More than a century ago Kate MacKirdie agreed to marry Englishman Samuel Scott Wilson on condition that he build her a castle. So he did. In South Africa. In Kensington. Wilson arrived in Joburg in 1910 and building started immediately, using quarried stone taken from the south side of the ridge upon which the castle still stands. The design is a scaled down version of Rothesay Castle in Rothesay-on-Bute, Scotland, where MacKirdie’s father worked as a gate keeper. The plans were drawn by an Edinburgh University graduate architect friend of Samuel Scott Wilson who was employed by Sir Herbert Baker—a prolific architect at that time and responsible for many houses, schools and monuments in Cape Town and Joburg, including Jeppe High School for Boys. Kate honoured her word and she and her love moved into the castle in 1911—a year after building began.
I went there once. Number 127 Highland Road. A jewel on the koppie—its gleam a confused presence on the landscape of a country that is no conduit for romance. At least not in the traditional sense. My mom, a history teacher at Jeppe High School for Girls, hoped to organise a centenary history tour around the suburb in honour of 100 years of Jeppe Boys and was meeting the castle owner to discuss whether it would be possible to allow people into his home. Home. Ha. Imagine? William Wilson and Kate—oooh! Could this be a serendipitous imagining of another castle-loving couple? Blush. So, WilliamWilson&Kate spent some time in the castle but had to sell after financial hardship made its way into their fairytale. Ownership was fickle until the castle was bought by the Van der Spek family in 1973, who renovated the original design; demolishing the east wing and adding a huge dining room with battlements and a second walk-on turret. A “Strictly Private, No Admittance” sign was placed on the castle’s wooden front gate, set in the one-metre-thick stone entrance wall, to keep inquisitiveness at bay.
I am almost certain that Marius Van der Spek, grandson of the proprietor, was the man we met with on the day we visited the castle (I have no evidence for this other than the name “Marius” rings a clanging bell so I’ll assume so anyway). He offered us Appletizer (almost as exciting as being in a real castle), which I eagerly accepted; inhaling the tangy fizz and clutching my glass with the white knuckles of pleasure-filled anticipation, I allowed my mind to roam in la-la land as Marius took us on a personal tour of Rothesay-in-Africa. I remember the canon in the back, the weight and presence a stark contrast against the ethereality of the flower-spilled garden. The view was incredible, stretching the eye to Langermann’s Kop across the valley. It was dark inside. Gloomy. But in a mystical, magical kind of medieval way that ignores the horrendous hygiene, disgusting food, rotting teeth, dubious medical practise and bubonic plague more typical of the time than any cliché of marvellous masquerades and happy ever afters.
Marius told us that the castle, which rose three/four levels (depending who you ask) and had walls 18 inches thick, was very cold in winter; eliciting no sympathy from my corner (more opportunity for snugly blankets, warm fires, hot chocolate and a magnificent book). We were taken into a room that had rickety flooring, so we weren’t allowed to step into it but we were taken up the narrow, winding staircase that gave access to the bloody tower. This was the part (over and above the Appletizer) that I recounted to my brothers with much glee when I saw them later in the day; I was boastful because, truly, they would have loved it. The bloody tower was a central part of our role play vocabulary as kids—this was the top most turret of the castle where soldiers stood at the ready in event of impending battle; high up, it served as a lookout spot (like the crow’s nest in a pirate’s ship) but became known as the “bloody tower” because the enemy would aim to shoot the lookout so that they could sneak into battle. It was a dangerous spot to be and much blood was spilled—hence “bloody tower”. I am pretty sure that Chrisie told me this, which quite suited my penchant for the macabre but actually I am not sure how true it is. I have consulted The Oracle of all things information (aka Google) and all I can find in reference to “bloody tower” is the Tower of London, where princes Edward V and his brother Richard Duke of York were supposedly murdered at the order of their uncle Richard III. Either way, the bloody tower was the pinnacle of medieval intrigue and standing on that turret was as close as I could get to the blood, guts and beauty of Arthurian sensibility.
Whilst there were no infant murders in this here bloody tower (that we know of), there is a tale of tragedy woven into the narrative of the Kensington Castle. Rumour has it that the castle was abandoned in 2014 and that the owner owes the council hundreds of thousands of Rands. The Kensington Heritage Trust suspects that the interior of the house has been stripped and is anxious that it will become an easy target for building hijackers and has thus called on the public for any information on the whereabouts of the owner—listed as Marius Van der Spek by the Deeds Office. This has resulted in a barrage of rumours including suicide and relocation to Cape Town as well as speculative concern that Marius has been the victim of foul play and his body has been hidden somewhere in the castle.
Called “eccentric” by some it appears that Marius attended Purdue University in West
Lafayette, IN, USA. He left the country in 1985 to go back to South Africa and kept in contact with his friend and college roommate for a while before losing touch; he spoke of inheriting and renovating a castle. My mom and I met Marius (assuming it was the same guy) in the mid ‘90s. He is now gone.
In 2004, an old combi covered in painted flowers was seen coming in and out of the property. Hippies maybe? The lights are on at the Castle gate at night. Fairies? The brass plaque and the 500kg ship cannon are allegedly missing and the Castle’s care-taker (apparently there is one—so perhaps no hippies or fairies) confirms that it has been broken into on more than one occasion but knows nothing of the whereabouts of Marius Van der Spek. The final and most telling statement that I’ll share is this (written by Juan Van der Spek): ‘I am Marius’s Brother. I know the whole story behind this saga as it is still unfortunately part of my life.’ The mystery remains unclosed at the time of this word.
Bibliography: The Heritage Portal , Pressreader.com , Kensington Castle newspaper clipping
Author & Storyteller: Andrea Zanin
Andrea is a writer, wife, mother and dreamer; also the author of this website. She moved to London in 2006 to earn £s, travel, see bands and buy 24-up Dr Martens—which she did, and then ended up staying. Andrea lives in North London with her husband (also a Saffa) and five children. She loves this grand old city but misses her home and wishes her children could say “lekker” (like a South African does) and knew what a “khoki” is.