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Fire at Rhodes Memorial

Rhodes Memorial on the slopes of Table Mountain, just above the University of Cape Town has always been a special place for people growing up in Cape Town.

I know that grave questions have been asked about the person it commemorates, but the area itself has always held a special place in our hearts.

I remember walking there for a picnic with my brothers and sisters from where I lived in Woodstock. I remember playing there with my young friends, running through the bushes, sitting on the great lions, climbing the trees and hills.

The views from there over the Cape Flats to the mountains in the distance are spectacular. I remember times when I went there to sit and look and enjoy the silence; just sitting above the rush of the Cape Town world wondering about my place in the pattern of things. It became a place where we took our girlfriends; where we took visitors to Cape Town to view our beautiful landscape.

The tea room there has always held a special place in my memory. Sitting under the trees and enjoying tea and scones with family and friends.

Later we took our children there to walk, to play, and to picnic.

It is a place full of good memories for so many of us.

It is so sad that the recent fire has caused so much damage. Almost all the trees are gone. The landscape is slowly recovering. The sandstone walls of the restaurant are still there and no doubt the restaurant will rise again and give much pleasure to other Capetonians.

As I looked at the fire damage, the shell of the restaurant building and the fountain some of the lines and images of T.S.Eliot’s poem Burnt Norton washed through me. Burnt Norton was an English country house that Eliot had returned to with a friend. It had been damaged by fire and much of it was left in ruins. For Eliot the visit brought back many memories of previous visits. Eliot’s beautiful words from the poem Burnt Norton has the power to stir up memories, even memories of a place like Rhodes Memorial.

A view of Devils Peak and Table Mountain to the left from Rhodes Memorial car park, Newlands Cape Town

Other echoes
Inhabit the garden. Shall we follow?
Quick, said the bird, find them, find them,
Round the corner. Through the first gate,
Into our first world, shall we follow
The deception of the thrush? Into our first world.

Images of the burnt out Rhodes restaurant which carries many memories for so many of us

There they were, dignified, invisible,
Moving without pressure, over the dead leaves,
In the autumn heat, through the vibrant air,
And the bird called, in response to
The unheard music hidden in the shrubbery,
And the unseen eyebeam crossed, for the roses
Had the look of flowers that are looked at.

The lower terrace where the children gathered and played in recent years

There they were as our guests, accepted and accepting.
So we moved, and they, in a formal pattern,
Along the empty alley, into the box circle,
To look down into the drained pool.
Dry the pool, dry concrete, brown edged,
And the pool was filled with water out of sunlight,
And the lotos rose, quietly, quietly,
The surface glittered out of heart of light,
And they were behind us, reflected in the pool.
Then a cloud passed, and the pool was empty.

The fountain and memories of couples exchanging wedding vows

Go, said the bird, for the leaves were full of children,
Hidden excitedly, containing laughter.
Go, go, go, said the bird: human kind
Cannot bear very much reality.
Time past and time future
What might have been and what has been
Point to one end, which is always present.

Looking out on the Cape Flats and the mountains and sea in the distance.

2 comments on “Fire at Rhodes Memorial

  1. George Frost says:

    Bob, your description of Rhodes memorial back in the day, before the devastation, really made me realise how little value we place on the environment and places of historical value. Thank you for the heartwarming story.


  2. Paddy Attwell says:

    Thank you Bob. Your piece captures the beauty of the place and our shared sense of loss. I have a copy of Herbert Baker’s landscape design for the memorial, showing it embedded in stone pines giving way to silver trees, fynbos and the mountain backdrop. The purpose of the trees was to lift the eye upwards from a distance to the memorial and the mountain, and to provide shade to those visiting it. Questions have been asked about the felling of apparently healthy trees, adding to this tragedy. Hopefully the landscape can be restored so that future generations can once again enjoy what you have so beautifully described.


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