We gaze down on what was a wild valley beyond a Johannesburg developing frenziedly from being a gold rush settlement.
Up here, St John’s College got a proper grip on the rugged cliff of Houghton Ridge-tobe, after fledgling days of classes on the porch of a little St Mary’s church in the Eloff Street of 1898. Now St John’s celebrates its 120th birthday.
Appropriately, on the craggy edge is a black metal eagle. Not even Dr Daniel Pretorius, the college’s historian, knows who createdit.
I guess it’s by Edoardo Villa, associating it with his steel candelabras but there’s a further clue in the proximity of his enormous Mother and Child bronze. We’re discovering interesting art and eccentricities today, examining nooks and crannies with the fascinating Pretorius.
Not surprisingly, here is many an eagle, given that it’s the symbol of St John’s gospels. Apart from a grand wooden eagle on the lectern, in the Memorial chapel are eagles embroidered on hassocks. Even the drain pipes on the college buildings have eagles on them.
A niche features an engraving of another eagle, with eggs, this dedicated to “Christopher George Caithwaite and other unsung heroes”.
It’s not the only monumental dedication to the overlooked here, prompting discussion about steady progress students as opposed to fast shiners in society.
“She’s clearly not white,” mentions Pretorius. Between eagle spotting, we’ve entered the almost subterranean crypt chapel. I’m a fan of Black Madonnas of the world and here is a gorgeous mid-brown one, quite unlike her milky neighbours.
Periods of war and staff callups mark the school’s history and one of the oddest sights is that of a bicycle up and enclosed in a tree. It had been was left chained to the tree for a bit too long.
“Are you ready for your performances?” asks Pretorius of some drama students.
“Yes sir!” one replies. Heather is astonished, saying no pupils in the States would ever call anyone “sir”.
With a straight face, Pretorius invites me to ring the school bell but, even swinging on the low rope, adding my bag to the weight, it will not toll for me. A slight kluk noise is the best I can elicit under the amused gaze of eagles.
Could it be that all these flight eagles of St John’s College are beginning to embody some of that light, life and love of ‘Lux vita caritas’, its motto?