Formerly 'Rambling with a cantankerous old mule"
Growing up in Pretoria we knew this house on a koppie on the edge of town as die spookhuis (the ghost house). I remember my excitement at seeing it sitting atop the hill just east of the N1 highway in Pretoria whenever we ventured out that way on Saturday mornings. I would play out wild imaginations of adventures, parties and ghosts from a bygone era. And it appears I wasn’t far wrong on many of them.
The home, with its 17 rooms, was built by Jochemus Erasmus in the early 1900s on Garstfontein farm, with his wife Johanna as the prime visionary. It was a time of much growth in the area, fed by the gold rush on the Witwatersrand. The Erasmuses, who were farmers, and had become one of the richer families in the Pretoria area, apparently dreamt of building a Victorian-style home of European opulence to rival the mansions springing up in Johannesburg. The couple commissioned Dutch architect Frans van der Ben to design the castle, and an Italian contractor, G. Monbello, to build it. The castle, which was known as Bella Vista (beautiful view), was completed in 1903. Only later did it become known as Erasmus Castle.
It was a grand old home, complete with smoking room, music room, sunny breakfast room, “withdrawing” (drawing) room, study and British-Indian style verandah – perfect for hosting soirees, music recitals and Shakespearean concerts. The couple apparently even brought a horse into the drawing-room for a production of “Twelfth Night” once. But, first and foremost, it was a home to the couple and their children.
According to researcher Thersia Rossouw many myths about it being haunted have sprung up over the years – like the one that girls suffering from leprosy had been locked in the castle’s tower. And that apparitions roam its rooms regularly – including a young girl and a woman in a Victorian-style night-gown. According to one website, “a guest at a function was adamant that a woman in period costume led him into the garden before disappearing.” I suspect too much alcohol could have been involved? Some people have reported hearing eerie footsteps in the home at dusk and dawn… But that can easily be explained away as the creaking caused by the expanding and contracting of the Oregon pine floors.
The myth of the woman with glowing long nails, who would stare at secretive lovers below in the dead of night is one of the more ridiculous stories that once did the rounds. But the main reason Erasmus Castle probably got its haunted-house reputation was simply that it eventually fell into disrepair after Jochemus and Johanna’s deaths. Their wills were so complicated that they made it difficult for their relatives to live in the home after their death – leaving the house standing empty from 1949 to 1967. It’s said that the 1950s Afrikaans movie Hier’s Ons Weer, where the castle was referred to as die spookhuis several times, also helped build the myth of it being haunted.
The house was finally bought by Armscor and restored in the late ’80s (if my memory serves me right). Behind its high barbed wire fences, restored to its former grandeur and well-lit at night, it looks anything but eerie. But as I was leaving a passing security guard asked, “Aren’t you scared to be taking photos of the ghost house at this time of evening?”
“No,” I replied. “Why would I be?”
“Because of the ghosts that live in there. They only come out at night.”
It seems not everyone is as convinced as I that it’s just a beautiful big old house.