Text Sarah Bullen Styling Tracy Lee Lynch Photographs Micky Hoyle
The best family holidays are wrapped up with kids, crackers and chaos, and this century-old cabin on the edge of Knysna’s East Head has seen its fair share of those. Four generations of the Burls family have trekked south from their Jo’burg homes to spend every holiday at Uncle Tom’s Cabin. It’s when they reconnect as a family, catch up and wind down from their busy lives.
‘We always arrive with loads of plans for outings and adventures, but within days the Knysna rust sets in and we do little more than walk down the steps to the private beach, swim for hours, rustle up a braai and occasionally walk to Cornuti for sundowners,’ says Belinda Bergstrom, a physiotherapist whose grandfather purchased the property.
This year the teeny cabin will again be full to the brim as the extended family descends. The kids are packed into the house and the singletons (or those avoiding the early morning sounds of kids grabbing buckets and thumping each other) retreat to the two-roomed flatlet adjacent to the house. ‘As the family grows in the way of husbands and babies, it has become impossible for every family member to come at the same time, so we have devised a roster system. Every bed is filled at Christmas time,’ says Jo McDonald, mother of Belinda.
Jo recalls first walking into the house in 1956, aged 11, after her English parents snapped it up on an impulse buy. ‘It was painted brown and green. We all sat on the chairs in the lounge in this crazy small cabin. “What have we done?” my mother moaned with her head in her hands.’ The original Uncle Tom was not a Burls, but a member of the famous Benn family of Knysna (immortalised in the classic novel Fiela se Kind). But the new owners saw no reason to change the name. In fact, little has been touched at all, making a visit to the house feel like a step right back into the past.
Those days there was no interior plumbing, and the toilet was a long-drop and home to scorpions. Every year the house got a small improvement. A modest-sized bathroom was added to the side of the house and the kitchen got proper plumbing. The low patio wall was raised to create a fully enclosed veranda, and the front of the house was given a wooden facade. Later, the roof needed to be replaced. But apart from those minor additions, and a few licks of paint, the house remains remarkably unchanged. It has the same tongue-and-groove walls and ceilings, the sitting room and bedrooms remain as they were in 1956, and the kitchen is exactly the same except for the addition of the sink and a new stove. All the original floorboards are still in the house and their worn grains tell a lifetime of stories.
‘It seems the very best of times somehow get caught between the tongue-and-groove of these walls. They hold all the love, laughter and sunshine of holidays and the saltiness of growing up,’ says Mandy, another of Jo’s daughters. ‘It somehow felt like I was glimpsing my mother’s childhood and connecting with that generation.’
Jo, Mandy and Belinda’s Home Truths
Each July we used to catch the steam train down from Johannesburg. It would take three days to get here. For the summer holidays we would drive down with my dad ( Jo). I grew up sleeping in the little lilac room in the front. My sister and I each had the name plate from one of the old family rowing boats above our heads on the dado rail (Mandy). The second I arrive I open all the doors and windows that look out to the lagoon and the Heads, check if the tide is coming in or going out, and take deep lungfuls of the salty air (Mandy). Our idea of a meal is anything that fits on the Weber, a big salad and a watermelon (Belinda). Foodie spots we’ve grown to love are Cornuti for sundowner cocktails and dinner; East Head Café for breakfast – it has a safe play area for kids and very friendly staff; and Firefly for a special dining experience (Belinda). We like to gather on the deck for Christmas lunch, where we’ll have up to 17 family members pulling Christmas crackers together. We still have roast turkey, trifle and a Christmas pudding (Belinda).
This article originally appeared in the December 2010 issue of House and Leisure.