Driving along the A371 in Somerset, the first sign that something unusual is afoot is a new tunnel beneath the road flanked by fields of newly planted apple trees. “If you think that’s impressive, wait till you see the rest of The Newt,” says my grinning taxi driver. “We went two weeks ago, and it is not like anything you will have ever seen.”
He’s right. The Newt in Somerset is unlike anything any of us has seen since the heyday of the Victorians.
But then, when the South African billionaire telecoms magnate Koos Bekker and his wife Karen Roos take on a project, they don’t do things by halves. In the Cape Winelands, their much-lauded vineyard, hotel and formal garden, Babylonstoren, has become a byword for horticultural style: it is Africa’s only RHS-partnered garden, with eight acres of gardens planted primarily with fruit and vegetables.
If the couple were going to invest in another property, it was going to be one that was equally special – which the Emily Estate, just outside Castle Cary, is. Created in the 1680s, with hundreds of acres of woodlands, formal gardens and arable land, this tranche of Somerset was home from 1785 to seven generations of the Liberal Hobhouse family, including Arthur Hobhouse, a founder of the national parks system in England and Wales.
While the Palladian-fronted, Grade II listed stone mansion he restored beside the gardens is undoubtedly handsome – and, under Roos’s creative eye, will undoubtedly become a glorious hotel when it opens in autumn – it is the estate’s gardens that have always been the property’s biggest draw. The work of generations of serious gardeners, the 30-something acres of formal planting, surrounded by landscaped parklands and woodlands, were for 12 years the creative playground of Penelope Hobhouse, and the subject of her first book, The Country Gardener. The estate was also the place where Canadian couple Nori and Sandra Pope developed their “colourist” monochrome borders, which became the inspiration for their popular Colour by Design garden-design tome of 1998.
When Bekker and Roos chanced upon the property, it was for sale in the pages of Country Life. Having looked for a while for an English farm to live on, purchasing the estate in 2013, Roos says, “seemed obvious, although having worked on it day and night ever since, it feels slightly mad.”
Looking out from the top of the hillside property with the elegant former editor of South African Elle Decoration – her trademark slash of red lipstick glowing beneath a Provençal-style straw hat – it’s hard to believe how much the couple have achieved in just five years. The Newt, as they have renamed the property after the rare great crested newts found here, has been transformed, bringing together, Roos says, “the most beautiful parts of what we found – ancient woodlands, a walled garden, the pretty gardener’s cottage – with new designs that will hopefully allow visitors to explore different eras of gardening history. And, of course, celebrate the apple, which is what Somerset is all about.”
With the help of the French architect Patrice Taravella, who landscaped Babylonstoren and the glorious gardens at the Prieuré d’Orsan in the Loire, the couple have created a property that is not just breathtaking in its scale, but in its design and attention to detail. Looking out through a central glass wall in the triple-height threshing barn that operates as a reception, a series of pretty, new Hadspen limestone farm buildings stretch out, as if they’ve been there for centuries, offering places for visitors not only to eat but also to shop.
To the right, a barn-sized, hi-tech cider cellar leads to a giant, open-sided bar, stocked with organic, sugar-free cider, fresh apple juice and baked goods. Behind it, there’s a cool, airy deli, with a glass cheese room, a butchers' cave walled in Himalayan rock salt and shelves stacked with jugs of flowers and local goods. To the left of us lies a boutique stocked with tasteful country wares, from rustic local pottery to Japanese secateurs. And rolling out below all this – with glorious views from a contemporary, glass-walled restaurant overseen by Ben Bulger, formerly of River Cottage – are the newly landscaped gardens, which opened to the public last month.
On a tour with Iain Davies, The Newt’s new director of horticulture, formerly of the Lost Gardens of Heligan, the scale of the project becomes apparent as he reels off the facts and figures that demonstrate just how much they’ve achieved. As he puts it: “I’ve been gardening all my life, and have worked on incredible projects, from Heligan and the Eden Project to Tom Stuart-Smith’s gardens, and I’ve never seen anything like this. Not just because of its ambition, which is to have the best national apple collection in the country [so far, they have planted more than 500 malus varieties, if you include the crab-apple orchard in the car park], but because it is a garden with horticulture at its core.”
While previously there were just two main focal points – Hadspen House and the great egg-shaped walled parabola garden – Taravella has redesigned the grounds with several new hubs of interest designed to take visitors on a historic journey through British gardening.
At the top of the hill, a specially designed greenhouse to house tropical plants and ferns leads to an arts-and-crafts, Gertrude Jekyll-inspired cottage garden centred around a tiny, and original, 17th-century thatched gardener’s cottage. Following after that, a Cascades Garden, full of richly coloured and textured beds created by head flowering plantsman and former Wisley gardener Russell Rigler, flows down the hill: a mass of red, blue and purple irises, primulas and pelargoniums interspersed with blocks of tangerine geums.
Walk on further down the hill and there are several new areas: a walkway of single-colour “rooms” of flowering shrubs and annuals – one red, one white, one blue – separated by woven chestnut fences pierced with oval “windows”: a nod to Nori and Sandra Pope’s colourist planting of the late Eighties and Nineties. Then long lawns that refer to the Landscape Movement, punctuated with a natural square bathing pond. A formal Renaissance-style kitchen garden, with no-dig, Charles Dowding-inspired beds. A lawned area, featuring three egg-shaped “Nest” chairs by South African designer Porky Hefer and a quaint little stone chicken house.
And finally we get to the area that Roos says brings her the most pleasure: the 32,000 sq ft, egg-shaped parabola walled garden that has been at the heart of the property for centuries.
It is here, within its weathered 9ft-high brick walls, that Taravella has designed the ultimate homage to the apple: an enormous, mathematically inspired circular maze planted with 460 apple trees, of 267 varieties, which have been meticulously fanned, espaliered and cordoned over arches and up hundreds of elegant sweet-chestnut batons. It is both beautiful and carefully considered. Not only are the fruit trees labelled, and carpeted with plants that would have been found in the original garden in 1690, but the maze is dotted with signs inscribed with apple-related stories, ranging in subject matter from William Tell to Apple computers.
“If you want to get the next generation enthused, you need to find new ways of interesting them,” says Roos – which is also the reason, she adds, that their garden museum, which opens in autumn, will be extremely hi-tech.
Before that happens, though, she says, their staff, including 18 full-time gardeners – from woodsmen to the estate architect Katie Lewis – will have their work cut out, finishing projects on the rest of the estate (see box), which range from a lake inspired by King Arthur to a hi-tech mushroom house.
To many gardeners, the scale would be overwhelming. To Roos, it’s “exciting”. “People in Somerset have been so positive about it. And I’ve already got so much pleasure from it: watching old ladies sitting beneath trees, children doing cartwheels on the lawn, groups drinking cider in the cellar.”
It helps that Somerset instantly felt like home, she adds. “As children, we were immersed in England through literature: whether Enid Blyton, Jane Austen or Chaucer. As teenagers, my sister and I read English magazines like Petticoat to learn about fashion. And as a gardener, I’ve always looked up to English greats like Capability Brown and Rosemary Verey, whose Barnsley House I love. So, moving here and creating this has been a wonderful, and very natural, progression.”
A DAY RETURN TO THE NEWT
- In partnership with GWR, The Newt has arranged a day return from London Paddington to The Newt in Somerset (thenewtinsomerset.com), with meals on board. The package includes First Class same-day rail travel from London Paddington to Castle Cary; breakfast and supper on the train inspired by the region and served with Babylonstoren wine and Newt cider; transfers to and from The Newt; guided tours of the gardens; lunch in the Garden Café and cider tastings.
- Tickets, available July 13-October 27 2019, cost £285pp ([email protected]; 01963 577 777) .