If you walk left on entering the Newt in Somerset, past the shop selling artisanal wares, up the slope and into the deer park, you will arrive at an avenue of pines edging an old Roman road. It’s a good place to view the monumental scale of the work that has taken place on the 800-acre Hadspen estate since the South African, Koos Bekker, and his wife Karen Roos bought it in 2013.
Look west, towards the 17th-century, Grade II*-listed Hadspen House and you can take in the owners’ masterplan, designed by the French architect Patrice Taravella. There are the pretty squares of the kitchen garden; the egg-shaped “parabola”, a walled labyrinth featuring 267 varieties of apple tree; a cascade of ponds; a Victorian glasshouse; a cottage orné; and a succession of pools and lawns leading up to the house itself, once the seat of the Hobhouse family, now a hotel.
“It’s best to think of the Newt as a garden with a hotel attached rather than a hotel with a garden attached,” is how visitor manager Arthur Cole puts it. The estate has 300 years of horticultural history to draw upon – the original estate featured a French garden of limes and elms; the great garden designer Penelope Hobhouse lived here until 1979; and artists Nori and Sandra Pope opened their celebrated “colour gardens” here in 1987, now reimagined in red, blue and white – but still, many visitors are surprised at the extent of the Bekker-Roos vision.
From the vast yew hedge (shipped in fully mature from Belgium) that surrounds the badminton court, to the state-of-the-art cider-making facilities and garden-to-table restaurant, the whole place has a no-expense-spared vibe about it. The Newt is named after the 2,000 crested newts that occupy the site – but its scale is more like that of Jurassic Park.
Still, if you turn around 180 degrees and look west from the pines, over the deer park, you’ll spy a less showy side of the project. A grassy hill rises gently, then falls away into a dell of ancient beech, oak, ash and hornbeam. You would imagine at first glance that you’ve reached the periphery of the estate. But you would be wrong. Carved as if by Hobbits into the Somerset earth is the Story of Gardening, a state-of-the-art interactive museum, designed by Stonewood architects and kitted out by the Dutch exhibition designers Kossmanndejong. Its roof is covered in grass – and sometimes the deer wander on top of it.
The first thing that struck me was the scale. You haven’t seen that since Victorian times
To reach the museum’s entrance you walk out into the forest on a wooden pathway. After a few paces, the grass drops dramatically away beneath you and you’re up in a canopy of trees on a spectacular serpentine walkway, rising 12m from the forest floor. The path – nicknamed the Viper – sashays for 130m among the treetops before winding back to the museum’s huge, glassy entrance.