Is this the start of something big?

I’ll be honest, when I was asked if I would like to visit the garden of a billionaire my expectations were very low.

Flicking through the pages of gardening and lifestyle magazines tends to paint a picture of the gardens of the super-rich falling into one of two categories; either maintaining an old garden that they inherited when they bought the house, or buying a garden from a big name designer. The garden is an afterthought, down the list after the gold plated taps and reclaimed Belfast sink for the little room dedicated to washing the dog after its walk. Some might appreciate a garden for being ‘pretty’, while others want a garden to frame their house.

Even in freelance gardening it’s not unusual for a customer to baulk at paying £8.00 for a shrub while buying a new car every year; usually the wealthier someone is the less interested in horticulture they are. Very few big estate gardens have a generous budget for gardening

The new project at The Newt In Somerset is very exciting!

Hadspen House is an iconic name in horticulture. Home to legendary plantswoman Penelope Hobhouse, who created an iconic Arts And Crafts garden here, and then to Canadian gardeners and authors Nori and Sandra Pope who created their own garden. When the Popes returned to Canada their garden was demolished; depending who you believe it was either demolished as part of a garden design competition, or by the Popes’ son who believed that nobody could ever create a garden as beautiful as the one his parents had created. Either way, two important gardens were destroyed at Hadspen. In 2013 the estate was bought by South African businessman and self made billionaire Koos Bekker.

Usually when businessmen buy houses they begin work on the house straight away, either aiming to live in the house or, as in Hadspen’s case, building a hotel. Bekker however had other ideas, and while the planning permission for house was only granted a few weeks ago (at the time of writing) the garden has already been four years in the making. This garden is impressive, and not just due to the resources that have been thrown at it.

This is not a rich man’s playground; this is in every sense a serious horticultural endeavour.

Even though the garden is still in its infancy there is a lot to see, with the structural elements of the main garden pretty much complete (although there is still much to be done). The core of the garden is ready to be enjoyed by visitors, and over the course of the next few months new areas will be added. There are also areas that are currently not planned to be accessible to the public (although this might change in the future), including the vegetable gardens that supply the site’s restaurant and cafe.

The Newt In Somerset is centred around apples. A large orchard, with I think 9,000 apple trees, has been planted on the hillside facing the garden, while the walled garden is home to apple trees trained on metal pergolas to make ‘apple tunnels’, and the walls will be covered in trained apple trees too. In time visitors will be able to help themselves to fresh apples from these trees, but give them time to grow first!

Ultimately the produce here isn’t just for show. The vegetables grown in the various productive gardens will go straight to the cafe, the restaurant and the hotel, but it’s really the cider and juice production that is spectacular!

Apples travel along a rill, bobbing along in gently flowing water before being picked up at one end by a conveyor that lifts them to be juiced. The pulp is fired off onto a trailer, ready to be used elsewhere, while the juice is then pumped into the cider house in the next building. Here it is either kept for juice or is turned into ‘home brewed’ cider, which in turn is pumped out to the cafe which occupies one end of the same building that the apples were pressed in!

It is the level of detail that sets The Newt In Somerset apart from anything remotely like it anywhere else. All of the buildings and fixtures celebrate traditional craftsmanship and quality materials, giving a sense of harmony more typical in genuinely old buildings and seldom seen in modern structures. From the apples and newts design of the grating to the very traditional stone barn of the visitor centre, the standards of workmanship and attention to detail are spectacular.

There can be no doubt that a lot of work has gone into The Newt In Somerset to create this very exciting new venture, but it’s easy to be lured into excitement over what is essentially a horticultural theme park. Scrape away the thin veneer of horticulture in many places and you will see a hard-line business model; from the moment you leave your car you’re being asked to become a member of something, come again to events as frequently possible, and you’re guided out through the shop before you can leave. There is none of that here; you pay your entry fee and it’s up to you what you do. Don’t want to buy food? OK, bring a picnic* (no, really, picnics will be encouraged!). Want to visit again? Your ticket is a season ticket*! If you want to visit the gift shop then the staff will be delighted to see you, but you physically cannot leave the site through the gift shop so it’s up to you whether you go in or not.

OK, very impressive, but what about the future for the horticultural elements of the project? Well from what I gather there is plenty still to do, including the opening of a new purpose-built National Gardening Museum in summer 2019. There is a very strong desire to open up relationships not only with the local horticultural college but also with gardens around the world, including Bekker’s famous ‘Babylonstoren’ garden in South Africa. In fact, if you’re in doubt over Bekker’s investment in horticulture I would say that a quick internet search for ‘Babylonstoren’ will show that this guy really is serious about his horticultural projects…

*At the time of writing it is my understanding that the season ticket and picnic policy are what is currently planned, but obviously it’s up to The Newt In Somerset what happens, so if in doubt check with them first.

1 Comment

  1. That really does look like an exciting new addition to the horticultural landscape. I visited the reopened Leonardslee a few weeks ago and that also has the ambience of someone thinking big and bold, perhaps not as big, the owner there is only a millionaire, not a billionaire. But in both cases they could have afforded to keep it private and have chosen to go public, which is great. It is interesting to see different approaches to creating horticulturally themed visitor attractions that will be financially viable in the long term. Some seem to succeed in keeping visitor numbers up year after year, others not so much, which then means less money for maintenance and development and can be the start of a spiral of decline.
    Must make an effort to get to The Newt though, you have certainly whetted my appetite.

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