What you need to know:
- Once we had crossed the Ainsworth bridge, we had left the town behind, we were in open country.
- There was so much more that Elspeth told me about her childhood days in Thika.
Let me tell you a story – a fantasy story. It was last Sunday morning. The evening before, I had been re-reading Elspeth Huxley’s classic autobiographical fiction, The Flame Trees of Thika.
In her memory of a childhood in the early ‘pioneering’ days of Kenya, Elspeth Huxley writes about the ride on an ox-cart with her mother from the Norfolk Hotel in Nairobi to the Blue Post Hotel in Thika. It was in 1913. The journey took them two whole days.
‘We set off in an open cart drawn by four whip-scarred little oxen and piled high with equipment and provisions.’ That’s how the book starts. A little later, we find out what was among the equipment and provisions: ‘On top was perched a sewing machine, a crate of five Speckled Sussex pullets, and a lavatory seat.’
They were on their way to meet their father, who had gone ahead to organise the building of a house on the 500 acres he had bought for four pounds an acre in the bar of the Norfolk from a man wearing an Old Etonian tie.
So I was prompted to take a drive to the Blue Post myself – and my fantasy was I had the ghost of Elspeth Huxley for company.
She was all eyes and all voice. ‘Wow,’ she said as we started along the Thika highway – ‘Wow!’ She was jumpily nervous about the fast jostle of the cars, as they treated the lanes like a fairground dodgem car ride.
‘You know,’ she said, ‘when we did that ox-cart ride, the road was not something that had been made; it had just arisen from the passage of wagons. And, once we had crossed the Ainsworth bridge, we had left the town behind, we were in an open country. It was mainly bush and just a very few Kikuyu shambas.’
She got excited as we approached the tall buildings of Ruiru. She told me this was where they had broken the journey, because about15 miles a day was all oxen could manage. She said it was only a scatter of dukas.
Veranda posts painted blue
And they had stayed the night at a farm owned by a South African, who was making up his mind to move up and across the Rift Valley, because another farm had appeared on an opposite ridge. He complained that Ruiru would become a suburb of Nairobi before long.
‘There was so much game to be seen all along the way,’ Elspeth said. ‘There were the small Thompson’s gazelles, tall giraffes and plump zebras. We were told there were plenty of lions about, but we didn’t see any.’ I promised I would show her some lions when we got to the Blue Post.
When we did arrive there, she was surprised at how extensive the hotel is now – with the conference rooms, the children’s playground, and all the tables with their bright parasols set out on the lawn leading to the Chania Falls. Back in 1913, it was a thatched grass hut, with veranda posts painted blue.
I pointed out the two stone lions guarding the entrance . And I told Elspeth about the story of the two stone lions guarding the town hall in Nottingham. They were said to roar whenever a virgin crossed in front of them. But no one had ever heard them roar.
‘Winston Churchill actually shot a lion in these grounds when he was on a visit to Kenya,’ Elspeth said. ‘It was further down and near where the two rivers meet. And, look, the old bridge built over the Chania Falls by the Public Works Department is still there. Splendid!’
So we sat on the lawn and had our lunch. (Well, I did. Ghosts don’t need lunch.) And Elspeth marvelled at all the Kenyan families, many of them dressed in their Sunday best, and perhaps straight from their church services.
There was so much more that Elspeth told me about her childhood days in Thika. You can share it too. It’s all in her book!
John Fox is chairman of iDC. Email: [email protected]