Bethulie is a sleepy hollow with a dark and violent past, a colourful present, and a vibrant future. There are many good reasons to visit the Southernmost town in the Free State. One of these is a crisp black and white building on the corner of Voortrekker and Joubert streets. The unmarked hotel looked shut on this Sunday morning. Windows closed and curtains drawn, I peered through the reflective panes to get a glimpse of a shy chambermaid, or a surly butler. There is little to see. That is, until the owner opens up the large black gate at the back, and welcomes me inside. The hotel is dark, but my eyes adjust and i find myself in the most enchanting corridor, swallowed by thousands of books arranged meticulously in perfect rows from floor to ceiling. Recesses in the bookshelves are lit, either hosting artworks, or waiting, vacant, for something to fill the gap. The lighting in this corridor must have inspired a million Instagram posts. All I can think of is: “Where is room 217?”

Bibliophile’s paradise

Anthony Hocking is hotelier, business man, landlord, historian and author. But as I am about to discover, this only scratches the surface of a man who has a thousand stories to tell.  Sensing what my Royal Hotel mission entails, Anthony offers me a beer, and although it’s early on a Sunday morning, I graciously accept, and we settle down in a corner of a room holding the biggest collection of LPs I’ve ever seen. What follows is a delightful journey painted eloquently by a storyteller with an enviable knowledge of the history of Bethulie, the Anglo Boer war, The Diamond Field Route and more recently, the 155 year old building which houses the Royal Hotel. Originally a trading store, it’s the more recent history of the hotel which I found most interesting. Anthony bought the hotel 14 years ago, much to the dismay of some townsfolk, who feared that this might become another underutilised building which Antony had become renowned for collecting. After a botched attempt to buy the empty shell at a previous auction, a colourful character with sinister intentions (I’m exaggerating, for dramatic effect) had to relinquish his grandiose plans for number twenty two Voortekker street. By now Anthony had the sign that he really should own this hotel. Before long, and after some negotiation, the Royal Hotel once again had a new owner. At the time, the hotel was an empty shell. Hardly a “going enterprise”, it took 17 months of contract workers living here to set the stage for what has become one of South Africa’s best kept secrets.

“But, are there any ghosts in the hotel?”, I ask quite obviously. Apparently there are 4, but none have ever been seen or heard by Anthony. JB Robinson, ex owner and mining magnate, “Joey” Uys, a Bethulie concentration camp survivor, Gus Dickenson, a disgraced British doctor who died in room 4, or the pianist Bejamin Fourie, who’s couch I am sitting on, are all contenders. Occasionally hosting a “Ghost Walk” tour, I’m more determined than ever to come back to this hotel for a weekend.  Anthony also offers Historical tours, and if the three hours I’ve spent listening to him this morning are anything to go by, we should bring our schoolkids to this hotel for history lessons.

A dead man’s chair

Ship shape

Having served in the Merchant Navy, and cooked and served meals under extremely difficult conditions, Anthony is well equipped to run a successful kitchen. With a team of 4 locals, headed by his trusted “1st officer” Annie they serve up good old South African “Soul Food”: our very own Boerekos. This morning, however, the kitchen is deserted and silent. When I return, I look forward to the familiar smells, clanging, and chatter of a commercial kitchen.

The Royal Feud

Bethulile reeks of a feud. Not only the Anglo Boer war, the Concentration camp or skirmishes with the locals. I sense that even the current inhabitants have very strong opinions, and without too much disclosure, the town’s two most knowledgeable historians sit on either sides of an historical chasm. This only adds to the small town charm. When I return to this hotel, I want to do so with a hand-picked group of strangers who have never visited Bethulie before. A slight social experiment which will put us all on the same footing, eager to see, hear and taste the magic of the Royal Hotel in Bethulie.

I thank Anthony Hocking for opening up his doors for me on a closed Sunday morning and opening my eyes to this gem of an establishment.