Main Road Milestones

by Colin Johnstone

Along the length of Main Road, from the Town House of Greenmarket Square, our former City Hall, stretch an unbroken series of milestones to Simon’s Town. Some are protected by cable and some are replicas.  In 1814, when Simon’s Town became the British naval station, Lord Charles Somerset, the Governor, commissioned the upgrading of the road from the town centre to Simon’s Town and had milestones placed along it.

Milestones form an essential part of the transport business and show exact distances for fares and travel times.  To ensure that erwen boundaries and distances were exact, surveyors used “chains” – a British measure of distance.  There were 80 chains in a mile. In England, it was mandatory to erect milestones along all roads.

The Cape Town milestones were probably designed by Michel Thibault, the famed architect involved in building the fortifications at the Muizenberg battle site.  The lettering is in Times New Roman, the very font I am using now.  The material is Malmesbury slate. Charles Darwin, who was then on The Beagle, in the Cape, observed that the Table Mountain granite intrudes into the slate.

Milestone XV stands next to the BP Garage on Main Road.  It is a replica for which Paul Booth, City Engineer’s Department, obtained the funding for the cutting, erection and inscription of the stone.  Milestone XVII stands outside Olympia Café.  Martin & East, the contractors, erected the stone in conjunction with Andy Rush of the project engineers, Knight Piesold and the stonemasons, Trevor Clift (estb’d 1905) cut the slate in Paarl.

It stands 1 metre tall, is 18 cm. thick and weighs around 350 kilograms.

Milestone XV is depicted in our letterhead in a sketch by Meg Jordi.

How Civils 2000 kept the historical integrity of Muizenberg intact during the upgrading of Main Road and the service infrastructure

by Li Protheroe and Justin Spreckley, Civils 2000

The main road that runs between Muizenberg and Kalk Bay in Cape Town’s Southern Peninsula is more than a road; it is a scenic landmark that marries a rich past with a busy present and a promising future. As a gateway to the Southern Peninsula, it is not only known for its recreational and aesthetic value, but it also affords key access for industry, for commerce and for inhabitants of the area.

When undertaking the rehabilitation of this road, and of the services that run beneath it, Civils 2000 co-operated fully in preserving the existing design, and in some cases, structural elements, with due sensitivity for the historical legacy of Muizenberg. As one of Cape Town’s iconic drives, the Historical Mile runs alongside buildings that date back to the seventeenth century and which include, amongst others: Bailey’s Cottage, Het Posthuys, Rhodes Cottage, Rust-en-Vrede, Casa Labia, and Muizenberg’s train station, famously designed by John Collingwood Tully.

It is important to remember that any historical locale, item, material or building has historical significance, spatial significance, and artefactual significance. Buildings, roads and structures are by no means neutral in their representation. Instead, they are infused with past associations, current functionality and future projections. And, where history and aesthetics meet, there is a heightened sense of relevance and urgency to preserve, retain and continue the existing legacy. In terms of the refurbishment of the section of Main Road, this implied maintaining a connection with the past while moving forward.

The historical significance of this stretch of road is such that it traditionally served as access to the South Peninsula for trading, as well as for recreation. The artefactual significance of this stretch of road can also be appreciated through its wide use of vernacular materials. It is supposed that the original stonework that appears on Casa Labia, the SAPS Museum, Bailey’s Cottage, and on the stone curb was most likely collected from the immediate area and from Lakeview Quarry in Lakeside. The use and durability of stone, as well as the skill required to work it, makes a good case for continuity of both design and materials. Given that buildings such as Bailey’s Cottage were designed by prominent architects, Francis Masey and Frank Kendall, it makes sense to retain and build on the theme of “stonework” as it serves as a reminder of the contribution that architects such as these made to the area. The spatial significance of this stretch of the main road can be attributed to it being a landmark on the Southern Peninsula coastline. As a “historical mile” it affords access to a past era, whilst simultaneously offering a practical route to the sights, activities and happenings of Cape Town’s “Deep South”.

So as to ascertain which elements were of vital historical importance, the Civils 2000 team met with Muizenberg Historical Conservation Heritage Society, a representative of the City of Cape Town, and Kayad Consulting Engineers. One of the primary undertakings was to preserve all the existing granite kerbstones. This involved marking each and every kerbstone so that each one could be reinstalled in the same position. This proved to be an exercise in both precision and patience, and though every effort was made to retain the exact layout and positioning of the kerbstones, understandably, a few were repositioned in a “new” location. In terms of continuity of design, the decision to retain the granite kerbstones proved to be a good one, as these echo other stone design elements such as those present in the archways of Muizenberg’s train station building.

The elevated walkway opposite Carisbrooke, a residential sectional title building, called for special care and the expertise of the Civils 2000 team. It was required that the large granite blocks be carefully removed and preserved for later use. Although the walkway was repositioned, these old granite blocks were used as a part of the new retaining system, thus serving a dual purpose of being both structural and aesthetic.

One of the heritage items that serves as an icon of the Cape Town of yesteryear, is the large post box that is positioned at St James train station. This was carefully taken down, sent for refurbishment and returned to the same position on completion of the rehabilitation of that section of road by Civils 2000. Although this post-box no longer fulfils a functional need, it reminds us of bygone era, when communication – and life were not so fast.

The section of sidewalk the runs in front of the much-loved national monument, Casa Labia, and in front of the SAPS Museum called for consistency in terms of retaining historical design elements. Here, granite kerbstones were also removed and repositioned by Civils 2000 once rehabilitation construction was completed. The aesthetic link between the stone kerb and the stone cladding on the facades of the SAPS Museum and Casa Labia wall and entrance area serves to maintain fidelity in terms of look-and-feel and historical authenticity. Any extra kerb stones that were required were sourced from the City of Cape Town’s depot at Ebenezer Road.

The sidewalk and pavement that runs in front of Kalk Bay Station required an entirely new design that required new materials. While some of the stonework was sourced from the City of Cape Town’s depot at Ebenezer Road, other stonework was constructed from concrete to conform to existing, heritage design elements. Old, existing design and functional elements such as manhole covers, water hydrants and water meters were retained by Civils 2000 and incorporated into the new design. There is also design coherence between the red brick paving that was used in front of Kalk Bay station and the red brick that is used in Muizenberg’s station building.

As anticipated, the project was not without challenges and obstacles given the difficult logistics, space restrictions, traffic accommodation, rocky geology and unknown positions of the underground services. Aside from the massive engineering challenges faced, some of the most difficult elements to preserve were the old electrical cables and the cast iron drainage channels. To begin with, the old electrical cables were brittle and fragile. The cast iron drainage channels did not pose as much of an issue in terms of how to preserve these, but rather in terms of how to keep them safe from theft. Many of the drainage channels were retained and reused alongside the new brick paved sidewalk.

It is both a privilege and obligation to preserve anything that is of historical value. In a time that tends to be more transient and fast-paced, preserving heritage allows us to anchor ourselves in the past while we create memories for the future.

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