Staying in quirky, different places is always a kick, whether it’s in a tree house or a cave, on a train or a houseboat. So imagine my thrill when I got to spend a night in jail at Willowmore in the Karoo and uncovered fascinating old stories of darkness and rebellion, of a prison warden who turned to crime.
Back in the late 19th and early 20th century, the main crimes you’d be committed to jail for around here were stock theft, theft, alcoholism and rape. During the Anglo Boer War of 1899-1902 a good few rebels against the British colonial government – people who lived in the British-ruled Cape Colony but supported the Boers – were also thrown in the clink at Willowmore.
You can uncover some intriguing stories, like one about the warden who took a leaf out of his charges’ book and turned to theft, getting himself locked up in the jail for his sins. Schadenfreude. I can’t help wondering what the other prisoners thought about that.
By the mid 20th century Willowmore must have been a peaceful place to live. There were so few prisoners by the 1950s that the jail was closed and sold to a private buyer. It changed hands a few times and when the current owners, Karen and Oleg, bought it in 2010 it had been standing empty for 12 years.
Rats, bats and weeds had taken charge of the buildings and grounds. Karen and Oleg had to clean it up, rebuild parts and install plumbing and electricity. Then they began scouring antique shops for appropriate pieces to furnish it. For instance, the large curved table in the gallery where we ate breakfast was originally a court-room jury table. Oleg also collects heavy old safes and they’re dotted around the lodge for use as tables.
In 2014 the old stables were converted into two self-catering suites for families and a budget room called the Donkey Room (after a painting of a donkey above the bed). ‘These self-catering rooms are most popular with South Africans, but Europeans prefer the B&B suites in the main lodge for the historical aspect,’ says Karen.
Note: I was a guest of The Old Jail for one night but the opinions are mine.
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