Simonstown - a look into naval history

Simonstown in winter

I’ve lived in False Bay for a number of years, and had fish ‘n chips on the dockside many times. But I’d never really explored the little town in depth until recently, when I decided to take a couple of days and look more deeply.

A walk up what’s known as the Historic Mile yields exactly that – history. History that goes back to centuries before the first days of colonial South Africa. But for my purposes now, it’s the charming architecture, much of which has been retained and preserved as Heritage Sites, that grabs me. For instance, when I see the little grey train station, not too much changed since it was opened in 1890, I think of the celebration when it opened and the first train from Muizenberg arrived.

Before then, rocky and mountainous territory made journeys from Muizenberg to Simon’s Town very difficult. Transport of goods and supplies was problematic, and much of this traffic arrived by boat, often in itself a difficult exercise when seas were huge and angry. Now trains could run from Cape Town to Simon’s Town, carrying goods and passengers. One of those passengers in the first run was Cecil John Rhodes, then Prime Minister of the Cape, who performed the opening ceremony at the station, which was covered in bunting. I can just picture the excitement when children were offered free train rides as part of the celebrations.

Probably my favourite building in Simon’s Town is the British Hotel with its balconies trimmed with “broekie lace”. The hotel provided a sumptuous luncheon after the station’s opening, and dignitaries must have toasted the new line freely in Cape wine.

The best way to see and appreciate this small town is to walk the length of its main street. From the station, look over the stone wall on your left and you’ll see Admiralty House, with its two cannons and a ship’s figurehead overlooking the green lawn. This is one of the oldest buildings in Simon’s Town, built in 1743 as a private residence and later purchased by the Royal Navy as the official residence of the Commander in Chief. In 1957 Admiralty House became the residence of the Chief of the South African Navy, and today it provides accommodation for senior naval officers when they visit the Cape. On summer Sunday afternoons the navy band sometimes gives an outdoor concert here. They play original compositions and, of course, maritime favourites such as “Anchors Aweigh”.

Novelist Joy Packer was married to Admiral Sir Herbert Packer; you can just picture her sitting on the lawn scribbling away at Valley of the Vines and Nor the Moon by Night while they lived here.

Simon’s Town was, is and probably always will be a naval town. For more than 250 years, it has been a vital naval base for three countries. First came the Dutch through its Dutch East India Company, then the British Royal Navy and finally the South African Navy, whose Fleet Command Headquarters has been here since 1957. As the sea route from Europe to the East became increasingly important for international trade, Cape Town itself found increasing numbers of ships anchored in Table Bay. But the shipwrecks caused by the winter storms and south-west gales meant that a more sheltered winter anchorage was needed. Simon van der Stel, an early governor of the Cape, proclaimed this the right place, hence the name Simon’s Town.

Across from Admiralty House is Studlands, the first National Monument proclaimed in Simon’s Town. Built in 1797 as one of the many winehouses, or taverns, which were a major industry at that time, it was sited here to preserve a bit of exclusivity, as seamen generally didn’t make it past the winehouse adjacent to the jetty. You can just picture the scene - inebriated sailors rolling around the town while the more gentlemanly crowd looked down their noses from Studlands.

Yarra Yarra, the house adjoining Studlands, was designed by a Belgian architect and named by the Australian wife of the owner after the aboriginal name of an Aussie river. For me this is a lovely illustration of the cosmopolitan nature of Simon’s Town.

The Naval Museum a little further on will satisfy any urges you might have for maritime history. But I love the Simon’s Town museum, a short walk down the hill past St Francis Church. I could and probably will still spend days there tracking the history of the settlement that grew into a town. Ever heard of Just Nuisance, the great dane who was a member of the British navy? Well, he deserves a blog all on his own, but if you visit the museum you’ll learn all about him.

One of the stories that fascinates me is that of the tall steel pylons, the first of which you’ll see just past the entrance to the Naval Museum. Up the mountain to the right are several more at intervals to the top. The pylons are what remains of an aerial ropeway that was used to transport patients and necessities to a sanatorium at the top of the hill. The sanatorium was built there to prevent recuperating sailors who were mobile – and no doubt quite bored – from going AWOL and seeking alternative medication from the winehouses and bars in the town. I must admit to a certain amused sympathy for these poor frustrated guys.

Placques along the wall on the left reinforce the historical inpact of the various navies. Horatio Nelson is there, who at the time was a little 18-year-old midshipman, hurt and far from home – a far cry from the successful naval officer he went on to be. Rudyard Kipling, who visited several times, is remembered here, as is “Daar Kom die Alabama”, one of our traditional songs. Who would have thought that this South African song actually referred to a ship that was dodging a Yankee blockade off Cape Point during the American Civil War?

Fish ’n chips on the wharf (itself a heritage site), a walk to look at the beautiful and historic architecture, a number of museums, far too much for one blog, but I’ll get back to you later on these.

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