Nieu-Bethesda’s biggest export item, as in what people take away with them, must be their cement owls. It all started at the Owl House where Helen Martins transformed the house and then the yard, the latter with the help of Koos Malgas. Although there are so many different cement figures in the yard, the owls are the most prominent. No wonder it’s called the Owl House. It’s also the one thing most visitors to the village want to go home and these days Nieu-Bethesda cement owls of all sizes are found in gardens all around South Africa and beyond. Although you can buy cement owls just about anywhere in town, the best place to buy them is outside the Owl House from one of the various “owl sellers” camped out there. They can be a little too much at times, trying too hard to persuade you to buy from them, but they are always friendly and at least you know you are supporting the locals.
A couple of years ago the Owl House Foundation made a very controversial decision to move the entrance to the Owl House from the historic building to another building in Martin Street, the main street into town. Personally I didn’t think it was necessary to do, as visitors to the town had the Owl House on their “must do” list anyway and would visit no matter where the entrance is. This move left the owl sellers stranded at the back and away from the tourist traffic and literally treated like the village’s unwanted stepchildren. Even more reason to go and support them.
On my last visit to Nieu-Bethesda I noticed big signs next to the owl sellers about the development of a Crafters Precinct by the municipality. I was really excited about the prospect of such a development and the fact that it will help to enhance the circumstances the owl sellers are trying to make a living. I asked the guesthouse where we stayed about it and heard that the project hit a major snag due to approvals, but looking at the Owl House website it seems that things are slowly starting to move again with the project. Here’s hoping that things will happen for them and at some stage soon visitors will see a proper crafters area and not just the little shacks the owl sellers are working from at the moment.