past which bicycling children would accelerate, pedalling furiously.

1988 sees the arrival of a new age visionary, Digby Nesbitt who restored the castle to glory and re-opened it as a boutique hotel albeit with as much if not more toil and more cash than Thomas Holdengarde’s 30 year long endeavours.

With grateful thanks to Digby and with my handcuffs safely hidden, we were escorted to The Dungeon. What a surprise awaited us; what a well disguised dungeon. Yes, you did descend a staircase or two but the door opened to reveal a huge bedroom lavishly decorated in shades of navy, gold, green and garnet red. A bed fit for royalty, a huge wardrobe amply big enough to accommodate all her highnesses’ gowns and a gargantuan victorian bath eye-level with the garden outside. One telling clue that revealed the Dungeon’s real status was its windowlessness. Only one window at the end of a tunnel opening onto the lawn outside, emphasising your almost below ground situation. This did mean that the room was quiet, cool, peaceful and dark. So dark and restful that HRH and I only opened our royal blues at 8.30am the next morning.

But first it was time for G&T’s in the cosy bar. Finally the handcuffs and inflatable crown could be revealed and the customs story told. On went the crown and the castle’s staff went along with the joke, referring to brother Simon as Your Highness for the next two days. Nesbitts Castle today boasts a wonderfully friendly, nothings-too-much-trouble level of service. From setting up a private dinner for our group to allowing us to view as many rooms as were unoccupied to customising our vegetarian and pescatarian meal requirements.

The food was delicious, ample and good value for money. Dinner was a set menu with choices including a more-ish mushroom and sherry soup, roast sirloin, fresh bream, a fine beef lasagne, cheesecake and chocolate mousse.

Many absorbing hours can be spent in the magnificent reception rooms of the castle. Each one filled with collections of fascinating objets, antiques, books, letters and photographs. I spotted a group of sterling silver hair brushes and handheld mirrors, a case full of brass bells used to hail the staff and a myriad other curiosities. The books and photographs alone could keep you entertained for a day and that is before you have spent some hours sunken into the overstuffed sofas reading your own book. Furniture and soft furnishings are suitably opulent and appropriately lavish. Think giant tassel tie backs and no meterage-spared for the drapes. I wanted to breathe in the atmosphere and revel in the sense of my royal residency. Two nights proved too short.

The Nesbitt Castle is unsurprisingly the hot ticket in wedding venues and have just had their first helicopter bride. Photo opportunities are in abundance. Ramparts, towers, turrets, formal gardens, trophy heads and suits of armour all provide the perfect backdrop for the bride and her entourage. Up to 300 people can be accommodated in a variety of venue options including the Grand Pavilion. The beautiful on-site Chapel seats 50 while a garden ceremony is also an option. Even better would be to take all the bedrooms and host a party for 25 or so friends in one of the spectacular dining rooms. Just maybe not the Board Room as that is where the friendly ghost hangs out, drifting through the walls, no doubt.

As we drove away down the tree lined driveway, Norman Big-Balls the resident Impala was resting under a tree. We waved with promises to return but without the handcuffs.

The Nesbitt Castle
6 Percy Avenue
+ (263 9) 282735 / 36

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