La Rochelle Country House Hotel, a National Trust of Zimbabwe property
- La Rochelle is the best known of the National Trust of Zimbabwe’s properties.
- The house is unique in Zimbabwe and was built in 1951 by Sir Stephen and Lady Virginia Courtauld, a wealthy couple who once travelled the world in their luxury steamship Virginia and who built their Zimbabwe retirement home with the looks of a French chateau surrounded by a wonderful garden, set in the lush, green Imbeza Valley, near Penhalonga, and allegedly once cared for by 55 gardeners.
- Given to the National Trust in 1970, it has been recently transformed from a ruinous state, and reopened in 2015 with newly restored buildings and redesigned gardens as the La Rochelle Country House and provides a country breakaway and convenient base for visiting the many sites of Nyanga and the Bvumba.
- Today for visitors to La Rochelle it feels like they have been transported back in time and are the personal guests of the Courtaulds in their home in the 1950’s and 1960’s when many international visitors enjoyed their warm and lavish hospitality.
La Rochelle Country House Hotel and Estate is situated in the Imbeza Valley, in the mountainous eastern border area of Penhalonga, north of Harare. From Harare turn left off the A3 at the Christmas Pass Service Station onto the Penhalonga Road, 5.85 KM turn right onto a gravel road at the La Rochelle signpost, 8.85 KM turn right into La Rochelle, 9.22 KM arrive at La Rochelle car park
GPS reference: 18⁰54′23.71″S 32⁰41′28.27″E
During World War I Stephen Courtauld was twice mentioned in despatches and awarded the military Cross in 1918. An enthusiasticmountaineer, he completed the first ascent of the Innominata face of Mont Blanc in the French Alps. In 1919, he met his future wife, Virginia (née Peirano), whom he married in 1923.
He did not enter the Courtauld family textile business, but his wealthy background enabled him to travel extensively and to pursue cultural and philanthropic interests — most notably, the redevelopment during the 1930s of Eltham Palace in Eltham, south-east London with his wife. The Courtaulds left Eltham Palace in May 1944 to live in Scotland.
During the late 1940’s they searched the African continent from the Cape to Cairo for a suitable site until, at the end of the 1940s, they flew over the Penhalonga Valley and decided in 1951 they would settle here, planning a house based on the home of Stephen’s Huguenot French ancestors, the lovely Chateau de La Rochelle on the Bay of Biscay. The house with its romantic courtyard, “Courtauld Rose” garden and rolling lawns, was the venue of many magnificent parties, with famous artists and distinguished guests from all over the world staying with Sir Stephen and Lady Virginia Courtauld. Many engraved their signature with a diamond stylus on the plate-glass windows; fascinating pages of history still preserved. Members of the National Trust are currently cataloguing those names.
La Rochelle has a large established botanical garden, probably the finest in Zimbabwe, in addition to areas of unspoiled natural woodland and numerous walking paths. There are interesting exotic trees in the arboretum as well as palms, cycads, azaleas and other flowering shrub collected for the Courtaulds from all over the world. This diversity provides ideal habitats for a large variety of bird species. The shade houses are filled with exotic and indigenous orchids today enhanced by the Peter Horrocks collection of rare Phalanopsis.
The Courtaulds were patrons of the arts and they funded the building of the Courtauld Theatre, the Queen’s Hall and the Rhodes Club in Mutare, the Kukwanisa Agricultural School at Watsomba, and the National Gallery and the College of Music in Harare and gave lavishly to the newly-opened University College and also endowed Bulawayo Theatre. The Courtaulds were modest about their support; few knew of their generosity and it was only after much persuasion by Federal Prime Minister, Sir Roy Welensky, that Stephen accepted a British knighthood for his good works.
After Stephen’s death at La Rochelle in 1967, Virginia continued with their joint hopes for La Rochelle and Zimbabwe in his memory. She moved to Jersey in 1970 where she died in 1972, leaving the entire estate to her “family” as she called the people of this country. From her death, the estate was managed and protected by the National Trust of Zimbabwe, but for many years a lack of funds has prevented implementation of a realistic conservation and development plan.
When the National Trust of Zimbabwe obtained vacant possession of La Rochelle on 1 February 2014 the property required urgent maintenance and refurbishment and the NTZ appointed project managers to supervise urgent maintenance work and undertaking the preparation of a long term development plan for the property.
La Rochelle has now been restored back to its former glory and the very extensive work on refurbishing the property is complete – the gardens in the front of the main building have been re-laid, new roses planted, and refurbishment of the reception area, the lounge, the bedrooms, kitchen and dining room is complete. The accommodation offered includes six twin-bedded rooms and two double-bedded rooms. There are also self-catering cottages consisting of one double-bed cottage and three twin-bedded cottages. The Hotel offers full English Breakfast and a Table d'Hote Menu in the evenings. Lunches comprise light snack menu, except on Sundays, when a Table d’Hote Menu is prepared subject to advance bookings.
The NTZ were lucky to have the support of very knowledgeable folk who have donated generously of their time and dedication to ensure that the property is restored to its deserving former glory – a number of photographs of Sir Stephen and Lady Virginia have been framed and hung and there are also prints of original paintings once held at La Rochelle by Sir Stephen.
D. Millar. La Rochelle…it belongs to you and me! Newsday 17.11.2012
The National Trust of Zimbabwe