Autumn on the Summerhill Estate
(Photo : Summerhill Stud)
“On Saturday, we’ll bid another consignment of the farm’s hand-made yearlings farewell.”
You’d be forgiven as you approached Summerhill Stud, for believing that its immediate precincts would be the perfect world of any one with a taste for beauty and an appreciation of tranquillity. A warm vein of cordiality greets you at the gates, and it’s quickly apparent that Summerhill is its own form of freemasonry, with the horse as its icon, where the groom and the boss belong to the same brotherhood, and their material differences seem incidental. Here the horse is not so much a way of life, as a reason for breathing. This is more than good real estate. Rolling hills and deep complex soils over sandstone and basalt, hundreds of great trees and emerald green pastures tell you the country is kind, but not soft. With their stately prime ministerial residences, their rich racing heritage, and the old chapel basking in the lee of Giant’s Castle, Summerhill and Hartford are national treasures.
These farms are deep in horse country, just outside Mooi River, a slow village with a little railway station, left behind after the Anglo-Boer War. There are more churches per capita than anywhere else. Old families and a bit of old money still abound. To get there you drive in over rolling hills, past storied battlegrounds, you glimpse the ramparts of the Giant to the west, and there it is, 3000 acres of some of the best stock raising dirt in the world, cascading lakes and the slightest suggestion of Eden. It doesn’t really need a sales pitch: you learn soon enough what this place is about.
At the same time, it strikes you immediately as the most idyllic place on the planet to live, but this isn’t the owners’ private world. It is a place of business, the centre of operations. The private world is at Umvumvu, high up on the Giant’s road, and adjacent to the Summerhill complex of farms. “Farm” doesn’t quite seem the right noun for this place though. Yes it is a farm, but it also has the air of a Zulu elder’s kraal overlooking the Mooi River and its surrounding valleys, more about aesthetics than bushels to the acre, more a place of peace and beauty than of industry. Places with class have space, the farm doesn’t intrude on the land, and it doesn’t want to use all of it, as is often the way on stud and agistment properties.
One thinks of meadows rather than paddocks, of copses and coverts. In high summer, the meadows are green and sweet, the swards thick: kikuyu, some rye grass, white and strawberry clover interspersed with oats. Creamy butterflies ride the summer winds. Fish eagles cry, that most African of sounds, and barbets cackle away in the ironwood trees. There is always birdsong here. Wild ducks are everywhere, on the dams and the lakes, and the stream is still and pregnant with the rain, until the breeze whips around and sends ripples skimming towards the glowering ramparts of the Drakensberg. Wedged-tailed fish eagles swoop down from there and occasionally snatch a trout in their talons, disturbing a clutch of reed buck. Jackals hunt for duck eggs along the riverbanks. A thrush has sculpted the neatest of nests, like a teardrop done in leaves and a bit of mud, in an acacia in the courtyard.
Mrs Goss would shoot me if she knew I was telling this story. It’s her private world, and Mr Goss always says it became hers when the project went past the budget for the third time. But our readers want to know our personalities, and Umvumvu is like her, languid, understated, private and quietly purposeful. She has never been a demonstrative lady, yet you know she’s hopelessly in love with this place, not for its flashiness, because it’s not that way, but for its ethnic elegance, the way it fits into the natural world. When the Gosses first arrived here, our Zulus had never put one brick on top of another, yet here they’ve crafted a homestead unique in its African style and character, which gazes out onto a World Heritage site. By contrast, the Drakensberg is stark and spectacular, stretching away for 90 kilometres to Sani Pass, and if you stand at the summit of Giant’s Castle, you think of a French nobleman’s chateau presiding over the Somme.
Mrs Goss loves trees, this is her botanical garden, and particularly those that are true to Africa. They’re a second family to her, and she tends to them like she does her cattle, a herd of Ngunis that turn every view through a picture window into a work of art.
Down below, stretching from its verges to the floor of the valleys, is the home of the champion breeders. This is the life’s work of generations of Summerhill families, and we all know what it means to be part of it. On Saturday, we’ll bid another consignment of the farm’s hand-made yearlings farewell. They’ve had the benefit of one of the finest upbringings known to man. Some of them will be departing their birth-place forever; others, we like to think more fortunate, will eventually find their way “home”. Either way, it’s a fair bet they’ll be writing their own piece of Summerhill’s future history.