Nieu Bethesda the Place of the Owls

When Afrikaner trekkers arrived in this dry part of South Africa’s Eastern Cape, they named it Nieu Bethesda because of the eternal stream that bubbled down from the plateau. They were thinking of a place of flowing water in Jerusalem where people came for healing. Since then, this special place has been home to special people. Chief among them was the reclusive Helen Martins born in 1897, who had turned her residence into a Nieu Bethesda Owl House.

Window into a Life - The Owl House
Window into a Life – The Owl House: Photo on Flickr by Kim Stevens / CC BY-SA 3.0

View of Nieu Bethesda Owl House

We know little about the woman who peered out of the photograph or the reason for her Nieu Bethesda Owl House. We know she had a disastrous marriage with an actor that disintegrated in 1926. Shortly afterwards, she returned to her birthplace and cared for her aged parents for 31 years. They left her the house and she set about transforming it.

Nieu Bethesda owl house. View of Nieu-Bethesda
View of Nieu Bethesda: Morné van Rooyen

Beginning of a Journey

Ground glass adorns Helen Martin’s visionary environment that is home to over three hundred statues of owls, pyramids, camels, people, and peacocks made of cement and wire. Inside, the gloomy Nieu Bethesda Owl House her parents built to keep the fierce heat out twinkles with reflected light from mirrors and ground glass on the walls.

Nieu Bethesda owl house. Beginning of a Journey
Beginning of a Journey: Kim Stevens BY CC BY-SA 3.0

Sculptures in the Garden

Helen Martin’s chief inspiration was biblical texts, poetry and paintings by the mystic William Blake, and the Persian mathematician, astronomer, philosopher, and poet Omar Khayyam. Most statues face east to Mecca. She was an eclectic. She called her home ‘My World’.

Nieu Bethesda owl house. Sculptures in the Garden
Sculptures in the Garden: Robin Tweedie BY CC BY 2.5

Nieu Bethesda Owl House Interior

Alas, Helen’s eyesight could not withstand hammering by cement and ground glass over many decades. She took her life when her sight began to fail because she could not imagine being unable to see her creation. In her lifetime she was somewhat disconnected from the community. After she died, they accepted the task of preserving her creation, that now provides an eternal stream of income.

Nieu Bethesda owl house. Owl House Interior.
Owl House Interior: Robin Tweedie BY CC BY-SA 2.5

About Richard Farrell

Richard FarrellI tripped over a shrinking bank balance and fell into the writing gig unintentionally. This was after I escaped the corporate world and searched in vain for ways to become rich on the internet by doing nothing. Despite the fact that writing is no recipe for wealth, I rather enjoy it. I will deny I am obsessed with it when I have the time.My base is Umtentweni in South Africa on the Kwazulu-Natal South Coast (30.7167° S, 30.4667° E). I work from home where I ponder on the future of the planet, and what lies beyond in the great hereafter. Sometimes I step out of my computer into the silent riverine forests, and empty golden beaches for which the area is renowned.

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