Off the Rails: Henley’s haunted house

Off the Rails: Henley’s haunted house

It was once a prefab hut for the British army, perhaps used for officers’ billets or a hospital annex, then, shipped to South Africa in 1904, it was one of Henley on Klip’s first family homes and a church. Later it was the Belvedere, an upper-class restaurant; Dimensions, a gay club; Ye Old Haunt, renamed Off the Rails, a pub and coffee shop; tomorrow, if owner Sherry Higgins realises her dream, it could be a museum.

Certainly, there are enough old-time artefacts in the turn-of-the-century rooms to warrant a second or third look; from an ancient pedal organ to brittle ladies journals that must have belonged to Horace Kent, who founded Henley on Klip in 1904, and his family.

One can imagine the Kent family, including daughter Dora who died at the age of 22, looking at all the latest fashions from England.

They must have battled to get up the steep narrow stairs to the second storey in their long dresses. The bedrooms are tight and quaint, with odd angles and corners, a huge four-poster bed and a child’s room under the eaves filled with antique dolls. The walls are thin, looking like plaster board.

Nobody lives here and most of the rooms are barred off to deter vandals and thieves – all too common, Sherry sighed.

Sherry and her daughter tried to live here and lasted eight months. “We kept our salt and crucifixes handy,” she said. The house is haunted.

She told me how her daughter woke up one night to see a woman in her doorway dressed like an old-time army nurse with her apron straps across her chest and the wide winged headdress. Behind her, others passed along the passage. She put her head under the pillow and prayed and the ghosts faded.

 “Things move,” Sherry said calmly. “You see orbs and flares, there is a smell of pipe smoke occasionally or a foul smell.” She refused to allow a group of witches to experiment with an ouija board.

In 2009 the house was investigated by SPITSA, a paranormal investigation team. The evidence they gathered “made us absolutely sure the location is haunted”, to quote the website.

Certainly, it is easy to feel it in the dark stone dungeons, although the fake skulls there are cheesy. Pre-Covid, this was a popular venue for murder mystery dinners – and I can see why.

The walls here are native stone, mortared with mud originally, now mostly replaced with concrete.

Off the old section is an unexpectedly modern kitchen, dating back to Belvedere days. Once Sherry produced five-course boerekos meals there – and may again.

No doubt, the house has been modified several times over the years. Another annex is the present Off the Rails pub with its long counter and tables out to the porch. Coffee can be served in the elegant old-time lounge overlooked by a gallery from above, lined with old leather saddles.

Lights along the beams probably date back to the Dimensions party days, which, I gather, were risqué to say the least. Cage fights were also held here in Sherry’s day. She has owned the house since 2005.

Decidedly this is a heritage house, but Sherry is not quite sure how to go about registering it. It would take a couple of million to restore it, and the annexes would have to be demolished at her own cost. For this, she would get a 20 percent rates rebate, she told me. Not worth it.

Instead, she is trying to refurbish it bit by bit. The plumbing had to be replaced, the wiring is, well, dicey. While I was there, workers were replacing wooden beams and window frames. The roof is also on the list for maintenance.

From the window Sherry pointed out the bush across the road where the original railway halt was. Apparently, there was a tunnel there at one time, possibly used for storage during the Anglo-Boer war.

A new venture is to restart regular craft markets. The first was held on April 24 in aid of Balls an’ All and Sherry and her colleague Jenny Brough hope to hold these monthly. There is plenty of room in the grounds and around the small pool.

They are also working on compiling a directory of all the businesspeople and entrepreneurs in and around Henley on Klip, with a special emphasis on women. They have a number of plans to benefit and empower women, from mentorships to matric dance dresses. It would be known as Grace’s Sisterhood.

If you wish to be part of this, contact Sherry Higgins, 066 216 9142, or Jenny Brough, 082 579 1758.

Off the Rails is at 1892 The Avenue, Henley on Klip.

– Jennifer de Klerk