The Newt is a Somerset estate recast as a hotel and garden-themed visitor attraction. Graham Bizley takes a tour
Hadspen is a handsome eighteenth-century house with an estate that extends over 900 acres of Somerset countryside. In 2013 it was bought by South African billionaire Koos Becker and Karen Roos, a former editor of South African Elle Decoration, who have spent six years and undisclosed millions turning it into a luxury hotel and garden known as ‘The Newt in Somerset’.
The couple have a track record, previously having developed a historic farm near Cape Town into Babylonstoren, which regularly appears on lists of the world’s best hotels. They have similar ambitions for the Newt, as attested by the attention to detail and quality of construction lavished on the estate’s buildings and gardens.
Aerial view. Key: 1 Threshing Barn, 2 Cyder Press, Cyder Cellar, bakery, 3 Parabola, 4 Garden Cafe, 5 Shop, 6 Greenhouse, 7 Lower Egg, 8 Colour Garden, 9 Long Walk, 10 Kitchen Garden
Hadspen is known in architectural circles for the interventions of its previous owner Niall Hobhouse with a coterie of distinctive designers, many of which only exist as paper projects. In its previous incarnation the estate had a fallow, picturesque atmosphere that resonated with contingency. You came upon what structures there were, hidden in the trees, their mythology mingling with the undergrowth in the spirit of eighteenth-century English gardens like Rousham.
Beyond the house, the only existing historic outbuildings were a cluster of stables, stone barns, and a gardener’s cottage. The house – renovated by Simon Morray-Jones Architects – and outbuildings are now filled up with bedrooms, a bar and restaurant, so the numerous additional facilities required new buildings designed by eight different architects, mostly from the local area.
Hadspen House; Threshing Barn; new garden within the walled Parabola
The project is primarily about the landscape and the owners haven’t been shy in drastically reorganising the estate to work in its new function as a visitor attraction. As outsiders they can act with relaxed detachment from the associations of class and inequality that might trouble a British mind.
Approaching along a boardwalk from the car park you arrive at a threshing barn made from the rich yellow Hadspen stone quarried nearby. Beyond it is a courtyard of similar buildings, all new, housing a gift shop, cider press, farm shop and bakery, beautifully built using nineteenth-century vernacular methods to designs by Benjamin & Beauchamp Architects. Nowhere is there any explanation of what is new and old which is slightly troubling in the post-truth age, when retaining a grip on the real story seems particularly urgent.
The Garden Cafe overlooks the walled Parabola garden (ph: Dookphoto)
From the courtyard the view opens out over the Parabola, historically the kitchen garden, enclosed by a curving stone wall that rides gently down the contours. The Parabola is where Penelope Hobhouse created her first garden in the 1960s, which became the subject of her book ‘The Country Garden’. Subsequently the garden achieved equal fame under the care of Sandra and Nori Pope, who wrote their book ‘Colour by Design’ based on their experimentation there.
Bekker and Roos developed the garden layout with French designer Patrice Taravella, who also worked with them on Babylonstoren. The infrastructure of the gardens is celebrated in a playful way, as in the chestnut trellises supporting the 267 varieties of apple in the Parabola, which offers visual interest even in the depths of winter. There are theatrical incidents too, like an apple-washing trough in the cider press that bends out into a corner of the entrance courtyard, elevating a functional aspect of the cider-making process to something worthy of attention.
Spa designed by Simon Morray-Jones Architects (ph: Dookphoto)
Perhaps the most radical aspect of the landscape is the way food production takes centre stage, subverting the traditional hierarchies of the country estate. Once, the owner of a country house might have demonstrated their taste and learning through references to classical mythology and architecture, but here they are showing it through the provenance of the food they grow. Showing off the exotic fruits grown on an estate was often part of a landowner’s repertoire, but it happened backstage in the walled garden. Here, the new no-dig kitchen garden is on axis with the house, and new apple orchards stretch off to the horizon.
Two of the most innovative of the new buildings are hidden away some distance from the gardens. The first is a gym that nestles into an earth bank at the back of a vegetable garden between the hotel and spa. Designed by Invisible Studio, it is a single room, one side of which is a huge 15-metre-wide by 3.3-metre-tall glass box window that protrudes out from a stone wall, reminiscent of the sort of conservatory structures found in walled kitchen gardens. Architect Piers Taylor calls it a ‘Room in A Productive Garden’. The back wall of the gym is mirrored, reflecting the garden in front, so from the right angle the building appears to be a portal leading through to another garden beyond.
Cyder Bar, designed by Benjamin & Beauchamp Architects (ph: Dookphoto)
The south-facing window was initially to have been made up of three panes of glass but the client wasn’t happy with the joints so glazing engineer Tim MacFarlane of Glass Light and Special Structures worked out that it could be made in a single pane. Solar gain would be much easier to control if the glass were set back in the opening, but both architect and client preferred the connection with the garden suggested by the projecting bay window.
Poured in 600mm lifts and made from a 1:1:6 mix of cement, ginger sand and crushed Hadspen stone, the walls have a monolithic quality, like the building has been carved out of the ground. This technique was developed for the portico of the cow shed at nearby Shatwell Farm by Stephen Taylor Architects and Paul Rawson, who was then working for the farm’s owner, Niall Hobhouse. Rawson is now the Newt’s general manager and has been involved with the project from the outset. His role has been fundamental in coordinating the work and ensuring a coherence across the site between the designs of different architects.
Invisible Studio’s 150-square-metre gym
Similar mass concrete walls appear in the Story of Gardening Museum by Stonewood Design. You come upon the museum unexpectedly, buried in a hillside some 10 minutes’ walk away from the formal gardens. As you approach a line of trees you are drawn to a walkway that snakes between the tree trunks 20 metres above the ground. Only as you traverse the walkway do you become aware of a huge window in the bank, and that you are moving down towards the museum entrance. The two structures were initially conceived on separate sites but it soon became apparent that the walkway solved the problem of how to get down to the museum entrance.
The parti of the 1000-square-metre museum is similar to that of the gym except on a much larger scale. It is essentially a box in the ground, one third of which is a cafe and two thirds are exhibition space. The window extends the whole length of the building, with its cill rising towards the north to follow the natural contours of the slope. Tim MacFarlane designed the glazing, achieving a five-metre floor-to-ceiling span without any fins or visible fixings.
Of Niall Hobhouse’s earlier interventions on the estate, only two remain: a timber belvedere in the woods by David Grandorge and his students, and a little cascade of dog kennels rebuilt to designs by Cedric Price, now used as a chicken and duck house within the ‘Lower Egg’, to the south of the Parabola. In comparison with the subtle intricacies of these little structures, the new works can feel rather simplistic, but they were built with completely different agendas. The earlier projects were built for a select audience well-versed enough in architectural culture to appreciate them, whereas The Newt is ultimately an extremely well-built theme park.
The Story of Gardening Museum was designed by Stonewood Design
And the owners haven’t finished yet. Later this year a 17-room outpost of the hotel will open at Shatwell Farm nearby, Invisible Studio will be completing an Apiary and Wildlife Interpretation Building, and Stonewood has designed another museum over the ruins of a Roman villa on the estate, complete with a full-size reproduction of the villa as it might have been.
The role of the country estate as a local employer and patron was in decline in the twentieth century, but the owners of the Newt have revitalised that role with a passion, creating 300 jobs and using mostly local consultants and suppliers. Is a lot of it rather tasteful and safe? Well, yes, but we could just leave our baggage at the door, accept the story presented and enjoy the experience of an extremely well executed alternative reality.