25480 reads
Posted by Tim on Jan 30, 2011
The Magic of Rainhill Farm

Rainhill Farm lies nestles at the foot of the Magaliesberg Mountains, just outside of Rustenburg, South Africa. The whitewashed, thatch-roofed farm buildings are laid out in the shadow of a precipice called Cathedral Rock, and gleam in the midday sun just as they have for nearly a century. The brilliantly purple Jacaranda trees decorate the dusty path with violet pools of fallen blossoms, but nothing else is blooming yet.

Not yet. But it's ready. You can feel it, you can almost smell it. Pregnant with promise, restlessly patient, the farm is just waiting for the first rain of the season.

The McGregors of Rainhill

At the dawn of the 20th century, a 19-year-old boy named Frank McGregor arrived in Johannesburg, where he joined his older brother Duncan. Fleeing from their tyrannical father, they had come to South Africa determined to make a new life for themselves. Years later, when they had the means, they sent for their mother Clara and sister Helen to join them.

'Frank and family, circa 1924Frank's dream had always been to be a farmer. And so in 1913 he paid a little over £2,000 for a venerable farmhouse surrounded by orchards and mountains, and he named it Rainhill. There he lived with his marvelous, formidable, exceptional wife Eleanor, and their sons Hugh and Maurice.

Maurice went on to be a brilliant cardiologist, Dean of Medicine at Montreal's prestigious McGill University, and (as of one month ago) an Officer in the Order of Canada. (In attaining this honor, Maurice finally caught up to his equally brilliant wife Margot, who had been named to the Order herself a few years ago for her own pioneering work in the field of respiratory medicine.)

Maurice and Margot have always been immensely important people to me. They had moved to Canada in the 1950s, so when my parents came to live in the United States in 1970, they were the only family that wasn't an ocean away. From the time I was a small child, I imprinted on them not as great-uncle and great-aunt, but as nothing less than my grandparents.

As for Maurice's older brother Hugh, my actual grandfather, I have only stories and photographs. I never had the chance to meet him. He died the year before I was born.

My Father

My father was born on January 8th, 1942, in a little mining town called Brakpan, South Africa. Not long afterward, his father and uncle went to Europe as soldiers (Hugh in the engineering corps, Maurice in the medical corps). And so my father went to live at Rainhill Farm with his mother and his grandparents. It was there he spent the first years of his life. He would spend the next three decades returning again and again – sometimes to live, sometimes just to visit. Rainhill was, for him, the happiest place in the world.

I grew up hearing stories about Rainhill Farm. It became part of the fuzzy landscape of my family history, a place I knew everything about... and yet knew nothing about. It was almost mythical to me, a place that I so firmly associated with my father's childhood that it didn't seem to exist in the real world anymore. And so somehow I never wondered what had become of it.

What Became of It

On January 2, 1975, less than a year after losing his oldest son Hugh (my grandfather), Frank McGregor lost his amazing wife Eleanor. Two years after that, he left this world as well, and Rainhill Farm went up for sale. It was purchased by a wonderful man named Henry Hartley, who promised my great-uncle Maurice that he would keep everything exactly as it was.

'Henry and Berna, in front of their cottage at Rainhill FarmHenry kept his word. Today the gleaming farmhouses stand just as they did when my great-grandfather first built them. "The people may have changed," Henry says, "but the mountain and the farm will always be here."

Every morning at dawn, he and his luminous wife Berna each select a walking stick from a barrel by the door and head out to walk the grounds and hills of the farm. And the farm they see is, as Henry said, remarkably unchanged from the one that stood here 60 years ago, when my father was a boy. Or, for that matter, the one that stood here decades before that, when my grandfather would play in the orchards while his mother Eleanor supervised the production of "Helen McGregor's Famous Marmalade."

'Our good friend Duke looks out at a farm that hasn't changed much in 100 yearsThe old milking-house stands just where it always has – except that today it is a marvelously comfy pub. And the farm buildings where my father grew up, and where his father grew up before him – today, they are a bed and breakfast.

And so it was that on October 28, 2010, Jessica and I first walked along that dusty driveway dotted with purple piles of Jacaranda blossoms. A place that had previously only existed to me in stories and photographs lay before me, the mythical made real. As we walked along the path from the road to the farmhouses, I told Jessica that I felt as if I was walking into my father's memories.

The Hartleys of Rainhill

The days we spent there were dizzyingly happy. It all looked just as I'd always imagined it, just as my father had always described it. Everything had a story for me, everything felt steeped in my family's history.

'The building in the foreground was known as the Big Room in my father's time at the farm, and the one beyond it as St. Hugh'sHere was the water tower my father had laid atop as a child, looking up into the starry night. Here was the whitewashed building where my great-uncle was born over 90 years ago. This was the dam that irrigated the farm, where they would swim on hot summer days. And this was the room where Frank would play the piano while his children and grandchildren sang together, with the fire crackling in that fireplace right there.

Just past the farmhouses and a little way up the hill, we found the grave of Clara McGregor, my great-great-grandmother. She passed away a decade after following her sons to South Africa, and today she lies in the quiet shade of a small clutch of trees.

As Henry said, the one thing that has changed at Rainhill Farm is the people. Today it is his family, the Hartleys, that lives in the shadow of Cathedral Rock. And they just could not be sweeter, more wonderful people.

'The fairy-tale treehouse we got to sleep in for two nightsThe bed and breakfast is run by Henry's son Simon, and Simon's wife Adel. In the days that we spent there, Jessica and I felt completely welcomed into their family, completely at home. When we asked about extending our stay by a couple of extra nights, Adel didn't let the fact that Rainhill was fully-booked stop her – she offered us the use of her children's magnificent treehouse, and free run of their own home while we stayed there.

At night, snug in a comfy bed perched some twenty feet in the air, we listened happily to the sounds of Simon whistling to himself in his workshop below us. It was such a comforting sound, such a "dad-sound," and it reminded us both tremendously of our own fathers.

A View That Goes On Forever

After my grandfather and my great-grandparents passed away, my great-uncle Maurice climbed to the top of the mountain behind the farm and erected memorials to them. Of the many things I wanted to see when we came to Rainhill, none compared to these. For reasons I can't explain, I had become completely obsessed with the idea that I needed to see these memorials with my own eyes, that it would be the closest I could ever come to meeting my great-grandparents. To meeting my grandfather.

'The breathtaking view from atop the mountains behind the farmAnd so it was that Jessica and I spent a total of eleven or twelve hours hiking in the Magaliesberg, searching for two small stone plaques. We had no map to guide us, and that high on the mountain there are no marked paths, so finding the memorials was no easy feat. Once, by pure chance, we happened to come within twenty feet of them before turning back. On that occasion, though, something happened.

We'd spent a long day climbing in the mountains, soaking in the incredible views and half-listening to the odd hooting noises down in the valley. (We wouldn't learn that those noises were troops of baboons until the next day.) Towards the end, I was becoming a little panicked, worrying that we'd never find the memorials that had become so important to me.

'This photo was taken moments after we first felt it. You can see it in my eyes.And then, suddenly, that didn't matter anymore. Standing atop a rocky precipice and looking down at Rainhill Farm – a place that was no longer just a myth to me – I suddenly understood. I wasn't going to meet Frank and Eleanor and Hugh at their memorials. I had already met them. They were everywhere in Rainhill, and they always would be.

I know it might sound silly, that it might sound trite. But at that moment, standing on top of a mountain and sweating under the African sun, it was a revelation to me. Jessica felt it too, felt it first in fact. She squeezed my hand and murmured, "It feels like they're so close to us right now." My obsession evaporated in an instant. Finding the memorials wasn't so important anymore. I had come to South Africa to find my family, to find my roots. And in that moment, however odd it may sound to say, I met my grandfather for the first time.

'Me and my grandfatherThe next day, we told the Hartleys about our adventure in the mountains. When we described where we had been standing, they told us that we needed to return to exactly the same spot, and then go less than a dozen yards further on.

A day after that, we did so. And so it was that we at last found the memorial stones.

And looking out over what a wise man once called "a view that goes on forever," I touched the engraved words with trembling hands. And again I felt that same warm feeling, that closeness.

And it never went away. Today, sitting here three months later and half a world away, I can feel it still.

January 30, 2011 at 2:06pm
Thank you for this lovely post!
January 30, 2011 at 3:38pm
Glad you liked it! :)
January 30, 2011 at 9:26pm
Beautiful post. And what a feeling it must've been to feel so close to your roots, I can't even begin to imagine.
January 30, 2011 at 11:41pm
Hi Jill!

Yeah, it was a pretty special moment. So much of our time in South Africa really hit close to home for me, really hit me with feelings of homecoming and belonging… but none of them compare to the way I felt that afternoon.

January 31, 2011 at 12:51am
I loved this post! What an amazing story of going abroad and learning about your family's past. You should totally write up a feature and submit this to a publication somewhere…
January 31, 2011 at 5:42am
Aww, thanks so much, Mary! I'm glad you enjoyed it! :)
Maurice aka Great Uncle Brother
January 31, 2011 at 8:51am
Our very dear T & J.
Whats to say ? I am (unusually) speechless. ABSOLUTELY superb.
I can only tell you that reading your Rainhill story has given me immense pleasure. VERY MANY THANKS to you both, for what I consider to be a beautiful gift from you. To us! I will enjoy it again tonight with Margot, and many, many times more. Love you much.M&M
January 31, 2011 at 1:44pm
Hi Brother! :) :) :) :)

I can't tell you how happy I am that you enjoyed it so much. You were certainly one of the people I was thinking of when I wrote it.

Your lovely comment has completely made my day!


January 31, 2011 at 2:26pm
I feel so warm and fuzzy now. :D
January 31, 2011 at 2:48pm
We provide the warmth free of charge. But we have a bring your own fuzzy policy around here. :)
January 31, 2011 at 3:42pm
ugh, becoming a mother has made me so emotional. all i will say is: this brought tears to my eyes tim.
January 31, 2011 at 4:15pm
Aww, thanks, Missy!
January 31, 2011 at 6:33pm
Isn't it great that we can feel so connected to the past that it brings us joy? Happy (new) memories for you and great memories for your Uncle M.
February 1, 2011 at 2:06pm
Hi Janet!

Yeah, it's a pretty special feeling. Heck, if I'd have known how amazing and moving South Africa would be I wouldn't have resisted going there for so long! :)

Simon from Rainhill
February 2, 2011 at 5:35am
Hi Tim and Jessica. It was great to have you visit us and read your experiences. Rainhill has played a part in so many lives, past and present. There is just something about it that touches and grounds you and shows up what really matters. Long may it last…
February 2, 2011 at 8:59am
Hi Simon! :)

I'm glad you enjoyed the post. We both miss Rainhill so, so much, and we can't wait to come back to visit it – and your wonderful family – again some day soon! :)

Maggie (Tim's sister)
February 3, 2011 at 9:56pm
Beautiful post! I now have pictures to go with the stories Dad and Uncle Brother use to tell us around the dinner table at the cottage in Ways Mills.
February 4, 2011 at 9:01am
Thanks, Maggie! I'm glad you liked it! :)
February 8, 2011 at 11:11pm
I enjoyed your visit and I enjoyed showing you a bit more of wonderful Rainhill. A Rainhill that I have known all my life. As a small child I always said I wanted to stay in the mountain and in 1978 this dream became a reality when I was lucky to buy this PLACE. A place I have treasured every day
February 9, 2011 at 1:46pm
Hi Henry!

Thank you so much for making the two of us feel so very, very welcome during our time at Rainhill. You and your lovely family just could not have been more wonderful.

We can't wait to come back to visit you all again someday soon! :)

James McGregor
February 28, 2011 at 5:50pm
Hi guys. Thanks for the wondeful and vicarious peek into Rainhill … and may other locations.
February 28, 2011 at 6:00pm
Hi James!

I'm so happy you enjoyed it! It was really special getting to putter around Henrietta's original stomping grounds. :)

Charlotte McGregor
February 28, 2011 at 7:50pm
Hey guys. I never new anything about rainhill and how my grand father arrived there. Thanks for making me learn this great story!
March 1, 2011 at 10:02am
Hi Charlotte!

Glad you liked it! It's a really, really special place – I highly recommend a visit there one day! :D

October 17, 2023 at 9:13am
I am the great great grand-daughter of both sides of the Rainhill story.
Duncan, on one side and Thomas Hatley(I think) on the other who was Henry's Grandfather. The Hartleys also opened the very first pub in SA in Bathurst called The Pig & Whistle almost immediately after getting off the boat with the 1820 Settler migrations. Funnily enough, their party also consisted of two brothers and a wife. I have an extensive genealogy of both sides of the Rainhill story tucked away somewhere. I'll have to dig it out.

Comment:     No HTML, just [b]bold[/b] and [i]italics[/i]
Except where otherwise noted all text, images, and videos are copyright © 2004–2023 by Jessica McHugh and Timothy McGregor