When South African billionaire Koos Bekker and his wife Karen Roos began their search for a Georgian country house to use as a weekend retreat, they knew the gardens were always going to be at the heart of their vision.
The pair are the creators and owners of Babylonstoren, a historic Cape Dutch farm estate that’s been converted into a boutique hotel, spa and winery near Cape Town, South Africa. It’s a beautiful, painstakingly restored 17th century farmhouse with an eight acre fruit and vegetable garden that Monty Don has described as “one of the most superb in the world”.
This is a couple takes gardens very seriously. Which is a good job, because the Somerset estate that Roos spotted for sale while leafing through a copy of Country Life magazine in 2013 is the result of the work of generations of gardeners, including Arthur Hobhouse, one of the founders of the UK’s national parks system, and more recently garden designer, writer and presenter Penelope Hobhouse, who lived and worked there until 1979.
“I loved it immediately,” says Karen Roos, of Hadspen House – now The Newt in Somerset – and as I arrive on a bright, windblown day, it’s easy to see why.
What started as a hunt for a private residence has grown to become one of the UK’s most talked about hotel openings, with 23 rooms set across the honey-coloured limestone main house and in converted farm buildings in the old stable yard, a spa and a gym, The Botanical Rooms restaurant in the main hotel and a standalone new-build Garden Cafe that overlooks the gardens from which the food is sourced, its own cider (sorry, cyder) press and bar and an interactive museum about the history of gardening.
Although The Newt is one of the UK’s most talked about hotel openings, it’s the gardens that really take centre stage, and they are where I begin my tour.
Visitors are welcomed in the triple height Threshing Barn – part of a new cluster of buildings designed by Benjamin and Beauchamp which also include the Farm Shop, Cyder Press and Bar, and which have been designed using traditional techniques and local Hadspen stone from a quarry next to the estate to create a historic feel. The Threshing Barn has huge floor-to-ceiling windows and a giant kinetic sculpture inspired by the newt, by Studio Drift.
The formal gardens have been designed by Italian-French landscape architect Patrice Taravella, who also designed the edible and medicinal gardens at Babylonstoren. In February, when I visited, many of the plants were dormant, but the sheer scale and ambition of the outside space is clear.
Highlights include the walled parabola garden, which contains apple trees from each apple growing county of England, trained to form a maze as they grow. There are also kitchen gardens that supply the restaurants, coloured gardens, a fragrance garden, wildflower meadows which I’ve been assured look stunning in the spring and summer, and a beautiful Victorian-style greenhouse with a small cafe bar where guests and visitors can drink tea surrounded by tropical plants and ferns.
The estate also features a deer park, orchards with more than 3,000 apple trees that favour traditional apple growing methods over more recent commercial methods (the trees are widely spaced, meaning they are able to grow much taller) and several miles of walks through ancient woodlands and meadows.
A steel and timber elevated treetop walk, the Viper – designed and built by architect-engineer duo Mark Thomas and Henry Fagan – has been shipped from South Africa, and leads visitors above the trees to the newly-opened Story of Gardening, which has been created by Stonewood Design and features rammed concrete and Hadspen stone aggregate walls, a poured resin floor, a glazed, structure-free facade and a green roof.
Opened in January 2020, this museum – or ‘immersive experience centre’ – explores and celebrates gardens and their impact on culture through history. A series of multi sensory interactive exhibits, designed by Kossmandejong, explore historic and current gardens from different parts of the world, and the museum culminates in a virtual reality trip to Babylonstoren, Monet’s Garden and Tivoli Gardens Italy.
The design of the hotel and gardens was led by Karen Roos, who also oversaw the interiors at Babylonstoren and is a former editor of Elle Decoration South Africa.
The rooms inside the main house are quite classical; the one I visited had a four poster bed with sash windows overlooking the grand sweep of the grounds. The most interesting guestrooms are in the former Stable yard – limestone farm buildings have been beautifully restored, and each of the accommodations are completely unique. The Stable Rooms – previously used as horse boxes – are dark and cozy; they feature wood panelling, wood burning stoves, hay mangers, king size beds and luxurious bathrooms. The Stable Lofts are bright, white and calming, and the standalone Granary building has the feel of a Scandinavian cabin, with a futon bed, exposed stone walls and fur-style throws.
The public spaces mix original features with modern furniture and playful, contemporary touches; I particularly liked the bright, modern woven plastic chairs by German designer Sebastian Herkner for Ames in the bar and croquet room.
The spa is beautiful – housed in the old cow barn – with a roaring fire, exposed limestone walls and a glazed wall in the swimming pool room that looks out onto a medicinal herb garden designed to evoke monastic gardens of the medieval era. As well as the indoor/outdoor hydro pool, the spa also features seven treatment rooms, a sauna, a steam room and a halotherapy room. The high-spec gym is located opposite, and was designed by Invisible Studio as a giant window to minimise the impact on the landscape and give guests views across the vegetable gardens.
The rolling landscape has inspired the hotel’s design, with a varied palette of greens used throughout, a Patricia Urquiola-designed chair that resembles 3D flower petals, nature-inspired artworks and illuminated preserved jars of produce acting as decoration in the downstairs cellar room.
For Karen Roos, it was important to celebrate Somerset, in the food, architecture, materials and craftsmanship of the hotel – Hadspen limestone and blue lias quarried nearby can be seen in the buildings and local blacksmiths, carpenters and stonemasons were employed in the project.
As Roos talks to CLADmag, her passion for the land and buildings shines through. This project is clearly a labour of love, and with ongoing plans to create extra accommodation, it’s one that’s going to keep her busy for some time to come.