I’ve been wanting to visit Hadspen House ever since I first drove past its entrance in 2012. However back then it was a private home, so highly unlikely I would ever have the opportunity. Then five years ago the estate was sold by the Hobhouses and the new owners initiated a £millions restoration programme, including new buildings, hedges and even a slight rerouting of the A371 from which you catch a glimpse of the estate. Mum told me the house was going to be turned into a hotel, and I began to hope . . . . . .
Five years later the work is nearly finished and the Hadspen House estate has finally opened to the public and become a rather splendid home for some feathered friends!
The estate dates back to the mid 17th century, with the first gardens being created late 17th / early 18th century. Initially the style was French geometric patterns, then in the late 18th century when it became the family seat for the Hobhouses it was all about landscaped countryside and picturesque vistas. By the mid 19th century the gardens were in need of a guiding hand and fortunately the sixth generation of Hobhouses to live here – Paul Rodbard Hobhouse – married Penelope Chichester-Clark, one of England’s most renowned gardeners. One of her books, ‘The Country Gardener’, is based on her experiencing of turning the Hadspen House walled vegetable garden into a 20th century Arts and Crafts garden.
She was not the only professional 20th century gardener to fall in love with and transform this part of the Hadspen House estate. Her creativity was followed 20 years later by Canadian horticulturalists Nori and Sandra Pope who developed their “colourist” monochrome borders here. Their impact however was of short duration as the Hobhouses who still owned the estate had their creation bulldozed soon after they left, for reasons which still do not appear to have been determined. There was talk of a new garden being created, but instead the walled garden became allotments for a decade or so and then were abandoned.
Fortunately though for both the house and the gardens Koos Bekker and Karen Roos of Babylonstoren purchased the whole estate in 2013. Aided by the vision and direction of French architect Patrice Taravella this South African couple have transformed the Hadspen House estate into The Newt in Somerset.
The gardens, designed by Patrice Tarvaella and now in the hands of Iain Davies (formerly of the Lost Gardens of Heligan) have begun their new life. The walled garden, an enormous circular maze planted with 460 apple trees (267 varieties), is surrounded by numerous other smaller gardens including a kitchen garden, a long walk, a fern filled greenhouse, a Victorian inspired fragrant garden, two woods and delightful smaller colour gardens. There is even an enormous newt breaking through a wall and fun moments with frogs that squirt water. It is fabulous.
However I am not convinced it is all worth the £15 entrance fee. Your ticket can be upgraded free of charge into an annual pass, and something my mum has been making great use of since June. However currently the annual ticket is for a calendar year which means if like me you visit from a distance in late autumn you don’t have much time, if any, to make repeat visits.
I was also surprised by the lack of information on the transformation project or the history of the estate and gardens. I suspect few would realise why there are colour gardens and I have found no mention of previous owners and residents such as the gardener Penelope Hobhouse, Hermione Hobhouse a renowned architectural historian, Sir Arthur Hobhouse, the architect of England’s national parks or even Emily Hobhouse, an incredible welfare campaigner in South Africa and one of the main reasons that Koos Bekker and Karen Roos were so keen to purchase Hadspen. They named their English company after her – ‘Emily’s Estate’.
Maybe it is because the 18th century Hobhouses originally made their fortune from the slave trade, however few English country estates were built on a good fortune and at least subsequent generations of Hobhouses have attempted through reform work and social activism done much to amend for their family’s past. It is, I feel, a huge missed opportunity not to have recruited a historian alongside their eighteen full time gardeners. It would be lovely to discover the past whilst exploring the new.
There are guided tours and the staff are wonderful, however the pre-booked garden and cyder tours are at set times and hardly mentioned in the grounds themselves. They seem more aimed at the hotel guests, perhaps understandably given they are paying anything from £255 in low season for their ‘basic’ rooms to over £1,000 in high season for a one night stay. And talking of the hotel you are discouraged from entering The Newt itself, but there is a lovely restaurant in the grounds as well as some great shops including a butcher, cyder press, bakery and mushroom house. Their primary goal though of course is take more money off you! I have seen mention of a gardening museum being opened in the deer park, but until it is opened or other heritage exhibits appear the ticket price seems high.
I am glad though I have finally visited with Mum. Our walk in the grounds of The Newt in Somerset was rather special in the November light, and whilst there wasn’t a festival of leaves it was surprisingly beautiful even after the autumn storms. I think Dawn and her fellow bloggers celebrating autumn this year would love it.