Agritourism series: A special attraction on La Plaisante near Wolseley.
By Gerrit Rautenbach.
Between 1900 and 1901the British built two blockhouses next to two railway bridges close to the town of Wolseley. In 1920, only 19 years later, Leicester Dicey, the great grandfather of Nic Dicey bought the farm these blockhouses were on.
The blockhouses are now 121 years old and arguably the best-preserved specimens left in SA. And that is primarily thanks to the previous and current Dicey families of Plaisante.
“During the Anglo Boer war that lasted from 1899 to 1902, the Brits built 441 blockhouses throughout South Africa. Their purpose was to protect strategic railway bridges from guerrilla attacks from the Boers. At one stage during the war, there were more British soldiers guarding the blockhouses than there were Boer soldiers fighting. Be that as it may, as the main north-south line runs through La Plaisante, we inherited these two,” Natasha Dicey, Nic’s wife and custodian of the blockhouses explain.
The stone used was locally sourced while the rest of the material came from Britain and her colonies. For example, the steel came from Britain while the wood was brought in from Canada. The blockhouses could house 20 soldiers with water, ammunition, rations and supplies stored on the ground floor. The middle area or first floor was the so-called “living” area, approachable via a retractable rope ladder and the top floor was the observation desk on the countryside and especially the railway bridge. The blockhouses were designed by Sir Eliott Wood, an engineer and major-general in the British army.
At some stage, Nic’s grandfather Gerald decided to put these blockhouses to use and turned them into labourers’ accommodation. So they put in some windows and doors at ground level, but this didn’t last long as it wasn’t really practical. They did the right thing and restored it to the way it was. Because these two blockhouses have always been on private land (slap bang in the middle of their pear orchards), they are totally intact. Due to the burnt earth policy after the war, most of these blockhouses were stripped for people to rebuild their homes. Over the years many of these stone buildings were also vandalised, becoming graffiti canvasses and slum dwellings. Today there are just about 50 blockhouses still standing, most in bad shape.
“I am British, but that’s not really why I am interested in them, it’s just that they were here long before me, as part of the history of this farm,” Natasha continues. “I attempted not to change anything. All we did was put a staircase on the outside to the entrance, because most visitors coming to experience the blockhouses were not going to go climbing up like the soldiers did, on a rope ladder!” she laughs.
How do you get up close and personal to these blockhouses? Natasha says that a lot of passers-by stop at the one right next to the road running into Wolseley. Therefore she did put up a sign explaining in short the history and meaning of them. However, if you are really interested, you can call her and she will take you on a guided tour through the blockhouse, inside and out, explaining everything, the structure and how it worked. It’s worth the effort and fascinating standing inside this almost eerie and dark place with the shooting ports offering bright squares of sunlight. Imagine yourself as a sentry on the lookout, keeping your eyes peeled for a possible attack on the railway bridge. Walking around and through these bulky constructs more than a century old, experiencing its dark corners, mouldy smell and dampened sounds, it is amazing to realize that they only had about a year of meaningful purpose. It is an amazing experience to visit them.
She’s had many historical societies, journalists, school visits and architects, including one doing a PhD on the structures as well as Richard Tomlinson, the guru of the blockhouses in South Africa spending some time getting to know these unique structures. Apparently, someone also placed a geotag close to one of the blockhouses, but Natasha has not found it yet.
“Experiencing the blockhouses is an open invitation to everyone,” Natasha says, “ and free of charge. All you have to do is contact me to arrange a visit.”
For a free blockhouse tour, contact Natasha Dicey: firstname.lastname@example.org
La Plaisante in a nutshell
Nic Dicey is the fourth generation on La Plaisante. In 1920 his great grandfather started with merry mixed farming, anything from guavas to cattle and lemons. They were pioneers, testing the soil. So they also planted pears which became the main crop at present, supported by plums and cling peaches. Nic is farming in partnership with his two brothers, Anthony and Peter.
La Plaisante consists of 170 ha planted with virtually all the different cultivars of pears (75%) as well as plums and peaches. The total farm size is 600 ha, but because a large section is mountainous with quite a lot of endemic fynbos and renosterveld plants, they feel it should be looked after as a piece of unspoilt nature. The Diceys are serious about balancing agriculture with conservation. And heritage.