New Opening

Dreaming big

Named after the protected amphibians that slowed down work on the UK’s hottest new hotel, The Newt in Somerset features one of the most ambitious gardens seen for many years. Magali Robathan visits and speaks to owner Karen Roos


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.

THE GARDENS
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 HOTEL
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.

KAREN ROOS
OWNER, THE NEWT

What were your first impressions when you discovered Hadspen House?
For years I’d been looking for a Georgian country house in the UK. I was in the Seychelles, paging through a magazine, when I noticed this one in Somerset: one of the most beautiful I ever saw. Classical proportions; Hadspen limestone the colour of burnt orange. I loved it immediately.

What was your vision and do you think you’ve achieved it?
Initially the idea was merely to enjoy the house as a weekend retreat. But one thing led to another, and the project ran away with us …

What were the biggest challenges of this project?
The house itself is Grade II*-listed, so restoring it presented challenges. We had to preserve wood panelling, cosset bats in the ceiling and of course entertain the newts! The critters delayed building work by about a year, but in the end we embraced them as dear friends.

How did the location and history of the building influence the design?
I love the Georgian period: symmetrical, restrained, sun-filled. And I now like Somerset immensely: it’s about copses and rolling hills; apple trees and cyder; meadows and cows and cheddar.

Why was it important to use local materials and craftsmanship where possible?
The spirit of the place is everything to us. That runs from hiring staff to working with local craftsman as well as using designs from British designers such as Tom Dixon. Hadspen limestone and blue lias pops out of the local quarry, while the skill of local architects, blacksmiths, carpenters and stonemasons sustained us.

What are you proudest of with this project?
That it was fun!

Do you have a personal favourite part of the hotel?
I love the bar. To sip a superb glass of viognier at 7pm: that’s my idea of valhalla.

What are you working on now?
We’re soon adding a restored Farmyard, so I’m furnishing that. Set to open mid-summer, it will have 17 bedrooms within a former dairy farm on the estate. The tone is laid back, a private experience with a separate swimming pool.

The Newt owner Karen Roos at Babylonstoren, the couple’s other property in South Africa
Gardens

Garden landscaping: Designed by Italian-French architect Patrice Taravella. Actioned by LDC Landscapes working with in-house landscape architect, Katie Lewis.

Water fountains and cascades in the Cascade Gardens: Waterscapes Ltd, based in Wincanton.

Dry-stone walling: Local dry-stone walling expert Tom Trouton.

Ironwork structures and tunnels in the Parabola: Iron Art Bath.

Iron gates in the gardens: Muchelney Forge, based in Langport, Somerset.

Ironwork grilles in the floors, featuring an apple and newt design: Designed by The Newt’s in-house landscape architect, Katie Lewis.

Victorian style Greenhouse: Serres et Ferronneries D’Antan.

Egg-shaped ‘nests’ in the Lower Egg: South-African designer Porky Hefer.

Versailles planters: Jardins do Roi Soleil.

‘Flying Newt’ installation in the Threshing Barn ceiling: Studio Drift, based in Amsterdam.

The main building looks out onto the kitchen gardens
Hotel

Vibrant coloured chairs in the Bar and Croquet Room: Sebastian Herkner for Ames.

Light fitting in The Botanical Rooms (Oak Room): Tom Dixon.

Botanical prints in The Botanical Rooms: Dried and pressed from the gardens of Babylonstoren.

Antiques: Some came with the property or belonged to its current owners, others have been sourced over the years from local antiques shops and markets.

Hardware on doors: Peter van Cronenburg.

Tables in The Botanical Rooms: Conran.

Beds in bedrooms 1 & 2: Simon Horn.

Sofas in Farriers bedroom and the Clock House lounge: Diesel with Moroso.

Thinking Man’s Chairs on the terrace: Jasper Morrison.

Hanging chair in the Croquet Room: Patricia Urquiola for Moroso.

Construction of lap pool (spa): Barr + Wray.

Construction of indoor/outdoor pool (spa): Barr + Wray.

The Hadspen rooms in the main house are classic in style
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