Nestled in the Elgin Valley in the Western Cape, the Elgin Railway Market stands as a testament to creativity, community, and culinary delights. Housed within a beautifully restored fruit storage warehouse, this hugely popular bustling market offers an immersive experience that seamlessly combines the nostalgia of yesteryear with a modern twist.
Elgin is a large, lush area of land, encircled by mountains, in the Overberg region of South Africa.
This broad upland valley lies about 70 km southeast of Cape Town, just beyond the Hottentots Holland Mountains. The Elgin Valley is one of the more intensively farmed districts of South Africa and produces 60% of the national apple crop*.
The steam train from the Harbour Bridge Hotel in the Foreshore district,
travels up and over Sir Lowry’s Pass to the market, a three-hour journey
One of the entrances to the Market with the black chequeredfloor of the coffee bar in the background
The Elgin Railway Market is a feast for the senses.
Elgin Railway Market’s history
The building where the market now takes place was built by Italian prisoners-of-war stationed at the Cape in the 1940s. Many of them were highly skilled artisans. In the late 19th century, the railway line connecting Cape Town to Grabouw was extended to Elgin. Fruit farmers were then able to transport their produce to Cape Town and beyond, opening up new markets and opportunities.
The market opened its doors in 2018, an ambitious endeavour which was the brainchild of businessman Roger Orpen. He saw the potential of transforming the disused warehouse into a thriving market which would provide a unique experience outside the city not only during the busy tourist season. He enlisted the aid of local industrial designer Corban Warrington to create a visually exciting space, inspired by the Art Deco and Art Nouveau movements as well as Steampunk.
Paying homage to bygone days
Giant, patina-finished metal entrance doors – wheeled open by a system of cogwheels – reveal a modern paned glass doorway. There is also a large covered courtyard out front, showcasing rectangular metallic details and an aerodynamic curved roof, which is imaginably the best place to enjoy food and drink when the weather is warmer.
The market space incorporates a blended juxtaposition of the geometric, symmetrical forms of Art Deco with the sinuous, flowing natural forms of Art Nouveau. The gleaming sheet brass of the bar counter in the food court, varnished wood accents, the floral designs in the metal balusters between balustrades, curved stairways and repurposed locomotive paraphernalia bring the ‘Steampunk’ look together.
Cast iron rail cogwheels have been transformed into exciting moving décor, some of which power the movement of large statement ceiling fans. Other vintage steam locomotive artefacts accent the space, such as brass engine order telegraphs (these are more often found on ships, but not unheard of on steam trains). Old coal engine furnaces purloined from old locomotives are also cleverly repurposed as fireplaces to keep the cold at bay during the winter months.
The giant main entrance doors
Left above: The giant clock which overlooks the Market interior
Right above: Art Deco detail
The steam train experience
Excitingly, the railway line is also still operational. On Saturdays and Sundays if you wish to take a slower trip to the market, you can climb aboard an actual steam locomotive run by the Ceres Rail Company. Their train from the Harbour Bridge Hotel in the Foreshore district, travels up and over Sir Lowry’s Pass to the market, a journey of three hours.
Food and retail
Orpen’s goal was to create a space where visitors could gather, enjoy delicious food and drinks, and enjoy some retail therapy. From artisanal food and beverages to locally designed clothing, a stage with scheduled live entertainment, a wine shop offering wine tasting and sales from regional vineyards, and finally the aptly named Steam coffee shop, there’s something for everyone’s taste.
Q & A with Roger Orpen
Founder, owner and ‘Boss’ of the Elgin Railway Market
Who is ‘Roger Orpen’?
Roger with his KFM Best of the Cape’s Market Award
Have you ever created and managed a like-venture before?
I spent 32 years in the film industry making TV commercials all around Africa – for soap to soap powder to toothpaste to cellphone companies to airlines to absolutely anything that would have ended up on television! Over time I built up some retail property in Cape Town and then I sold it off and bought a small farm out in Elgin.
I started growing grass very badly for my wife’s horses. I am a useless grass farmer and I look with awe at the farmers around me who grow apples and pears and grapes. They do it so successfully. Anyway I struggle on somehow and all the horses are still fat and well.
Over time I’d met various people and one of the people who had a significant impact on my life in terms of retail and property was a chap called Martin Wragge. He created Tyger Valley and Century City and a host of other well-known centres. He always had a visual picture and then he made it happen in concrete and steel. Through him I got exposed to the vagaries and joys of property and retail, and I suspect some of that stuck.
What was it about the location and existing building at Elgin that inspired you to do what you did?
I was looking around Elgin and I found this great big shed and I thought to myself: Well… I can do something with this. It looks really, really good. Maybe a market??
It was the most incredible, huge, open space. The original shed was built by Italian prisoners-of-war in about 1941/42. The roof was completely rotten so I had to take it down and put a new roof on. I suppose that’s when I started to realise that the value of putting a good design into a building starts with the roof and then working downwards.
The market was situated up in the Elgin Valley miles away from everywhere. We’ve got 120 farms around us but those weren’t going to support a business so I had to go and find a design style which would attract people. I went down the road of Art Deco and Art Nouveau and some Steampunk and I absolutely loved it. I thought that if I put a lot of detail and effort into the design, it will be visually impactful and people will like it and they’ll come to it. So that’s what I did and so far it seems to be working.
The funny thing is I have lots of architects coming to look at the building and take photographs. They come and photograph my old-fashioned market which I find quite refreshing actually.
How did the collaboration with Corban come about?
I realised that I needed a good designer who could take my terrible sketches, and convert them into drawings which I could give to the workshop to manufacture. That’s where Corban came in. He was fresh out of design school, and had a little bit of experience. We worked together for nearly two years and he did a fantastic job of taking my visual ideas and putting them into 3D. He grew immensely in terms of his skill.
Everything in the market was built by us in our workshop, with the exception of the glass light fittings. I sent my assistant Zurina off to Woolworths to go and buy all the cake cloches of an identical shape. After visiting seven Woolies stores all around the Western Cape peninsula, she eventually came back with 34 of them and from there we could make the metal housing around the glass dome.
We built the fans that went up in the ceiling of the market. These fans were based on various designs: the first one was based on a Spitfire propellor, the second one was based on a Hercules C130 prop, and then the middle one was based on a dream that I had. The last one was based on your typical desk fan, which we just made a lot bigger.
What in your view are key ingredients which make the market the success story it clearly is?
As a destination the market had to be a place where people could spend time enjoying the surroundings and what we had to offer, so I had to find a balance between a decent range of food which I think we’ve got, and some retail which is mostly on the upper floor.
We have a steam train from Ceres Rail which comes up on weekends bringing 340 people from the V&A Waterfront. It’s quite a sight for people to watch the train arrive. The children love the hooting and whistling.
Is there another market on your to-do list?
When I opened the market we discovered that there are so many people who wanted to exhibit their wares and products which they make. We just don’t have enough retail so we are opening a bazaar which we’ll have up and running before Christmas.
Director at Coal Interiors; Co-founder at Fieldbar; Head Designer at Fieldbar
Q&A with the interior designer of the Elgin Railway Market
Was the steampunk approach a ‘given’ or did you have other ideas before you settled on this one?
Roger Orpen contracted me early into the start of the Elgin Railway Market when it was just a shell. The inspiration was drawn from the building’s history: an old apple warehouse situated next to the railway lines from which steam locomotives would distribute the apples around the country. Creative cues were drawn from the invention of the steam engine as well as the industrial age to expose the raw beauty of industrial manufacturing. This, combined with the elegance and attentive styles of Art Deco and the Victorian era, helped to create the Elgin Railway Market.
What were the elements in the structure and the location which inspired the design?
The building was just a concrete shell with numerous columns and its A-framed roofs. The main source of inspiration came from the railway lines situated behind the building. That was the spark but the fuel was the desire to create something so unexpected, but so fitting. I wanted people to come inside and have an ‘I didn’t expect that!’ reaction.
Were there any significant challenges in tackling and completing the project?
The everyday challenge was to make all the designs fit… like, physically. There wasn’t one perfect 90° wall or symmetrical structure. Every crevice of the market needed design pieces that were completely bespoke to make them all fit.
What are some of the most outstanding elements which visitors comment on?
The fans are definitely the biggest show pieces. All four fans operate off an interconnected belt and pulley system that runs off a single, small motor. Another element is ‘The Beast’, which is the hard-to-miss fireplace situated in the heart of the market. This is definitely a visitor favourite in the winter months.
How many people were involved in the production of some of the extraordinary features and what materials were used?
I have to take my hat off to Mike Suttner who was employed in-house to be the engineer and fabricator. He never said no to any idea, no matter how big or stupid some of them may have been. Mike had a workshop along with a team of fabricators who put the entire market together. The main material was of course, metal and a little bit of timber. I really wanted to play with multiple types of metals such as brass, aluminium, stainless steel and mild steel. Some steel was raw, some was painted and some was intentionally rusted.
Last word …for now
This project really embodied a designer’s paradise. It was a case of: Come up with a concept and just have fun with bringing it to life. Don’t take it so seriously. There are pieces in there that I am incredibly proud of and then pieces that make me cringe. But every piece was designed and created with the intent to ‘WOW’ the visitors. I am extremely honoured to have been allowed the opportunity to use the Elgin Railway Market as a canvas to bring something spectacular to life.
See link to video of the development of the market.
By Gina Thomas
Source: Asset Magazine
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