In today’s Instagram age, the hype around a new opening can reach dizzying heights that are near-impossible to live up to in real life. Not so with The Newt, a megastar that has chosen to creep onto the scene quietly, with stirrings rather than fanfare. But there should be no underestimating this gentle giant, for The Newt is undoubtedly one of the most compelling openings in the UK in recent years.
Nestled in a particularly pretty pocket of Somerset, 18th century Hadspen House was the former seat of the Hobhouses, a family of Liberals and keen gardeners. In recent times, the grounds formed the springboard for the prolific gardening career of Penelope Hobhouse MBE who created the walled parabola-shaped garden that remains a highlight today.
In 2013 the property went on the market for the first time since 1785 and was snapped up by South African billionaire tycoons, Koos Bekker and his wife Karen Roos. Luckily for all of us, this pair also have an interest in gardens, as anyone who has visited their magnificent Babylonstoren in Cape Winelands will know. There, the couple transformed a vineyard into a hotel, restaurant and Africa’s only RHS-partnered garden. It’s a magical place with long waterlily ponds, a prickly-pear maze, springy camomile lawns, a Persimmon tree surrounded with blue-and-white Delft tiles, farm-to-table restaurants, roaming donkeys and more bliss.
Babylonstoren’s Head Gardener believes that the gardens there are still relatively young. Back in Somerset then, what we’re looking at is a garden in nascent infancy; a tadpole rather than a newt. And yet, already, there is so much beauty to see. A Garden Tour leads the way, starting with that circular walled garden of Penelope Hobhouse. A magnificent ode to the apple – Somerset’s version of the Winelands grape – the maze has been planted with 267 varieties of apple tree. Meticulously labelled, there are little apple stories dotted around about everything from Isaac Newton to Apple Macs.
Onwards to the Kitchen Garden, where there’s the ripe harvest you might expect of an English country garden in August but seen here in perfect, neat rows; courgette flowers, runner beans, leafy lettuce and carrots poking through the soil. All of this bounty goes to supply The Newt’s various restaurants. We’re told even the pond’s lily pads will be used – we’re excited to see how those appear on the menu.
From here lawns lead up towards Hadspen House that will open this autumn as a hotel. Nearby are the ‘Colour Rooms’ – planted red, white and blue in deep textural flower beds with winding stone paths and separated with chestnut fencing walls with oval peep-hole windows. There’s more sumptuous planting in the gradated Victorian Fragrance Garden where the fountains come with wooden ladders for the newts – whose presence here give The Newt its name. The estate is home to 2000 of this protected species, though we didn’t manage to spot any.
Amongst the serious gardening there’s a lot of fun to be had too. Beside the slate-roofed henhouse are three Nest chairs in the trees – made for children or chickens or possibly both. Up the watery cascade there’s a family of stone newts that spit water out of their mouths causing visitors to hop about activating the sensors and squeal with joy. Then there’s the thatched gardener’s cottage that will steal your heart; set to become The Newt’s ice cream parlour.
The Garden Tour concludes with a complimentary glass of Newt apple juice; sweet and refreshing. Of course, you’re then all the more tempted to go into the excellent farm shop and buy bottles to take home, along with their own ‘cyder’, pressed in the barn next door (daily tours here, too) as well as Babylonstoren wine, homemade chutneys, honey, bread and other foodie treats.
Stay for lunch in the Garden Café where vast floor-to-ceiling windows overlook the gardens – if you can get a table that is – it’s walk-ins only for parties under 12 (but we later hear you can put your name down at the gate in the morning too). If not, there’s always the Cyder Bar where the informal menu draws on the produce from the on-site bakery; sausage rolls, gammon pies, fresh bread and soup. We’re already lining up a return visit to the Café at teatime – where the cakes like Carrot, Flaxseed and Blood Orange and Ida Red Apple and Newt Cyder Crumble Cake look delicious, and there’s an entire menu of crumpets both sweet and savoury.
Visit soon, whilst it’s still relatively uncrowded and under-the-radar. There’s still much in store; the hotel and it’s ‘aiming-for seven-star spa’ will open its doors on 29 August, then there’s the new vegetarian restaurant, the treetop walkway and woodlands to explore, plus a garden museum on the way. As the gardens bed in, the Newt is a place that will get better and better.
Entry to the gardens costs £15 – for its opening year, download the Candide app and you can re-visit as many times as you like within the year. Garden tours run daily at 10.30am and are free, but sign up ahead.
A partnership with GWR means you can get the train from London Paddington straight to Castle Cary in a special Newt carriage. The day package includes first class travel, a garden tour, lunch at the Garden Cafe, cider tour and tasting, time to explore and dinner with Babylonstoren wine on the train home. Saturdays and Sundays until 29 September, £285 per person. Book by emailing firstname.lastname@example.org.