Wednesday 22 September 2021

Huis Doorn (1999), Rhodes Cottage (2019)

Men who touched the world

This morning, I read a story of how Cecil John Rhodes inspired WWI through a first fraught then interesting friendship between him and Kaiser Wilhelm II. The fascinating link between them is exemplified in a paperweight presented to the Kaiser in 1905 which included rocks from Cecil John Rhodes’ grave at the World’s View in the Matopos Hills, which is to be displayed at Huis Doorn. [The Guardian: The kaiser and the paperweight: how Cecil Rhodes helped inspire the first world war]

Now, I will not go into the lives of these two extraordinary yet flawed men who have left an indelible mark in world history, that is covered by more qualified archivists and historians, but I find myself filling in another blank in my experiences of travel interests spurred on by curiosity.

My own personal journey

It was August 1999, in January of that year, I had just come out of an almost 7-year relationship, but we remained friends and best of friends to date, we had gone on holiday to Brussels for a week, then he returned to London whilst I made my way up to the Netherlands by train to holiday with a friend I first met on a trip to Amsterdam and developed a friendship with over more than a year.

He picked me up from Utrecht Central Station and we drove to his house in Doorn. Just a few hundred metres from his house was this uniquely imposing building, Huis Doorn where I was told the Kaiser spent his final decades in exile after his abdication at the end of WWI. Audrey Hepburn’s mother had before his residency spend her childhood at Huis Doorn too.

My friend had a story, three times in the preceding decade with his mother by his bedside, they thought he was not going to make the morning, like a cat with nine lives he rose from the grip of AIDS to survive and thrive. His mother lived a few streets away, a native of Doorn. It was whilst in Doorn that I observed the solar eclipse of 1999 on the 11th of August. [Wikipedia: Solar eclipse of August 11, 1999]

Huis Doorn – a personal tour

His mother, a dear lady in her early 70s was such fun to be with, we just bantered at length and as a child, her father was a groundsman at Huis Doorn, with their house neighbouring the grand house. She talked of times of having tea with the Kaiser who had many children and embraced into the Doorn community found time to entertain the children of the village and play games with them.

She told me of times when they, the children played hide-and-seek in the house which had secret rooms, doors, chutes, tunnels and much else. She offered to take me on a tour of the house on a bright afternoon, which we eventually did. A guided tour by someone who knew the Kaiser, the house, the stories, the gossip, the rumours and witnessed his demise was something not to be missed and we were the only ones there, after the public museum itself had closed.

Rhodes Cottage Museum – a personal tour

Just over 30 years later, I was in Cape Town with Brian and we decided to visit Rhodes Cottage Museum in Muizenberg, the cottage by the sea was where Cecil Rhodes spent his last days and died. Upon arrival there, the cottage was closed, it did not look like a typical museum, it is run by volunteers.

However, we went next door to ask for some information about the museum and as luck will have it, they had keys to the museum and the cottage was opened for Brian and I to tour at our leisure and return the keys when we were done. [Facebook: Rhodes Cottage Museum]

To view the bed in which Cecil Rhodes died and other elements of his personal history within the cottage rather than his public profile in monuments, endowments, and bequeathments was awesome. You got the essence of the man in his greatness and limitations of our humanity in our mortality. The Kaiser and Cecil Rhodes, after all they did, were now footsteps in the sands of time.

Houses with personal effects show a different picture of a person’s humanity with all the accoutrements of public life and achievement stripped away, I visit houses because I get to know the person is just human rather than superhuman or divine.

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