Bethulie’s treasure trove of books and music

Posted by Anita Froneman on 18 June 2020

It’s no secret that small towns possess a special charm glamorous cities can only dream of. Any avid road tripper will tell you that.

Bethulie in the Free State will not draw crowds for its shopping or foodies for its five star restaurants. It might lure book worms, however as the famed Royal Hotel is known to be filled with some 30,000 books.

The walls in the hotel are lined with books.

Owner and lifelong book lover Anthony Hocking gave us an inside peek.

‘My love for books came from my parents. Both were voracious readers and my father eventually wrote several books of his own. I was given book presents every Christmas and birthday and from the time I was eight I had my own library,’ said Hocking. ‘For most of my life I have read something every day. Often I have up to five books on the go at the same time, which must sound rather muddling.’

Hocking says the biggest single genre in his library is ‘travel and adventure.’ It occupies a large room and it takes you all around the world, country by country.

Of course, it comes as no surprise that such an avid reader would be a successful writer himself. Hocking has a vast array of books published, from an extensive series on Canada to adventure guides like Yachting in Southern Africa.

A haven for readers.

His favourite books are the historical novels of James A Michener, followed by the delights of PG Wodehouse who has him ‘laughing out loud’. Of South African writers, he places Stuart Cloete at the top of the list, followed by TV Bulpin.

The hotel houses only about a quarter of his total collection, which amounts to a staggering 120,000 books. The main library is in a lovely old house across the street from the hotel, complete with yellowwood floors and yellowwood ceilings, while further buildings contain special collections.

‘As the collection grew, so we built more shelves floor to ceiling and expanded into other buildings,’ he said.

The hotel also houses tens of thousands of vinyl records, once again parts of a larger collection that’s split between several buildings. ‘I bought most of the records 15 years ago when everyone else was throwing them out and prices were rock bottom. Nobody was more surprised than I when vinyls became popular again and prices shot sky-high. People suppose my collection is the largest in Africa and that may be true.’

Old school vinyls line the dining area.

Visitors from near and far have come to behold the sights of this remarkable hotel in so humble a town. Hocking has hosted veteran car groups, bush pilots, motorbike clubs, geologists, film crews, off-road cyclists, family reunions and anniversaries, wine connoisseurs, weddings – the list goes on.

‘Some came for the books, some for the vinyls, some for the tours that we laid on – history trips, cycle tours, memories of apartheid, ghost walks, you name it. And more than a few came with no greater ambition than to chill.

‘To my surprise I found there was a rich local history just waiting to be discovered – a story so full and varied that Bethulie is a perfect microcosm of South Africa as a whole. The hotel and I have taken full advantage.’

The hotel also serves delicious meals to feed hungry readers. ‘We joke that our cuisine is “strictly Free State,” by which we mean it’s good old boerekos (traditional Afrikaans food) or plain home cooking.’

Books, books and more books!

As far as the hotel relates to the current lockdown situation, Hocking explained that he and his staff know and experience the realities of COVID-19 all too well.

‘As with all other hospitality enterprises in South Africa the lockdown has had a major effect on us. Not only have we been forced to close [temporarily], but even before it started our guests were changing their plans. Fortunately for us, many decided to postpone their visits till a more suitable time, so we haven’t had to return a small fortune in deposits.

‘On the plus side, the staff members and I have been using the lockdown to undertake a major reorganisation of the collections of books and records. It’s something we could never have attempted with guests around, and it’s not finished yet. I’m confident the effort will pay hefty dividends as it will make the guest experience that much more satisfying.’

When asked what is most special about Bethulie to him, Hocking said that when he first moved there, he was fascinated by the ‘Afrikaners’ in the community. ‘Living in the cities I’d always found Afrikaners rather defensive and shy to reveal much about themselves. In the Free State platteland [countryside] they had no such qualms and I began to learn about the real South Africa from the inside.

‘Everything I have is in Bethulie, including excellent friendships with farmers and others whom I’ve known for years. We have grown old together. Not only that, but the tours I accompany have earned me an undeserved reputation as a master story-teller.

‘What is for me the most special part about Bethulie? Probably its potential. Where other platteland dorpies have fallen off the wagon, Bethulie remains viable and there’s masses more that can be done with it – not just in terms of our immediate locality but in establishing Bethulie as the hub of a tourism catchment embracing a large chunk of Central South Africa.

‘For years past guests arriving at the hotel have asked me one question ahead of all others. As they see the books shelved floor to ceiling they first exclaim “Wow!” in whatever their home language is. And then they ask, “Have you read them all?” The truthful reply, of course, is “Not yet. Most are a pleasure in store.”‘

Images: Simon Pamphilon



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