Bloemfontein - A short history and tour information.

The First Raadzaal (86 St Georges St, City. 051 447 9609), now a museum, was the city’s first building and over the years it’s played the role of school, church and assembly hall. It was opened in 1849, three years after Sir Henry Douglas Warden founded the town.
Nearby, the imposing Old Presidency (cnr St Georges and President Brand St. City. 051 448 0949) built of sandstone, houses a kooky collection of Colony memorabilia, period dresses, hospital instruments, kitchen ware and furniture along with portraits and busts of the bearded Orange Free State prime ministers, including Hoffman, Rietz and M.T. Steyn.
Manicured parks and stately buildings flank Union Avenue towards Naval Hill, a city landmark rich with historic tales. Here on the hill a British soldier, tried for treason during the Anglo-Boer War, was hung from a tree – a tree that still stands. The white horse painted on the eastern slope is the legacy of the Wiltshire Horse Regiment that occupied this position, still a peculiar reminder of the war. Other war memorials include the obelisks at St Andrews School (2 Dan Pienaar Dr. Westdene. 051 444 2639) and Grey College (Jock Meiring St. Parkwest. 051 444 1724) as well as the Basutho monument at Queens Fort Military Museum (116 Church St. City. 051 447 5478), which honours the 17 000 lost Basutho lives.

No historic tour is complete without a visit to the famous world of JRR Tolkien. The creator of the famous trilogy, The Hobbit, Lord of the Rings and The Silmarillion was born in the city on 3rd January 1892, where his father worked in a bank. After his fathers death however the family moved back to England in 1895 when Ronald was three. Hobbit Boutique Hotel (19 President Steyn St, Westdene. 051 447 0663) is the starting point for the super-informative Tolkien Trail, which takes you to his birthplace in town, now the Bradlows building in St Andrews St, the Anglican Cathedral of St Andrews and St Michael (85 St Georges St, City. 051 448 3010) where he was baptised and which houses the plaque commemorating his life, and to President Brand Cemetery (President St, City) where his father is buried. The Hobbit Boutique Hotel, transports you into the Hobbit world, rooms are named after characters like Frodo, Elron and Arwen and you’ll be forgiven for thinking that you have landed in Middle Earth when you sit in the lush overgrown garden.

Politics is deeply embedded in Bloemfontein’s story. The ANC was supposedly founded at what used to be the Wesleyan church ¬– now the four brightly painted cooling towers in Harvey Road – in 1912. Historians do differ on the exact venue. The former National Party is also rumoured to have started here, although these details remain a mystery, it is thought that the venue was the former Oranje Fees Saal, near the Twin Spired Church (Charles St) in the centre of town. Maphikela House (cnr Tsoai and Sefotlhelo St), was not only the first double-storey home in Bochabela Location but was also home to Thomas Maphikela, a founding member of the ANC. It is now a national heritage site, which can be viewed from the outside. The HNP and Cope were also started at Conferences held in Bloemfontein.

Bloemfontein’s turbulent history reaches behind the digareteneng – a “curtain” of houses built in 1947 to hide the slums from the British princesses Elizabeth and Margaret during their visit. Some of these houses still stand. From Queens Fort, now the Military Museum (116 Church Street, 051 447 5478), the soldiers viewed the town, it was later the Oranje Mental Hospital, holding David Pratt, who attempted to assassinate President Dr Hendrik Verwoerd in parliament on 9th April 1960. The farmer later committed suicide in the hospital in 1961.

On a lighter note - The National Museum (36 Aliwal St. 051 447 9609) is the only one in the world with a full skeleton of the Melanorosaurus, excavated near Ladybrand in 1993. And you can thank Bloemfontein for the parking meter. The first meter was installed in the city in 1955, just 100 years after Grey College was founded – SA’s first dual-medium school whose famous scholars include Hansie Cronje, Steve Hoffmeyer, Sir Laurens Van Der Post, Frans Steyn, Ruben Kruger and Ryk Neethling along with 90 other South African sportsmen.
Historic, Bloemfontein and Kimberley city and Free State tours are available.

Source – Ailsa Uys - Mango Juice Magazine April 2010


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