Robin Lamplough goes back in time to discover the story behind an infamous old oak tree
At the entrance to the Hillcrest library stands a curious relic. It is a section of weathered log. Council employee Bongiwe Biyela says she has often wondered why it is there.
The lettering on a neglected plaque reveals a little. It reads: Part of the historic oak which stood at Padley’s Crossing. But most are none the wiser.
In fact, the log was once part of a massive tree which stood at the foot of Botha’s Hill. When it fell in 1983, the victim of termites and high wind, it may have been 100 years old. For generations, it had been a local landmark.
The tree stood on the edge of present West Riding, not far from the railway line which today takes holiday excursions from Kloof to Inchanga. From 1845, before the railway was built, there had been a roadside inn near the tree. The inn was known as the Halfway House, and later as Padley’s Yorkshire Arms. Padley advertised it as “The ORIGINAL Halfway House” because there was a competitor at Alverstone.
Perhaps one of the inn-keepers planted the tree. It became an outspan site on the road to the interior. The road led to the Natal capital, the Transkei, the Free State and the Transvaal. After the discovery of minerals inland it became one of the country’s key routes. Local transport riders made good money hauling freight and supplies to the highveld. All this was before Hillcrest existed.
When Britain made war on the Zulu kingdom, troops and supply wagons had to negotiate Botha’s Hill. After the French Prince Imperial was killed in Zululand, his mother made a pilgrimage to the place where he had died. Local lore insists that she camped beside the oak tree on her way inland. It is also believed that the party bringing the prince’s body back for burial made an overnight stop there on its way to the coast.
Whether or not these Hillcrest legends are true, at least one nameless wagoner threw a trek chain over a fork in the tree and left it there. Gradually, as the tree grew, the chain became embedded in its branches. I well remember my first visit there over 50 years ago. From the ground below, it was possible to see links on either side of the trunk.
And in 1983 the tree fell. Former town clerk, Barry Stops, recalls that a team led by Brij Duca cut the trunk into sections and cleared the site. A town board employee named Kjel Christiensen cut a number of planks from the pieces of oak. With these Christiensen fashioned a high-backed chair, a table and a gavel, all to be used at town board meetings.
An attempt by local Rotarians to nurture a replacement oak sapling came to nothing. And even the town board’s days were numbered. After 1994, the eThekwini metropole engulfed it. The oak furniture was shunted to the library, taking up space. Eventually (according to the present accounts office manager, Vinisha Pooran) one of the last employees of the old board, Lynn Wells, had the table and chair moved to the accounts department. Lynn also pinned a newspaper page reporting the fall of the oak tree. It is still there today, yellowed but legible. Ann Maud, who kept the board’s minutes for 27 years, tells me the gavel was presented to her in farewell.
The table has become a repository for pot plants. The high-backed chair stands forlornly in a corner. Few visitors, however, intent on paying their Metro bills as quickly as possible, have much time to look around.
It’s sad we forget so easily.