Monday 11 January 2010

La Rochelle

For ages, my friend Jenny (hi Jen!) has been trying to organise me to visit Eltham Palace in London. It’s an Art Deco house built onto the site of a Tudor palace by Stephen and Virginia Courtauld, English philanthropists, art lovers, visionaries. (Stephen was the brother of the founder of the Courtauld Institute). I never made it to Eltham Palace, but will it count for something if I say I visited the Courtauld’s summer place in the country? The country in question being Zimbabwe, of course….

We were on our way to the Vumba, on the other side of Mutare, when Robbie remembered about La Rochelle. This is the house the Courtaulds built when they moved to Zimbabwe in the 1950s. They subsequently donated the grounds to the National Trust of Zimbabwe and the house became a hotel. (Incidentally, it’s crying for a makeover as a boutique hotel – any investors out there?)

I can’t say that we saw much evidence of the National Trust – there was nobody to take money from us or to ask questions so we just parked the car and went exploring. (Though later, inside the hotel, a friendly staff member said we could look around.)

The place is enchanting – like finding Sleeping Beauty’s castle about mid-way into the 100 years. Or perhaps as though we were on the set of a film about adultery and gin in the Happy Valley … wrong country, but still.

We saw vervet monkeys,

the very 1950s house,

the tower (I yearn for this tower. When I turn the place into a beautiful B&B/Retreat this is going to be my writing tower.)

There was even an overgrown maze, which we poked our way through.

Here's Robbie in classic sniffing mode.

Then we visited the orchid house,

and admired the very retro dahlia planting (photo credit to Robbie).

As we wandered, we wondered at the monogram we saw everywhere: the letters 'V', 'S' and 'L' intertwined. 'V' and 'S' seemed obvious, but 'L'? Then we found a possible explanation. The Courtaulds had a beloved pet Lemur, who is buried in the gardens.

I really felt like we were archaeologists, finding traces of a lost civilisation. This was a feeling that only increased as we got deeper into the Vumba. But you'll have to wait until tomorrow to find out about that. Dunh dunh DUNH! (This is what's known as a cliffhanger, y'see.)

(Well, hopefully tomorrow: I'm having some internet connection problems so posting at the moment is internet cafe dependent.)


  1. I was going to say maybe you could get a job running the Zimbabwean National Trust but on second thoughts who would you or they trust? I'm enjoying my BAT day and wondering will the next two be rescinded. Having been praised for his strong leadership in ordering schools to close, the minister is now being slammed for getting it wrong. In Dublin at least the snow is nearly gone.

  2. That's cool - am very jealous. Their pet lemur was called Mah-Jongg and they bought him at Harrods. He died in 1938 while the Courtaulds were still at Eltham. The memorial, striped like a lemur's tail, was originally in the gardens at Eltham. They were sufficiently keen on him to take it with them when they left, but I'm less sure that the 'L' would stand for that. 'La Rochelle'? Will discuss over tea at the palace when you return... x

  3. Mah-jongg! That's right. I did know that once apon a time but it slipped my mind. Glad you worked out your Dahlias were Zinnias Sue.