October 2, 1997
There is no place on earth quite like it. While not fully a castle, La Rochelle is an impressive estate tucked away in the Imbeza Valley of Zimbabwe near the Mozambique border. It's about a three hour drive east from the capital Harare.
Bev in front of pool at La Rochelle
It has seen some exotic history surviving the Rhodesian War of the 1960's. The people who built it and who lived there were unique, the people who now run La Rochelle as a hotel are just as unique.
During the Rhodesian War much fighting took place in this countryside. Insurgents were smuggled across the Rhodesia/Mozambique border just a few miles away. La Rochelle was not touched because the owners were sympathizers with the rebel movement. War planning meetings took place in this chateau.
After the builders and inhabitants, the Courtauld's died, La Rochelle became uninhabited. Now it has a new life. My wife Beverly and I stayed here for our Church's fall festival in late September 1996 and almost felt part of the drama of British colonialism and the Rhodesian War which I remember so well continually on television news during my high school days. The United Church's of God Fall Festival is being held here again this year. Pastor Burk McNair and his wife Susie are going to be the guest speakers from the United States along with South African pastor Andre van Belkum and his wife Elize.
I want to return La Rochelle sometime in our lives. I met my first Zimbabweans and Malawians here. My relationship with them will continue forever as they have brought Africa into my life and my work.
Mike and Lyn Wicksteed who run La Rochelle as a specialty hotel make themselves part of the guests and add so
Mike and Lyn
perfectly to the ambiance of this mystery spot. La Rochelle is incomplete without Mike and Lyn. It takes less than a day to become friends with them. While you are there they will play a historical video about the Stephen and Virginia Courtauld who settled here after an illustrious career in the British textile business. From here they did much to enhance the spirit of Rhodesia by contributing to humanitarian causes and the arts. His wife Virginia did much to help impoverished Malawi not far too the north.
When we arrived in Harare Mrs. Gillian Heathcote, member of the United Church of God handed me article from one of the main Harare, Zimbabwe newspapers which just published a story about this most special place. If there is anyway one could get to this remote place on earth, I heartily recommend it.
I want to share this article with you along with a few photos we took.
From a September 1996 Harare, Zimbabwe newspaper....
Sleeping Beauty Gets Magical Touch
by Pattie Pink
A couple of years ago, I wrote in the Sunday Mail Magazine about a sleeping castle waiting for a magic touch. That castle is LaRochelle, near Penhalonga, just off the Harare/Mutare highway. It is a gorgeously unique place and although perhaps not a castle by Sleeping Beauty standards, certainly La Rochelle has a tower and a magical garden filled with rare flora from all over the world.
But what is the story behind La Rochelle?
Well, La Rochelle started off in 1951 as the private estate of a very wealthy Englishman of UK textile fame, Stephen Courtauld and his wife, Virginia. Stephen was a quiet, studious man and in fact a dedicated philanthropist, who over his lifetime, gathered around him a world-famous collection of Turner paintings, jewels, antiques and rare plants.
Virginia was a very gregarious and glamorous lady and although many rumours gave her a strangely exotic background, I saw an old cine film of their early days of marriage at Eltham Palace, London, where they looked like any other wealthy young English societies of that era. Certainly despite her Italian birth her accent in later years was very very English.
Stephen and Virginia had no children but together with a much-loved lemur, the most primitive of primates, spent most of their days travelling the world in their steamship Virginia or yacht Eunamara. Both of them loved the sun and Africa and spent a long time looking for a lasting home promising warm sunny days.
They searched Africa from tip to toe until one day at the end of the 1940s
Where Fall Festival meetings were held.
On the grounds of La Rochelle
they flew over the lush Imbeza Valley in Penhalonga and lost their hearts to this country. They landed the plane in Umtali (now Mutare) and set down roots at once planning a house based on the home of Stephen's French forebearers, the Chateau of La Rochelle.
Because of building difficulties in the following years, a planned second tower and wing were never completed but certainly the house with its romantic courtyard, "Courtauld Rose" garden and rolling lawns, was the venue of many a magnificent party with famous artists and distinguished guests signing their names with a diamond stylus on two huge plateglass windows, both fascinating pages of history still preserved in the old house.
During those early days the Courtaulds established, with the professional help of a UK horticulturist, John Henry Michell, a unique botanical garden covering twenty hectares of land with exotic plants and trees gathered from all over the world.
Standing in front of window with
wire screen. This was to
keep grenades from being hurled
into the house.
Wild bushlands were carefully preserved and a dam filled with water plants and populated by flocks of water fowl. An orchid house was built which today is enhanced by the Peter Horrocks collection of rare Phalanopsis.
Stephen and Virginia soon became engrossed in the communities living around La Rochelle. They saw a great social need and established a school and home-craft industry for their Black workers. In 1964 they funded an agricultural training farm named Kukwanisa in the Tsonzo area of Nyanga, initially an outstandingly successful venture but which fell into disrepair during the war years.
As a patron of the arts, Stephen gave funds for the building of a well-equipped theatre in nearby Umtali (now Mutare) which was eventually named the Courtauld Theatre. Further gifts to the town included the construction of Queen's Hall and a pavillion at the showgrounds. They also funded the land and building costs for a multi-racial Club.
Turning to national needs in Harare, the generous couple helped to establish the National Art Gallery, the concert hall at the College of Music and contributed generously to the newly-opened University. They also endowed the Bulawayo Theatre but in general the Courtaulds were modest about their support of the country, so much so that few people knew of their generosity.
They even extended helping hands to a clinic on the shores of Lake Nyasa (later Malawi) and in fact it was only after quite a lot of persuasion by the Prime Minister at that time, Roy Welensky, that Stephen reluctantly accepted a British knighthood.
After Sir Stephen's death in 1967, Lady Courtauld faithfully carried on their joint dreams and plans for La Rochelle and Zimbabwe in his memory and before her death in 1972 she bequeathed the entire estate to her "family" as she called the people of this country, the country that they both loved so much. Specific gifts were carefully outlined in the will and although the Turner paintings went back to the UK, beautiful one-off prints were sent back to grace the walls of La Rochelle's dining room.
The Gem Collection was presented to National Museums and Monuments and Coin Collection to the university as the Courtaulds' final and ultimate gesture of giving after twenty years of practical love.
For many years since her death, the estate has been managed and protected by the National Trust of Zimbabwe through dedicated volunteer committees and a long line of loyal estate managers and staff but the lack of sufficient funds has prevented the implementation of a realistic conservation and development plan.
Sadly, too, the drought years saw the death of many rare flora despite the caring work of estate managers Bob Drummond and Ian Ehlinger and Head Gardener Nicholas Kashiri, who is an amazing source of botanical and personal knowledge. But that is understandable after twenty-three years of devoted work at La Rochelle.
The occasional renting out of self-catering cottages and the main house as a school hostel brought in only survival funds during the bleak years of La Rochelle's existence. Some people said that the estate had become an enormous white elephant and should be sold off but the National Trust never let go of the belief that one day a miracle would happen and the full potential of La Rochelle realised.
And so for the last 20 years, La Rochelle has been like a Sleeping Beauty waiting for the magic touch that would transform it back into its original glory. This year it happened when the much needed financial input came from "fairy godparents" Mike and Lyn Wicksteed, ex-Rhodes Nyanga Hotel, who have transformed the La Rochelle house into a small but most beautiful heritage hotel with truly delicious food for guests and casual lunch and dinner bookings.
Special functions too. There are five double rooms, a State room suite, a gorgeous double suite in Lady Courtauld's Fantasy (summerhouse), five self-catering cottages, swimming pool, a real living maze and a large caravan park.
An unlikely looking fairy godfather, Mike has brought to La Rochelle not only the magic of hotel experience but also a sensitive appreciation of the historic sites of Zimbabwe. With Lyn adding the development of historically correct decor and the magic, cooking pot, the couple are twice as effective as any Prince's kiss. However, come to think of it HRH Prince Charles did hover around the neighbourhood when he was here last.
Because La Rochelle Estate belongs to us all, we should take an active interest in its welfare and survival. For example, perhaps some lovely Zimbabwean rose farmers would donate rose bushes to replace all those destroyed during the drought.
Anyone got a spare extinct gingko tree? If you want to know how it looks, write to La Rochelle. The primroses in the dell need replacing and funds to seal the dam and restore it to its former glory.
Most of all we need you to visit and if you want some wonderful plants for your garden the La Rochelle nursery is an exciting treasure-chest of flora. What about orchids too? Lastly if you have any memories, photographs, memorabilia or furniture of that era why not donate them to the national Trust of Zimbabwe, P.O. Box 709 harare for permanent display at La Rochelle?
Remember the National Trust is a voluntary organisation and guardian of several other heritage sites. These include World's View; the Nyanga Historical Exhibition, both in Nyanga; Mabukuwene Estate, Bulawayo; Murahwa's Hill, Mutare; Fort Gomo, Penhalonga; and Sebakwe Poort Park, Kwekwe.
The trust needs hearty funding to expand its heritage sites so why not become a member and support Zimbabwe? Remember a current National Trust membership card gives you free access not only to Zimbabwean heritage sites but also allows you to enjoy reciprocity with over 1,000 national trusts in England, Wales, Scotland, Ireland, Australia, New Zealand, Barbados, Bermuda, Bahamaas, Guernsey, Jersey, Malaysia, Fiji, Cayman Islands and two Trusts in the Netherlands. What a bargain!
Twenty kilometres down the road from La Rochelle is historic Mutare with its enchanting game experience on Cecil's Kop and elephant and rhino on Tiger's Kloof. Mutare celebrates its centenary next year so why not come and get to know the lovely old buildings and heritage sites.
You know Manicaland is not always given its fair share of national and international publicity as an unique tourist venue with the main complaint being that it is off the major tourist route and trailing third behind Kariba and the Victoria Falls.
But it is a major tourist route in its own right. Oh yes, it is true that everyone knows about Nyanga, the Vumba and the Mutare gateway to Mozambique but there is so much more to Manicaland and all with a strong historical flavour and well worth investigating.
What about a round-robin trip onwards from Nyanga and La Rochelle through Hot Springs, Chimanimani Mountains, Kyle Dam, Great Zimbabwe, historic Masvingo and back to Harare. This is a never-to-be-forgotten experience.
Beautiful La Rochelle and beautiful Bev
So I can tell you from personal experience that La Rochelle is a place of tranquility and beauty for Zimbabweans to treasure. A heritage which the Courtaulds wanted to share with all Zimbabweans. That is why they left La Rochelle to the nation.
All Zimbabweans should visit La Rochelle estate at least once and wander through the magical gardens. Stay a night or two and marvel at the incredible peace, the soft warm nights under star-filled skies. Spend a week and walk the trails and hills. Yes indeed La Rochelle is truly magical. Find out more by writing to: La Rochelle, Box SM 34 Penhalonga.
La Rochelle Hotel & Restaurant
P.O. Box 34
La Rochelle, formerly the home of Sir Stephen and Lady Courtauld is situated in the beautiful Imbeza Valley and has recently been leased by Mike and Lyn Wickstead who have re-furbished it as a lovely, fully licensed, country hotel. The main homestead can accommodate 14 people in 7 en-suite rooms, a cottage, now called the Honeymoon suite, is situated in the garden.
There are four self-catering cottages, and caravan-camping facilities within the grounds to suit those with young families but all are welcome to enjoy the hotel restaurant which caters for all meals.
Mike Wickstead visits us in
There is peace and tranquility within the beautiful grounds of La Rochelle. The botanical garden is one of the main features of the hotel and it has the only Braille trail for the blind in Zimbabwe. The orchids in the orchid houses are a specialty and must be one of the best collections in Africa.
We are situated within a days outing of the resorts of Nyanga and Bvumba. Hillside Club in Mutare offers recreational facilities which include golf, tennis and bowls. There is an olympic size swimming pool within the Municipality, however there is a pool within the grounds. Fishing is offered at nearby Lake Alexander and Smallbridge Dam.
Places of interest within Mutare are Cecil Kop Game Park and the Museum which are open every day except Good Friday and Christmas Day. For those who enjoy walking there is Murahwa's Hill and Cross Kopje. Courtauld Theatre offers amateur productions.
Please contact us direct should you require any further information.