MOUNT NELSON HOTEL Orange Street, Gardens Cape Town

The vaulted Garden Room is the hotel’s original dining room. Today, it is used for formal lunches, gala dinners, presentations and performances. At the far end is a portrait of Queen Alexandra.

The Mount Nelson Hotel occupies what’s left of an 18th-century estate that once straddled the mountain end of Government Avenue. Its owner for a chunk of the 19th century was one of the wealthiest men at the Cape, Hamilton Ross, who owned two prominent Cape Town properties – this one, and Sans Souci in Claremont. The Mediterranean-pink hotel today has his old homestead at its nucleus.

Ross had arrived from England in 1796 and, by 1798, had scandalized the locals by eloping to Madras with the daughter of a venerable VOC official. The event was noted by Lady Anne Barnard in one of her letters to Henry Dundas, secretary of war, in which Ross, in spite of his behaviour, is described as ‘a young man of very good character’. The couple married and returned to the Cape in 1803, where Ross became a successful merchant and, subsequently, a prominent citizen.

Hamilton Ross bought Mount Nelson in 1843 for his daughter Maria Johanna and her family. There’s a watercolour of its house and garden, painted by Maria, who received lessons from no less than Thomas Bowler, in the entrance hall of the museum at Bertram House – just across the road from the hotel’s main entrance. When Maria’s first husband died leaving her with four young children, she married her cousin, John Ross. Their eighth child, Ellen, born on the Mount Nelson estate, was the mother of Anne Lidderdale, the benefactress of the Bertram House Museum, who died in 1979 at the age of 99 and whose bequest to Bertram House also contains a portrait of Hamilton Ross.

The Mount Nelson’s history of magnificent grounds, including a deer park, is faintly bucolic and was vividly recalled by Lidderdale, who spent many happy hours playing there as a child. Could anything be more appropriate, given that the hotel’s gardens today are a lovely oasis of green in an increasingly built-up city?

MOUNT NELSON HOTEL Orange Street, Gardens Cape Town Photo Gallery

Today, the Mount Nelson, a destination hotel that has survived from the colonial era, still has a faintly Edwardian air about it. It was bought in 1890 by shipping magnate, Sir Donald Currie, for use as a hotel by the First Class passengers on his Union Castle shipping line – the first ever South African hotel to offer hot and cold running water. Herbert Baker supervised its construction. However, within months of opening, in 1899, the Boer War started, and the hotel became the headquarters for the British Army.

Lord Kitchener was based here, as were generals Buller and Roberts. During that time, the hotel was ‘booked solid with senior officers, distinguished war correspondents, wives, sweethearts and even ordinary adventurers and sightseers’, wrote James Sherwood and Ivan Fallon in Orient-Express: A Personal Journey. A young Winston Churchill was nursed back to health here by his mother, Jennie, after his escape from a Boer prison camp, and he filed a number of his dispatches from what he described as ‘this most excellent and well-appointed establishment which maybe thoroughly appreciated after a sea voyage’. Other familiar names in its guest book are those of Rudyard Kipling, Arthur Conan Doyle, HG Wells and Cecil John Rhodes. In 1956, it became part of the Cayzer empire, and in 1988, Orient-Express Hotels bought it.

The hotel was decorated in much the same way for decades, until about six years ago when it was decided it needed a shake up. ‘The trick was not to throw the baby out with the bathwater -aesthetically speaking, that is,’ says the man charged with its redecoration, Graham Viney. ‘A cocktail lounge, the Planet Bar, was installed and at the same time the adjacent lounge lost its mustard and pink colour scheme that had survived since just after the war. The fitted carpets were lifted, wooden floors relaid and the panelling was painted in eight shades of white to lighten and brighten the enclosed east-facing room ’

A grand piano tinkles away in the background, decorator Graham Viney ’s white-on-white lounge the effervescent setting to an old-world ritual: high tea. Colonial gentlemen and denim-clad rock stars, genteel ladies and barely dressed young wives all head for the profiteroles and the chocolate torte. The hotel gardens evoke distant memories of the former park-like surroundings of Hamilton Ross’s country house which, in their heyday, were populated by deer and incorporated a number of fountains. The elegant Planet Bar is a popular cocktail lounge overlooking the terrace and gardens.

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