Rider meets Rider

2012-11-20 00:00

HAGGARD’S Hilldrop, a guest lodge in Newcastle, was once the home of Sir Henry Rider Haggard, author of King Solomon’s Mines, She and Allan Quatermain, who lived there in 1881, briefly visiting what he referred to as its “well-remembered stoep” once more in 1914.

Last month a descendant of Haggard’s trod that stoep again, his great-grandson Rider Cheyne.

Cheyne lives in Canada where he and his wife Donna-Marie Cyr live on a small farm in Williams Lake, British Columbia. But Cheyne was born on the Haggard estate at Ditchingham in Norfolk, England. He first realised he had a famous relative as a child. “I was five or six,” he says. “It was a bit awe-inspiring. I felt there were certain standards I had to live up to.”

Cheyne’s great-grandfather was born in 1856. An academic underachiever, Haggard’s parents arranged for him to come to South Africa in 1875 on the staff of a family friend, Sir Henry Bulwer, recently appointed Lieutenant Governor of Natal. From 1875 until 1879, Haggard worked as a minor colonial official, first in Pietermaritzburg then Pretoria after the annexation of the Transvaal in 1877.

In April 1879, Haggard resigned from government service to start a farming venture with his friend Arthur Cochrane, buying Rooi Point farm just outside Newcastle. The farmhouse was named Hilldrop. While Cochrane managed the farm, Haggard went to England, returning to South Africa a married man towards the end of 1880, just in time for the first Anglo-Boer War. Newcastle, close to the Transvaal border, was right on the firing line.

Undeterred, Haggard and his wife Louie arrived at Hilldrop in January 1881 where they heard the gunfire of the battles of Ingogo and Majuba from their stoep. Following the British defeat by the Boers, the Haggards subsequently rented out Hilldrop to the royal commission negotiating the peace terms, retaining one room where Louie gave birth to their first child, Jock. By August they had sold up and sailed for England.

In his autobiography, Haggard recalled leaving Hilldrop — “which neither of us ever has, nor I suppose ever will, see again except in dreams. I remember feeling quite sad as we drove down the dusty track to Newcastle, and the familiar house, surrounded by its orange trees, grew dim and vanished from our sight.”

Haggard would, in fact, see Hilldrop once more in 1914. In the interim, to fill the lulls in the fledgling legal career he had embarked on in London, he began to write. His third book, King Solomon’s Mines, brought him overnight fame and he went on to write many others, mostly adventure stories set in southern Africa, including a trilogy featuring the Zulus in the 19th century.

Haggard’s son Jock died tragically in 1891 aged nine. When Haggard recovered from his grief, he took up an interest in public service with a particular focus on agriculture. His two-volume study, Rural England, brought him recognition as an agricultural authority and it was this, as well as other services to his country, that earned him a knighthood and an appointment to the Dominions Royal Commission (DRC) with whom he came to South Africa in 1914 where, in-between official duties, Haggard made pilgrimages to his old haunts in Pretoria, Pietermaritzburg and, of course, Hilldrop.

Nearly a century later, his great-grandson has spent three weeks travelling in his relative’s footsteps. “I’m very excited, somewhat overwhelmed and very privileged to be here,” Cheyne said when we met at Hilldrop.

Rider’s father, Mark Cheyne, was a naval officer and consequently Cheyne’s childhood was spent in various locales depending on his father’s postings. “Life then was navy oriented and there was not much connection with Rider. But in 1953, we came back to England from Malta for a visit and I met Sir Rider’s daughters — Angela and Lilias. That was my first awareness of a special connection with someone well-known. Then it was simply an acceptance rather than something special.”

Cheyne was subsequently sent to boarding school in England and spent his holidays with Angela. “She was a gracious lady. She would tell stories of some of her travels with her father.”

Ditchingham House then retained many artefacts that Haggard had brought from southern Africa. “There were spears and shields, which fascinated me. Reading his adventure stories opened a new perspective on the world for me. They were exciting, they were romantic. And I became aware that a lot of people had read them. Even now I’m amazed how many people the world over — in Canada and here in South Africa — have read his books.”

As well as sharing a name, Cheyne, like his great-grandfather, initially struggled academically. “When I read his story, I realised we had had similar experiences. And like him I also didn’t know what I wanted to do.”

Cheyne initially worked for P&O Shipping in London. “They had connections with the Orient and Africa that also fired my imagination. In those days London was a hub around which the world turned.”

In 1971, Cheyne, at his father’s request, went to Norfolk College of Agriculture in Norwich where he won a scholarship to attend a similar institution in the town of Simcoe in Norfolk County, Ontario. Scholarship period over, Cheyne stayed on, working on fruit and dairy farms in Ontario before travelling across the continent by train to Vancouver where he worked in the University of British Columbia bookstore. “But I had an underlying desire to get out into the bush; a deep need to work in wilderness areas.” And so began a career in forestry. “I have subsequently spent most of my life out and about in the forests and wilds of British Columbia.”

Cheyne’s great-grandfather also had connections with Canada: visiting in 1905 to study the “labour colonies” established there by the Salvation Army as a possible model for the resettlement of urban poor in Britain. He was there in 1914 with the DRC when World War 1 began, and in 1916 he came to investigate the possible settlement of British serviceman at the end of the war. During that visit, he learnt that Mount Rider and the Haggard Glacier, both in the Canadian Rockies, had been named after him.

In Canada, Cheyne maintained an interest in his famous relative. His family in England sent him new books on Haggard as they were published and, during visits to Ditchingham, he further explored the life and work of his great-grandfather. “I became more aware of the total person he was rather than just a writer of fiction. I came to admire him for what he was; to know him as a person rather than a figure head.”

“I’m really grateful to have been named Rider by my parents, Mark and Nada. Knowing who he was and what he had done. It gave me a psychological boost.”

Now Cheyne has realised a long-standing ambition to visit South Africa. Following up an interest in trains, Cheyne and his wife joined a tour run by Geoff Cooke’s Trains, “In the Footsteps of Cecil John Rhodes — Following a Flawed Colossus”, from Cape Town to Bulawayo, taking in Kimberley, Johannesburg, Pretoria, and several other places with Haggard connections.

Tour over, they hired a car and drove to KwaZulu-Natal, staying first at Hilldrop then visiting the Anglo-Zulu War battlefields before ending their trip in Durban. It is at Hilldrop that Haggard’s presence looms largest. “If he was to walk up the steps right now, he would think ‘Great!’,” says Cheyne. “He would be really pleased to see what it looks like. The main house is a tasteful blend of preservation and restoration.”

That’s courtesy of Hilldrop’s owners, Andre and Lelanie Joubert, who have also added many items of Haggard memorabilia.

“The really spooky thing staying at Hilldrop was reading the day-to-day account of Lady Haggard’s diary,” says Cheyne. “She would describe Haggard hay-making up on the hill and I would look up out of the window and there was the exact spot.

“Visiting South Africa for the first time, I found myself thinking he would be very pleased to see that some of his observations and thoughts had come to fruition,” says Cheyne. “Many of his predictions regarding agriculture and politics came to pass. He made some very perceptive comments about the imbalance between the indigenous population and the whites. He was ahead of his time.”

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