The visitor’s book on the antique mahogany table next to the Polliack gramophone is filled with praises and commendatory remarks from visitors of various nationalities. They came from Australia, Slovakia, India, China, Turkey, Romania… even Poland. Places that traditionally our sun-seeking holiday makers Do Not come from. Well, the Domaine de Val des Près here at Au Cap is not an ordinary place. The house is a bewildering beauty.
This is the last authentic traditional creole homestead in Seychelles. It stands on what was once known as the St Roch Estate. Comprising many acres of land where coconuts and cinnamon were grown. A cinnamon distillery made essential oil for the export market. This gigantic house of timber was originally built in the 1870s when property owners built homes that reflected their status and prosperity. It epitomized the typical plantation house that was once common in the tropical islands of the French and British colonies.
Although it was extensively renovated and refurbished in the course of which modifications were necessary, the house has retained all the traditional aspects of the colonial plantation house: the pitched roof, with finials and prickets, the dormer windows and garrets, the wide verandah that encompasses the entire quadrilateral structure of the building, and of course the obligatory masonry plinths on which it rests.
In 1926, Dr John Thomas Bradley (1872-1942) who was then chief medical officer of health in Seychelles gave the house to his daughter Dolly who in 1920 had married Douglas Bailey (1899-1974), a wealthy Anglican and fervent supporter of the Anglican Church in Seychelles. He was employed by the Eastern Telegraph Company. He was also a nominated member of the Legislative Council for 28 years. In the 1950s, Douglas Bailey bought the other plantation house, now known as the Creole Institute at Saint Joseph Estate at Au Cap. The couple made generous donations towards the construction of many Anglican churches in Seychelles. In 1969, the Colonial Government bought the house and the estate for R1,133,348.33 cents.
Fortunately, a sample of the antiques that once furnished the sitting room has been preserved; a couple of chairs of artisanal wickerwork, a console table with cambriole legs and thank goodness, the old bureau, the escritoire where ‘old Bailey’ must have spent many hours working on his ‘flowering plants and ferns of Seychelles.’ (Pub:1961). There is also the old John Brimsmeade piano from which Dolly probably coaxed some melodies of Chopin.
A covered walk at the back of the house leads to the traditional creole kitchen where, besides the wood stove, many items evoked the culinary memories of yesteryear. There is the kokotye (the half of coco de mer nut in which rice was washed before being put in the cooking pot), the lavann (a flat basket of woven pandanus in which rice was winnowed), the kapatia (a basket of woven coconut fronds in which fruits and vegetables were kept) and of course the indispensable marmit (cooking pot made of cast iron). Anything and everything was cooked in the marmit. Nearby, stands a massive towering breadfruit tree whose fruits must have been part of the plantation workers’ meal then.
There is a replica of the servant’s dwelling house. Built of timber on squat stone pillars, it is a modest structure in which the servant slept. The wooden walls are entirely covered with pages of newspapers and magazines. The dwelling has three compartments: The small living room with the photograph of the Royal family of Windsor, the bedroom and the kitchen.
The Domaine de Val des Près was originally inaugurated on Monday October 24, 1988 by Minister James Michel to launch the 3rd Creole Festival. This heritage project was financed by the U.S government during the time when the American Ambassador to Seychelles was James Byron Moran (1930-2009).
To complete the traditional ensemble, a craft village was constructed, comprising twelve workshops where local artists and artisans create batiks, handicrafts painting and macramé work for tourists to buy when they come to visit. There is also a whole gamut of local products such as coconut oil, tea and vanilla.
“The flowers will bloom just in time for the opening in April,” Benjamine Rose, the chief executive of the Seychelles Heritage Foundation says to me. We are on the verandah of the house watching a couple of gardeners tending to the newly planted flowers on the edges of the large triangular lawn. Indeed, vyey fiy (red sage) and roz anmer (Madagascar peri winkle) are eminently appropriate. Both feature in Seychellois lore of medical plants, having curative properties for various ailments. Further away, some Indian workers are completing work on a total of 14 kiosks which have been designed by Seychellois architect, Brian Changty-Sing to replace the old dozen ones of wood that three decades of sun, rain and termites had reduced to the opposite of picturesqueness. The new ones are made of masonry but skillfully designed to have the deceptively pleasant rustic appearance of being constructed of timber.
We have just ended another of our monthly session meetings, having decided to hold it here at the Domaine de Val des Près so that members of the Board can appreciate the renovation work that is being done.
“I’m really impressed with the rate of progress,” she tells me. “And they’ve been at it for hardly three weeks.” I share her satisfaction. I nod my approval. Ms Rose, formerly the principal secretary for Culture, was appointed the new chief executive of the Seychelles Heritage Foundation in July of 2017.
On December 15, 2017, the President appointed a new eight-member board of directors to administer the transactions and business matters of SHF. It was on December 21, 2006 that Act II established the Seychelles Heritage Foundation which among its 7 objectives, the first is “To identify, Conserve and Promote the Cultural Heritage of Seychelles.” Four Heritage sites have been assigned to SHF: Ex-Plantation House, La Plaine Au Cap (Takamaka Bay), Mission Ruins, Sans Soucis, Bel Ombre Treasure site and Domaine de Val des Près, Au Cap.
Upon taking up the helm of the 11-year-old SHF, Ms Rose embarked on an ambitious and not undaunting task to revive the creole image and the economic assets of the place which is one of the most visited heritage sites in Seychelles.
During its monthly session meetings for the last six months, the board of directors in collaboration with the chief executive have explored and debated on various avenues of cultural and economic exploitation for Domaine de Val des Près. Yes, we have devised our own ‘Strategic Plan’ to make the Domaine de Val des Près a success story in a couple of years and its re-opening yesterday evening (April 20, 2018) during the Heritage week is just the beginning.
“This is the ideal place where cultural recreations and heritage activities can be organised so that visitors and local residents may meet and socialize,” says Ms Rose with great optimism.
There is also a creole restaurant that offers the spicy delights of our creole cuisine. Standing here in the yard under the breadfruit tree, one can imagine those workers husking coconuts… women laying out cinnamon barks in the sun to dry… the aroma of patchouli… the scent of vanilla… yes, the savour of salted fish curry… pumpkin chutney with chilli… and grilled mackerels with boiled breadfruit… creole, indeed.
“What a lovely place” – a Swedish visitor exclaims.
“Old place with a lot of memory” – remarks someone from UAE.
“Superbe! A conserver en L’état” – says La Reunion.
“Amazing. Brilliant!”…a mesmerised visitor from Palestine.
“Can I buy the house?” asks a French visitor in English.
Non. Certainement pas!
Source : Seychelles NATION