The Newt that almost sank Britain’s glorious new garden: How one tiny visitor delayed a visionary £50million renovation of the grounds of Somerset’s most beautiful mansion
No corset-and-bonnet drama was ever filmed here. There’s no record of a king or queen sleeping here and the only time modernity poked its nose into the place was when a previous owner announced he was running his Jaguar on apple waste from the cider press.
But very slowly, and with very little fanfare, a revolution is taking place on this secluded spot that looks set to transform the grounds of a former slave trader’s mansion into one of the most horticulturally important gardens in the country.
Welcome to The Newt, a working estate set in the Somerset hills between the Mendips and Blackmore Vale. For more than two centuries, Hadspen House — its previous name — had been the ancestral home of the Hobhouse family. Sir Arthur Hobhouse, a one-time Liberal MP, is remembered as the mastermind of England and Wales’s national parks.
Welcome to The Newt, a working estate set in the Somerset hills between the Mendips and Blackmore Vale. For more than two centuries, Hadspen House — its previous name — had been the ancestral home of the Hobhouse family
The Grade II-listed house’s Palladian façade of golden limestone was reckoned to be one of the prettiest in the country.
Six years ago, the house, along with 800 acres of neglected ornamental gardens, parkland, farmland and orchards, was put up for sale at £13 million.
For a time it was rumoured that it had been bought by Johnny Depp, whose interest in Somerset’s ancient history and ley-lines was said to have been fired by fellow Hollywood star Nicolas Cage.
In fact, the purchaser was the South African-born media tycoon Koos Bekker and his wife Karen Roos, a former editor of Elle Decoration South Africa.
Some years earlier they had bought a well-established farmhouse 40 minutes from Cape Town and turned it into a boutique hotel with a large vegetable garden to supply its dining rooms.
A decade on, Babylonstoren is one of the world’s most superb gardens, with a staggeringly rich variety of edible plants where excellence is measured not just by the eye, but daily in the restaurants.
Now the couple are setting about achieving the same transformation at Hadspen House, using their same extraordinary vision, incredible eye for detail and apparently bottomless reserves of money.
Local gossip suggests that by the time it is all over, Bekker, who made his fortune in the emerging markets media group Naspers, will have spent something in the region of £50 million. Small change, however, for a man who in 2001 invested £25 million in a small loss-making Chinese messaging service called Tencent. That stake is now worth more than £100 billion.
The Grade II-listed house’s Palladian façade of golden limestone was reckoned to be one of the prettiest in the country
Bekker’s concept is to make the estate as self-sustaining as possible — or, as one of his staff told me this week: ‘We want to give everyone the “full banquet”: to provide everything they need.’
The ethos is to celebrate all things Somerset with gusto. The meats and cheeses come from neighbouring farms. So, too, the locally-quarried Blue Lias stone used in the garden.
At the moment the beef sold in the farm shop comes from a handful of local suppliers. In time, the estate will rear its own cattle.
Alongside the butcher is the cheese counter, where the same concept has been given an added twist. In order to provide home-grown mozzarella, The Newt has located a nearby herd of buffalo.
Craftsmen are still at work on the main house, which is being turned into a hotel with 23 bedrooms, a spa, gym, bar and restaurants. It will open for business at the end of August.
Much of the grounds, however, along with café, cider press and shop, have been opened. Locals have been invited to test everything from the quality of the food to the crisp dry ‘cyder’ being made in state-of-the-art cellars.
The gardens, however, take centre stage and this week I was given a sneak preview. It is a mind-blowing experience — every sensation is tested: sight, taste, hearing, touch and smell.
Judging by the comments from fellow visitors, this remarkable attraction may soon rank alongside great British gardens such as Sissinghurst in Kent, Great Dixter near Rye, East Sussex, and Tresco Abbey in the Isles of Scilly
Craftsmen are still at work on the main house, which is being turned into a hotel with 23 bedrooms, a spa, gym, bar and restaurants. It will open for business at the end of August
Judging by the comments from fellow visitors, this remarkable attraction may soon rank alongside great British gardens such as Sissinghurst in Kent, Great Dixter near Rye, East Sussex, and Tresco Abbey in the Isles of Scilly.
Most likely its key rival will be the Lost Gardens of Heligan in Cornwall, restored in the Nineties after decades of neglect. Indeed, the Newt’s director of horticulture Iain Davies, who oversees 18 garden and woodland experts, was previously at Heligan.
Unlike Heligan, however, the gardens here had not been abandoned for years. Horticultural writer enelope Hobhouse, who created the Queen Mother’s garden at Walmer Castle in Kent, established the centrepiece, a parabola-shaped walled garden, in the Sixties. But she left after her marriage to Sir Arthur’s son Paul broke down.
Just as she had been inspired by the beauty of the winemaking region in her native South Africa, Karen Roos fell in love with the countryside of Somerset. The egg-shaped Parabola has been restored with discreet terracing and an extraordinary collection of trained apple trees, arranged in a maze.
All the apple-growing counties of England are represented — so, too, are Wales, Scotland and Ireland. Some of the saplings are arranged into elaborate designs, one remarkably representing the double helix of DNA. They’re a masterclass in showing how, with the right expertise, you can train a fruit tree into any shape.
A clue to the thinking behind this celebration lies in a Latin motto inscribed into the stone paving: ‘from the egg to the apple’ or from start to finish.
A hazelwood fence announces our arrival at the colour garden. This is a homage to the last horticulturalists to till the soil here, Canadians Nori and Sandra Pope, who spent 20 years restoring the gardens with swathes of colourful blooms
Yet for all its modern twists and new-build look, the estate still has the air of a lost paradise. In part it is because of the bucolic setting and also, perhaps, the clutch of chickens looking on hungrily as I sample a slice of freshly made cake — apple, naturally
The phrase inspired the Bekkers and their team to create an historical timeline for the estate, with a garden shaped by ideas and traditions from past to present.
‘The idea is to transport visitors,’ says my guide, garden director Arthur Cole. ‘There are so many things to look out for.’
Entry to the estate is down an elegant, twisting boardwalk, from where you alight in the threshing barn, which looks hundreds of years old but is brand new.
But then that is the conceit of the place. Just outside the café is an area shaded by 20 semi-mature London plane trees. Each was brought in by lorry nearly fully grown. Elsewhere, an entire yew hedge was shipped from Belgium.
Step through the courtyard and there is a farm shop to the left and a shining steel cider press to the right, a contraption that would not look out of place in Charlie and the Chocolate Factory.
Yet for all its modern twists and new-build look, the estate still has the air of a lost paradise. In part it is because of the bucolic setting and also, perhaps, the clutch of chickens looking on hungrily as I sample a slice of freshly made cake — apple, naturally.
Leaving the Parabola you pass through beds of fragrant herbs. The path meanders through campions, wild pea, yarrow and cowslip. The Prince of Wales, who has done so much to champion gardens, would love it.
‘The wildflowers provide food for our bees,’ says Arthur.
Food for the guests, meanwhile, comes from the kitchen garden where there are rows of Iberian garlic and beds of asparagus. Arthur plucks a petal of a California poppy. ‘Try this, it’s edible,’ he says. Everything that’s grown is on the menu in the garden cafe.
The watchword is ‘no-dig gardening’, to prevent the break-up of nitrates in the soil which happens when forks are plunged into the earth. Only gentle aerating of the ground is permitted.
A hazelwood fence announces our arrival at the colour garden. This is a homage to the last horticulturalists to till the soil here, Canadians Nori and Sandra Pope, who spent 20 years restoring the gardens with swathes of colourful blooms.
We enter via the red garden, where native poppies are broken up with bold strokes of purple provided by lobelias.
Next stop is the water-edged Victorian Fragrance Garden — marked by a Queen Victoria penny coin set into the ground — where violets and roses jostle with rows of box.
And here is the reason for the estate’s name. Sculptures of two giant newts are pushing their way through a brick end-wall.
The estate is home to a colony of 2,000 newts — all three UK species: great crested, palmate and smooth. Many of the water features have strips of timber to provide ladders for the newts, whose presence as protected species resulted in delays to the project.
Another coin heralds the next stop. It is a pre-World War I George V penny, and it marks a cottage garden inspired by the designer Gertrude Jekyll.
The Newt is a sumptuous illustration of sensitivity in design. In the Parabola, unlike many a garden, there are no steps, so it can be reached in a wheelchair.
Soon there will be educational tours and a garden museum is planned. There will also be one other unique feature: a dedicated Great Western Railway carriage for visitors travelling from London Paddington by train.
One visit scarcely does it justice — I had no time for the woodland walks, nor to visit the marl pit created by digging out lime-rich deposits. It has left an island which the garden folk say evokes Avalon, the site of Camelot where King Arthur died, said to be somewhere in Somerset.
It is an extraordinary hybrid: think the Daylesford farm shop crossed with a National Trust museum, with a slice of the Royal Horticultural Gardens at Wisley thrown in for good measure.
What is perhaps even more remarkable is that, for all the attention to detail, the owners have bought the place not for themselves, but for the public. Some days the Bekkers can be seen pottering around the gardens in raincoat and straw hat just like their paying visitors.
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