When South African telecoms billionaire Koos Bekker and his wife Karen Roos began their search for a Georgian country house to use as a weekend retreat in England, 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 stylish boutique hotel, spa and winery near Cape Town, South Africa. It’s a beautiful, painstakingly restored 17th century farmhouse with an 8-acre fruit and vegetable garden inspired by the mythological hanging gardens of Babylon.
This is a couple that takes gardens very seriously. Which is a good job, because the Somerset estate that Karen spotted for sale while leafing through a copy of Country Life magazine in 2013 is the result of the work of generations of gardeners. This includes 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, which has been renamed as The Newt in respect for the 2,000 endangered amphibians which slowed down its transformation. And arriving at the sprawling estate on a bright, windblown day – six weeks before coronavirus took hold – 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. It has only 23 rooms set across the honey-coloured limestone main house and in converted farm buildings, a spa in an old cow barn and a standalone new-build boasting a plant-based cafe and interactive museum about the history of gardening.
FROM COW BARN TO SPA
The design of the hotel and gardens, opened last September, was led by Roos, who also oversaw the interiors at Babylonstoren and is a former editor of Elle Decoration in South Africa.
The classical rooms in the main house boast four poster beds and sash windows overlooking the grand sweeping grounds. In the former stable yard, old horse boxes have been replaced with dark, cozy spaces featuring wood panelling, wood burning stoves, hay mangers, king size beds and luxurious bathrooms. Meanwhile, those in the converted Granary building have the feel of a Scandinavian cabin, with futons, exposed stone walls and fur-style throws.
The landscape has inspired the overall design, with a varied palette of greens used throughout and opposite Roos tells Spa Business about her vision, passion for the land and how she’s grown to love the infamous newts.
The design enthusiast also had a hand in the garden-scented spa, with the help of industry consultant Tracey Chappell, who previously oversaw the global spa division at ESPA for 20-plus years. The spa is beautiful – housed in an old cow barn – with a roaring fire, exposed limestone walls, natural oak and forest marble. A glazed wall by a swimming pool looks out onto a medicinal herb garden designed to evoke monastic gardens of the medieval era and provide a calming space for guests. The spa also features an indoor/outdoor hydro pool, sauna, steamroom, Himalayan salt room, rasul and an authentic full-sized hammam – all installed by Barr + Wray. A high-spec gym is located opposite, and was designed by Invisible Studio as a giant window to minimise the impact on the landscape and gives guests views across the vegetable gardens.
The treatments, offered in one of seven therapy rooms, have been inspired by an English country garden. The 60-minute nourishing and hydrating Apothecary Blend Facial, for example, use locally-made botanical ingredients. It costs £90 (US$111, €103) as is one of the lower priced services, along with a 60-minute mud rasul experience that costs £80 (US$99, €92) for two people. At the top-end is the £195 (US$241, €223), results-driven Linda Meredith Vtox Oxygen Facial, a 90-minute treatment which infuses the skin with neuropeptides and algae; or a 60-minute hammam soap treatment combined with a 30-minute couples massage for £240 (US$297, €275).
It’s a sizeable wellness offering for the boutique hotel, which has rooms starting at £320 (US$366, €395) a night based on two people sharing. At the time of writing, both hotel and spa are closed following the coronavirus outbreak. But once reopened, it’s believed that the spa will still only be available to hotel guests – when it first launched it was inundated with requests for the day packages advertised, so marketing has stopped and it will look to keep a low profile initially.
GARDEN OF ENGLAND
Although The Newt is one of the UK’s most talked about hotel and spa openings, it’s the gardens that really take centre stage and daily tours are led by experienced horticulturists. Next year, it’s also looking to introduce Great Garden Escape day trip packages from London.
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 Greenhouse, and which have been designed using traditional techniques to create a historic feel.
The formal gardens have been designed by Italian-French landscape architect Patrice Taravella, who also designed the edible and medicinal gardens at Babylonstoren. Visiting in February, 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 germinate. 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 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 – has been shipped from South Africa, and leads visitors above the trees to the newly-opened Story of Gardening museum. This immersive experience centre explores and celebrates gardens and their impact on culture through history. A series of multi sensory interactive exhibits 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.
It’s these outdoor-based experiences that are likely to be the first things on offer once the country-wide lockdown is lifted. Stays at the hotel and treatments in the spa will hopefully follow soon after as domestic travellers seek some much-needed respite from the devastating pandemic.