Finding hidden beauty

2010-11-24 00:00

JUST about every village and dorpie in South Africa has one. Perhaps little more than a corrugated iron shed; or made of wood; some are small; some are enormous; some well maintained while others are derelict. They are country churches, and their variety is staggering. Now a book showcasing them has appeared: 101 Country Churches of South Africa by Philippe Menache and Darryl David.

The two authors came together by a serendipitous chance. David, well known to Witness readers as a contributor to the paper and the founder­ of Book Town Richmond, received an e-mail from Johannesburg­-based Menache after the Richmond initiative got off the ground.

When Menache came to Durban, the two met for a cup of coffee. The talk got round to how they both love touring and photographing out-of-the-way places in South Africa — and particularly the churches. And both of them had long had dreams of producing a book on the subject.

Most of the photographs had already been taken by one or the other, but there was still research to be done, finding out about dates, architects and history. And publishers shook their heads and talked about niche markets and small print runs. So the two went ahead on their own, and a month after the launch, their stock is dwindling fast. Obviously there is an enthusiastic market among those who travel the more remote regions of the country and want to know something about what it is that they are seeing there.

But the project suffered a near fatal blow when, in July, David’s laptop was stolen. On it was his part of the book — the text and the pictures. “I was so angry — you work on something for ten years and then, in one evening, it’s gone,” he says. Just before the burglary, he had started to save the file, but it was slow and he had to go out.

“I thought I would do it later,” he says, but there wasn’t to be a later. It meant a couple of churches had to be left out as he could no longer find the negatives, but in the end, even though the weeks before publication saw David playing catch-up with Menache, it all came together.

I asked David why churches: what is their appeal? He is not a regular churchgoer, although his grandfather was a lay minister. “It has something to do with beauty, with the serenity you feel when you are there. There’s no noise, no one will chase you away. There’s a safety. And, in some of them, there is still the sense of community pride, the way people have looked after them.”

When David was first married, his brother-in-law gave him a touring atlas, and he began to feel that he had to see everything in the book. And over the years, while searching for a suitable place for his cherished dream of a Book Town, while going on family holidays, and while simply travelling, he has just about seen the whole of the country.

One of his most recent discoveries was the hamlet of Glen Lyden, 30 kilometres from Bedford in the Eastern Cape. While he was in Bedford in July this year, he met an elderly woman and told her about his church project. “You should see those churches,” she said. And so he set off into the unknown, becoming slightly worried as there was no cellphone reception, and no one knew where he was. Both the churches are in the book — an enchanting little buttressed stone church with a tin roof, built in 1828, and an elegant, if rather stark, white plastered building which has been standing since 1873.

I ask David if he has a favourite. He thinks for a while, and then says that among KZN churches, it has to be New Hanover, with its spectacular avenue of tall plane trees. But it is a hard choice — and there are so many more he loves that a second volume could well be on the cards, particularly if a publisher picks up on the obvious interest the first has generated and comes on board to help with the costs.

•101 Country Churches of South Africa by Philippe Menache and Darryl Earl David is published by Booktown Richmond Press and is available locally from David at davidd­@ukzn.ac.za or 078 598 2312.

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