This past weekend (Oct 28, 2023) we curated an afternoon photowalk in the expansive neighbourhood of Kensington in the east of Johannesburg. Our tour guide for the day was Heather Mason, an American writer and photographer known for her 2Summers blog, who led us on a jacaranda-spotting journey through this historic suburb.
Our #JacarandInYourPocket photowalk through Kensington on a sunny Saturday afternoon was a delightful blend of history, culture and natural beauty. We began our journey at Kensington Trading, a historic cornerstone on Queen Street. Owner Joel Kaufmann greeted us with a refreshing selection of cold bubbly and mimosas to kick off our adventure.
With vinyl shopping, the pop of bubbly corks, and delectable buttery scones made by manager Abongile Mthethwa, we were off to an excellent start and ready to explore the neighbourhood. We had an early stop less than one block further up the road, as no one could resist the charms of the Pastelaria Princesa, a café known for its excellent Portuguese food. We fueled up on pastel de nata (Princesa has quite possibly the best ones in Joburg) before continuing our walk.
We chose Kensington for our walk because the suburb is purported to have one of the densest concentrations of these trees, first planted close to the founding of the city in the late 1880s. We leisurely strolled up Queen Street, turned onto Derby Road and passed Leicester Road School, all the while marvelling at the neighbourhood's beautiful jacaranda trees. Not only that, but we couldn't help but be captivated by historical landmarks like the enigmatic Kensington Castle, a structure built in 1910 at the romantic request of a loving husband for his wife.
Our journey took us uphill and downhill, eventually leading us to the Scottish Horse War Memorial on Highland Road. Along the way, we spotted one of the Johannesburg Heritage Foundation's signature blue plaques at Dykeneuk, a stone home designed by Sir Herbert Baker in 1904. This is the only Baker home in Kensington.
Climbing the stairs to the top of the Scottish Horse War Memorial, we were rewarded with panoramic views that included the City Centre to the left, Bezhuidenhout Valley park in front of us as well as Darras Centre and the Zeenatul Islam Masjid. In the distance, we could see the suburb of Observatory with hints of vibrant purple jacaranda blooms peeking through the urban landscape.
The streets, adorned with jacaranda trees in full bloom, painted the neighbourhood in various shades of purple. We strolled past unique Art Deco homes (some even up for sale) and encountered an intriguing wrought-iron gate reminiscent of the one at Kensington Trading.
We made a stop at the gate of the intriguingly named Kensington Castle, a residence shrouded in mystery and designed as a scaled-down version of Rothesay Castle in Scotland. Local legend has it that this captivating structure was built at the request of an Englishman named Samuel Scott Wilson for his beloved Kate MacKirdie, who agreed to marry him on the condition that he built her a castle.
Just a few houses down, we arrived at our final destination, Fishbird Art Deco Villa, a striking white house adorned with bright yellow trim and an immense garden replete with a deck on which to sit and appreciate the height of the property, and below the terrace is a 15-m swimming pool. The owners, Xavier and Hélène Duménil, extended a warm welcome and friendly smiles all around. Fishbird Villa, originally constructed in 1923 in the Art Deco style, is an architectural gem adorned with pieces collected from auctions across South Africa and even some treasures sourced from Kensington Trading. It seamlessly blends old-world charm with modern sustainability, featuring solar panels, borehole water and double-glazed windows.
As a fitting finale, we were treated to gin and tonics by Primal Spirits, using their Complex and Union gins sourced from the surrounding areas, allowing us to truly "drink in Kensington". Bottles of these spirits were available for purchase, a delightful memento of our day. You can find Primal Spirits at Victoria Yards, where Hélène Duménil incidentally has a beautiful jewellery studio named Yol.
We were lucky enough to have architect and artist Thorsten Deckler join us on the walk and capture the day in his exquisite drawings. Follow him at @thethinking_hand.
As the day drew to a close, the city smog gave way to grey clouds and a warm yet brisk breeze, providing the perfect conclusion to a memorable day of exploration in Kensington.