Seaside sanctuary in St James
Rodwell House, the elegant St James landmark, is now a boutique guesthouse. But looking forward, what does its future hold?
Hiding behind the heavy wooden gate in the thick stone walls of this gracious St James landmark is a magical Mediterranean-style garden. It lies at the foot of the mountains above St James beach. Once known as ‘Lancelevy’, before Randlord JB Taylor (or ‘Lucky Jim’, as he was known) virtually rebuilt the house in 1935, it stands proud today. But, as many heritage homes, it has a story to tell.
At the turn of the century, the area was known as the ‘picnic bush’ where day trippers came on a special railway excursion ticket to picnic under the milkwood trees. By 1902 the St James Aquarium, the first in South Africa, was built on the rocks to the right of St James’ beach. Taylor had bought in St James to be ‘nearer [his] beloved sea’. In time, he became known as the Grand Old Man of False Bay, as he spent hours at sea on his boat, which he’d named Lucky Jim.
Today’s owner Robin von Holdt admits that he and Taylor have something in common. ‘I love St James. We lived in Newlands when I was a child, but I learnt to swim in these tidal pools. It was our favourite beach to come to. It hasn’t changed in over a century, so when I returned from London on holiday and saw the ‘for sale’ sign after a lunch date with a dear friend at the Brass Bell, I couldn’t resist! We’d had some very good glasses of Sauvignon Blanc and it seemed like a great idea at the time. But, really, the house was a mess. It was cold, damp, wet and horrible, and had no deck from which to enjoy the sea view, and a wonky path down through the garden, with a stream running right under the building! I’d spent a decade in London in financial services, though, and I could see its potential. (And the cellar I wanted for my wine collection!)’
So this time round, Rodwell was lovingly worked on by heritage specialists, architects and structural engineers. They literally dug out a new wine cellar under the house, resolved the damp, and built terraces to create a Mediterranean-style formal garden with matching pergolas (the original garden had only one) and a new pool with a boulle court next to it. A 40 000-litre water reservoir was built under the terraces to divert the stream that made its way under the house. Today, mountain water feeds the pool, and a new stream tinkles down the side of the pergola, creating an enchanting walk up from the beach, especially when the garden is in bloom.
‘It’s a compelling property,’ says Robin, an established wine connoisseur with a world-renowned collection stored here and in cellars in Belgium and London. ‘It’s rare to find 1 600m2 of prime land in St James, and so I decided to move back for good and oversee the mammoth construction project myself.’
Today there are nine contemporary suites, providing guests with a complete contrast in mood and texture to the historical panelling and period details that hold sway on the ground floor below. ‘We also added a gym and a luxurious garden cottage, which became my home when the hotel opened,’ adds Robin. The wine cellar has expanded to house 10 000 bottles and Rodwell has became known for its tasting evenings. The kitchen is now able to cope with up to 50 guests for gourmet food-and-wine pairing evenings. Over the years, a collection of Cape antiques has also filled the house, as has an eclectic array of artworks.
‘Rodwell’s relationship with the sea is very special,’ says Robin, ‘so we named all the rooms after the ocean outlooks they provide.’ A glance at these names – from the Simonstown Suite to that named for neighbouring Muizenberg – gives you some idea of the panoramic False Bay views Rodwell House enjoys. It’s a wonderful spot for families with kids, who gather up buckets and spades and head over the road to the tidal pools and colourful beach huts, returning salty, sandy and happy to the freshwater shower that welcomes them at the gate. And it’s quite possible that these gracious walls might again be home to a family. ‘Lucky Jim’ knew a thing or two about location, of course, and his nose for good investments was bang on. He knew that the heritage of Rodwell House, as he renamed it, would endure for generations to come.
In the Zone: St James
St James is a prestigious stretch of beautiful coastline, much loved for its charming character and history. If you’re buying a heritage property here, track down a copy of St James: A Century by the Sea 1850–1950. This records all the historical homes individually, many with photographs. Development began when the railway to Kalk Bay opened in 1883. Today, the majority of residents in St James are aged between 50 and 64 (45%), but 3,45% of buyers this year were 18 to 35, 17% were 36 to 49, and 34% were 65 and older. The average sale price of homes in St James was R4,362 million in 2013, up from R2,978 million in 2012. Recent roadworks are now complete.
Text: Michelle Snaddon
Photographs: Adriaan Louw