The heart of Maritzburg

2014-10-09 00:00

FOR more than a decade, I have dreamt that Leighton Street can be one anchor for the regeneration of the heart of Pietermaritzburg.

With its neat Edwardian redbrick homes cascading down the hill towards Alexandra Park, Leighton Street is quintessential Pietermaritzburg.

My first introduction to Leighton Street was in 2001. My wife and I were house hunting for our first house. We were shown number 30. We couldn’t afford it, but after that I was ruined for living anywhere else. We wanted to be in the heart of historic Pietermaritzburg and in a neighbourhood where many cultures transect. This was, after all, less than a decade into the new South Africa and we were embracing it with open arms. Leighton Street was perfect — just off the centre of town but in its own enclave, its own valley, somewhat isolated from the bustle of the city centre, yet connected to it, sandwiched between the centre and the green space of Alex Park.

Leighton Street was founded in 1899. It seems it was named after a dentist, Leighton Baylis, husband of the owner of erf 13, Louisa Baylis, who together with property agent John Mortimer, each donated part of their land to the Pietermaritzburg Corporation. A number of subdivisions were bought by John Harwin (of Harwin’s Arcade fame) and his son-in-law, Clement Horner Stott. Stott was an architect of considerable skill. Apart from designing Cedara College and Harwin’s Arcade, it seems he was also the architect for many of the homes on Leighton Street. The homes themselves were constructed between 1903 and 1906, and are now listed buildings.

We bought our home from Dr Graham Dominy, who relocated to Pretoria to become the national archivist. Dominy brought Leighton Street to the attention of the city through his column in The Witness, which centred around the street’s cats. The cats are still here, fighting over territory in the surprisingly large back gardens.

Dominy also ran the Leighton Street Action Group, which fought for the preservation of the character of the street. Under the group’s watch, the city engineer’s department even came up with a plan to slow traffic by having cars wind down the street between park benches and planted trees. It is yet to be implemented. The topic of traffic on Leighton Street is an old one. In 1933, the SPCA requested that the council close the street to animal traffic as the “… very steep gradient in Leighton Street … constitutes a source of considerable suffering to draught animals going up and down”.

In 1917, during World War 1, our home was lived in by a Mrs Ludwig, the wife of a German prisoner of war. According to correspondence between the chief magistrate and the district commandant, found in the KZN Archives recently, she was suspected of being an enemy of the state since she ran German classes at her home.

We’ve lived in Leighton Street for 12 years and have delighted in it. It has been close enough to the drift for me to run along for a morning paddle and we do the Park Run on Saturdays. At Duzi time, we walk across the fields with the children to see A Batch crash and thrash down Ernie Pearce Weir before I jump on the river myself in O batch, or something like that. We can walk to Cars in the Park, Art in the Park, the BMX World Cup and the end of the Comrades Marathon. We get to participate in New Year’s Eve concerts (free of charge), cricket matches and Maritzburg United games.

Because it is its own enclave, there is a real sense of community. We know each other’s names, keep keys for each other, look after one another’s pets. At times in its history, Leighton Street has had street parties and at others times its residents have rallied around issues that affected everyone.

For me, the heart of Maritzburg is not the city hall. That is its head. The heart is Alexandra Park and the green belt along the Duzi. That is where Pietermaritzburg plays together, the place where every community in the city feels at home. I dream of Maritzburgers from all communities being free to run, bike, walk dogs or roller blade along both banks of the river all the way from the Natal Canoe Club beside Camps Drift Road to Collegians Club off Boshoff Street. Can you imagine landscaped indigenous gardens all the way along both banks and a cultural walk linking the Macrorie House Museum and the Old Prison to Leighton Street, the Cricket Pavilion and the Maritzburg College Museum? There are numerous schools, sports clubs, NGOs and government departments that all touch this area and would stand to benefit from its gentrification.

Our three children have grown up in Leighton Street, from babyhood to childhood. And now our eldest has entered his teenage years. So we are about to embark on a new adventure — building a straw bale home on the edge of the Umgeni Valley. Yet I still long to see the regeneration of the heart of Maritzburg.

“For me the

heart of Maritzburg is not the city hall. That is its head. The heart is Alexandra Park and the green belt along the Duzi. That

is where Pietermaritzburg plays together, the place where every community in the city feels at home.”

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