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Village of Visions

Text and pictures: Andrea Abbott. Article from the August 2014 issue of Country Life Magazine.

The famously misty town of Hilton is the gateway to the KwaZulu-Natal Midlands and the Midlands Meander

On top of the world at World's View. The gracious buildings of St Anne's Diocesan College, one of several excellent schools in Hilton.

A mountain pass in Scotland is called Rest and Be Thankful and that’s probably what the Voortrekkers would have done when, trekking out from Pietermaritzburg with laden ox wagons creaking in protest, they crested at last the steep terrain at the point known today as World’s View.

Hilton lies within the KZN mistbelt. The locals are so used to the mist, they'd probably miss it if they moved awayThe name is no hyperbole. On a clear day, stupendous views from this part of Hilton make it feel as if you are indeed standing on top of the world. It really is a great place to outspan and catch your breath. Both World’s View and that old Wagon Trail are heritage sites and a good starting point for exploring the famously misty town of Hilton, itself the gateway to the KZN Midlands and the Midlands Meander.

Today the sites are easily reached along World’s View Road that cuts through commercial timber plantations, whose extensive network of trails provides a technical challenge for proficient cyclists. Rambling is another popular activity, especially in the company of World’s View Conservancy members, who can point out the interesting features of the area.

Members of the hard-working World's View Conservancy proudly display their banner. Left to right: Howard Richardson, Maurice Wilkinson, Pat Wilkinson and Elli HamiltonOne of these is the defunct Town Hill Deviation, a stretch of railway line laid a hundred years ago to improve the Natal Main Line built in the 1880s. “The Deviation shortened the route by 12km,” secretary of the conservancy, Howard Richardson explains.”It passed through two tunnels, a curved one 94m long, and a straight one 845m long.” Both tunnels are still in fine shape but the rails were lifted in 1960 when the 6km-long twin Cedara tunnels, the second-longest railway tunnels in the southern hemisphere, were completed and the main line rerouted through them.

Remnants of the old steam railway are also found in Winterskloof to the west of World’s View, an area of mystical mistbelt forests that echo with the call of forest-dwelling birds like the Narina Trogon and the endangered African Crowned Eagle.

“The demographics have changed a lot in recent years. Hilton is no longer a sleepy hollow, but a vibrant community that’s attracting young families

At the heart of Winterskloof is the tiny Doreen Clarke Nature Reserve, where visitors can amble along an easy 1.5km trail through a forest of stately yellowwoods and other special mistbelt trees. Picnic sites are provided but, if that’s not your thing and you’re peckish, head back up to Dennis Shepstone Drive to find the excellent La Popote Cafe. The venue is shared with Sue Tarr’s Summerhouse, a quirky shop stocked to the rafters with gifts, home decor and clothing accessories.

Rotunda Farm Stall has everything from avocados to baby marrows with wine and baked goodies in between. What do you do with an eyesore like a disused quarry? You turn it into a beauty spot/shopping venue called The Quarry Centre

Back on the road and heading north along Hilton Avenue, you pass the Quarry Shopping Centre that’s built, as the name indicates, on the edge of a quarry. It’s worth a stop to gaze upon another lovely view and to see how an ugly scar can be transformed into a natural beauty spot.

A rusting, once-proud steam locomotive waits to be rescuedA short distance from there, at the original centre of the village, is the picturesque, old Hilton Station with its corrugated iron buildings and rusting hulks of once-proud steam locomotives that stand abandoned and forlorn, a dilapidated reminder of a time when rail travel was at the core of community life.

“This is the last remaining section of the original main line between Durban and Joburg,” says steam enthusiast, Grant Fryer. “It’s part of our heritage and should be preserved.” To that end, Grant and a group of residents have formed the Hilton Steam Heritage Association. “We’ve registered as a PBO (Public Benefit Organisation) that allows for access to government funding,” says Grant.

The vision is to develop the site into a tourism node that forms the official start of the Midlands Meander. Dining cars will be restaurants, and the buildings restored and leased out. “If we can bring some of our locomotives back to steam, we’ll run trips to Cedara,” says Grant. The project is part of the region’s Integrated Development Plan, tenants are already lined up, and rail buffs can’t wait for the trains to roll.

The outdoor terrace at La Popote restaurant“Some of our locomotives are the last of their kind in the world,” says Grant. But until Transnet signs the lease agreement, the project is on ice. “Last year, government approved R4-million but because the lease hadn’t been signed, that fell through.” But Grant and his team are determined to succeed. “For one thing, it will mean many new jobs.”

It will also complement the revamped Village Centre across the road that has attracted new business like the just-launched Artisan restaurant. At the helm is executive chef, Paul Eaton, who has worked at Phinda among other noteworthy destinations. With several other quality restaurants in town, isn’t it risky to open another? “Each establishment offers something different,” says Paul.

His business partner, Mark Heinrich, owner of Jaxx Restaurant at the Quarry Centre, says he envisages Hilton becoming the region’s dining destination of choice. “The KZN equivalent of Franschhoek,” adds Paul, who moved to Hilton with his wife Samantha and baby son Oliver three years ago. “We love living here,” Paul says. “The demographics have changed a lot in recent years. Hilton is no longer a sleepy hollow but a vibrant community that’s attracting young families.”

Tasha Jardim of Tasha's Fantastic Fudge with her faithful companion Squidjit.Another local entrepreneur who has put down deep roots in Hilton is Tasha Jardim, also a qualified chef and owner of one of the sweetest businesses on the Midlands meander – Tasha’s Fantastic Fudge. Entering her shop in the Jacaranda Centre across the road from the station, you’re enveloped at once in the seductive aroma of fudge – 50 flavours of it displayed tantalisingly in glass jars.

“I was a single mother and needed to supplement my income,” Tasha says. Using a recipe passed down through the family, she started out with a block of butter and bag of sugar. Today she employs 11 people and recently filled her first export order to Namibia. “I aim to reach the whole of Africa,” she says, adding that she’s a proudly South African producer and even prouder to be part of the Hilton community. “I wouldn’t move for anything.”

Locals say that among the attractions of the town are the large properties, village life (“Children can still walk along quiet lanes to go and play with their friends,” Paul Eaton says) and some of the country’s finest schools, including relative newcomers Cowan House and Grace College and those founded more than a century ago: Laddsworth Primary, St Anne’s Diocesan College and Hilton College, the latter the sporting rival of another famous Midlands boys’ school, Michaelhouse. The two schools compete rigorously each year during their rugby and hockey derbies, a sporting culture that has produced rugby greats like Gary Teichmann, Wayne Fyvie, Hentie Martens and Bob Skinstad – all Hilton College Old Boys.

In the grounds of Hilton College, well-known KZN theatre personalities Lisa Bobbert, Ben Vos, Aaron Mcllroy and John van de Ruit take instructions from Hilton Arts Festival's technical manager, Mike BroderickHilton College is also associated with another type of culture – the arts – and is the venue for the Hilton Arts Festival every September. Started 22 years ago by Sue Clarence, the festival has grown into one of the most important arts events. “The aim is to bring the pick of SA theatre to KZN for the weekend,” Sue says. From music and performance to visual arts and crafts, there is something to satisfy all tastes. “Art is the soul of the nation.”

It’s also part of the soul of Hilton for a number of acclaimed artists who live and work there. Jocelyn Boyley is one of these.

The widow of the great Errol Boyley, Jocelyn is famous in her own right for her exquisite landscapes and flower paintings. Her work is exhibited widely as well as in her gallery off Dennis Shepstone Drive.

Ebullient impressionist and expressionist painter, Mariánne Eriksson in her studio at Hillberry Art Gallery.Impressionist and expressionist painter, the ebullient Mariánne Eriksson is a recent arrival in Hilton. Her Hillberry Art Gallery is soon to be part of the Midlands Meander. “It’s at the most southern tip of the Meander.” Marianne has a vision for the arts scene in Hilton. “I want to ‘collect’ artists in the region and give them a chance to become better known.” The artists will exhibit their work in her ‘visiting gallery’ and be part of a support team to inspire one another. “I’ll host art soirees – cheese and French Champagne supplied. Artists can bring an idea, an empty canvas or something they’re struggling with.” In this endeavour, Mariánne is teaming up with glass artist Peta Crookes from nearby Karkloof.

As we enjoy a cup of Arabian coffee on her deck overlooking the Doreen Clarke Nature Reserve, I ask Mariánne what drew her and her husband, geology professor Patrick Eriksson, to Hilton. “The peace and the mist,” she says, “and the stupendous, inspirational views from my new studio. It’s like standing on top of the world.”

Where to Play

Some say all four seasons can occur on one day in Hilton. There's no mistaking autumn.■ The Witness Hilton Arts Festival takes place from 18-21 September this year. 033 383 0127 email, website

■ World’s View Conservancy (033 343 1033, 033 343 2884) and Winterskloof Conservancy (083 6391657) offer guided walks and other activities in their areas.

■ Hilton College estate has a superb nature reserve. Permits available from estate management or the conservation department. 033 383 0100, website

■ Doreen Clarke Nature Reserve 072 6549779, website

■ Midmar Resort is a short drive from Hilton along the N3: sailing, fishing, a nature reserve, various accommodation options, biking and hiking. 033 330 2067

■ The MTB Trails offers outrides in the Cedara forests, World’s View area and at Midmar Nature Reserve 033 343 2276

■ Hilton Station and the Hilton Steam Heritage Association 083 278 1490

Where to Eat

■ Taste of Thai in the centre of town. 074 180 9450

■ Old Main Brewery English pub (used to be Crossways Hotel) 033 343 3267

■ Jaxx – vibey cafe bistro in the Quarry Shopping Centre. 033 343 2226

■ Artisan – simple, fresh Italian food, in the newly renovated Village Centre opposite the station. 082 093 9251

■ La Popote at Folly Hill has a blazing fire on cool days, outdoor area for fine days. Superb menu, and vegetarians well catered for. 033 343 2352

■ Nicolson’s offers fine fare, off the Hilton College Road. 082 591 3884

Where to Stay

Coolwinds – upmarket, 4-star B&B with an on-site wellness and beauty clinic. 033 343 5410

Bancroft B&B – gracious home on the Old Howick Road close to World’s View. 033 343 3885

Cabbage Tree Cottage – B&B in a 9-acre garden close to a nature reserve 033 343 4103

Oakhaven Guest House & Art Studio – self-catering cottages, art classes and retreats. 033 3431372

The Knoll – Guesthouse on an historic farm near Winterskloof. 033 343 5874

■ For more info 072 654 9779 website

Also see SA-Venues.com

Good Read

The Story of Hilton, an account of the history of the village by C & M Lake and J Hoepfl is available in hard copy from Cartridge Smart 033 343 2007 or in e-book.

Property

"Rural properties have wonderful gardens, modern properties more structured gardens“Rural properties have wonderful gardens, modern properties more structured gardens,” says Maureen Rowlands of Pam Golding Properties Hilton (082 459 2724). Prices range from R1 250 000 (2 000m2, suburban) to R2 700 000 plus (4 000m2, lifestyle, pictured). Developments such as Garlington, Broadacres and The Gates Estates have attracted many South Africans living and working overseas. Plots have been snapped up and built homes are in short supply. Smaller developments remain a drawcard for retirees, investors and newly weds and sell from R1 200 000 to R3 500 000.

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