Root and branch overhaul transforms The Newt

Words:
Jan-Carlos Kucharek

Massively reworked over six years, The Newt, named for the 2000 creatures it relocated, is a total celebration of the garden

Stonewood’s new museum of the garden in the extensive estate and gardens of The Newt in Somerset.
Stonewood’s new museum of the garden in the extensive estate and gardens of The Newt in Somerset. Credit: Craig Auckland

Putting into context Stonewood Design’s new History of Gardening at The Newt, set – literally – into the bucolic south Somerset hills, head of programmes Arthur Colt has got his work cut out, as the new hotel and visitor attraction has a layered geographic, temporal and architectural past.

Geographic for sure; up outside the village of Bruton overlooking the Somerset flats west towards Glastonbury Tor, Cadbury Castle and 18th century Stourhead in the distance, with its faux ‘King Alfred’s Tower’. And temporal: The Newt is the former Hadspen House estate, 800 acre residence of the Hobhouse family since 1775; an estate that, since being created by William Player in 1687 quarried from the area’s warm, tawny stone, has been the site of interventions that have altered the landscape it sits in. 

Architectural too: under the recent stewardship of its owner, academic Niall Hobhouse, the estate’s working farm, Shatwell, was turned into a hotbed of architectural experimentation. A Cedric Price inspired masterplan would come to be populated by Hugh Strange’s delicate ‘Drawing Matters’ archive, Stephen Taylor’s masterfully po-mo cowshed, the timber Grandorge Pavilion and Álvaro Siza’s buttercup yellow columns, transposed from their courtyard siting at a 2014 Royal Academy show and now rising brightly out of the muck alongside a timber obelisk designed by the Smithsons.

William Player started it all with his French gardens of limes and elms set out on 300 acres of the estate; Hobhouse has complemented it with his own modern ‘Hameau de la Reine’. 

And then there is the Parabola. Tumbling down a south-facing slope, the 18th century, 9ft high walled plot, originally the estate’s kitchen garden, was the focus of modern landscaping interventions. First, Hobhouse’s mother, Penelope, made it the subject of her book ‘The Country Garden’; followed by Canadian horticulturalists Nori and Sandra Pope with their 1987 ‘Colour by Design’. Hobhouse killed all his darlings when he bulldozed the garden in 2007 and threw a competition for a new one, won by landscape designer Sarah Price against the likes of FOA.

In the interim and in a bout of exquisite ennui, the Parabola was turned over to a free allotment for the local community before Hobhouse cancelled the project altogether and retired to Shatwell, putting house and grounds up for sale in 2013. With its £13 million price tag piquing actor Johnny Depp’s interest, it was finally snapped up by billionaire South African coms magnate Koos Bekker and his wife Karen Roos. 

Forbes Rich Listers and owners of South Africa’s luxury Babylonstoren hotel, vineyard and garden outside Cape Town, the Bekkers arrived with big ideas for developing the estate. And with a cheque book to match, they had French landscaper Patrice Taravella oversee a redesign of Hadspen. Cole jokes that Taravella doesn’t choose a flower unless it fruits, but his approach ­underlined Babylonstoren’s ethos of a working garden; and their Newt hotel, spa and visitor attraction is no different – except the star of the show is apples, not grapes.

Over 250 varieties now sit in the Parabola’s walls, with a further three thousand trees GPS-located in Cartesian array elsewhere; ready to be wassailed, not, Cole says, on the ascribed Twelfth Night but mid-March, when the owners find the climate more tolerable. It seems the sheer weight of investment can even bend time.

Map of the central part of The Newt estate.
Map of the central part of The Newt estate. Credit: Craig Auckland

And in the tradition of the great landowners of old, for the last six years the Bekkers have been working on the site’s ‘capabilities’. Local architect Benjamin and Beauchamp designed the barn-like estate offices to the west of the main house (now a hotel, restaurant and spa) and the complex of new buildings north of the Parabola. At the latter, its convincingly rendered threshing barn is the entrance part of the new visitor experience, which starts to unfurl with its farm shop and cyder press, and ultimately unravels in the freedoms of access to the fields and woods around.

But for the signature intervention, the client brought in Stonewood Design, appointed on the strength of its 2015 RIBA award-winning Gloucestershire Pod Gallery. The architect felt its 1000m2 ‘Story of Gardening’ museum was as much part of the weighty architectural legacy of the site as it was of The Newt’s expanding visitor experience. Originally to be sited further south, it was moved to its current position only when the Bekkers decided to install a winding treetop walkway, ‘The Viper’, in a dell on the estate’s east side. Initially conceived as separate experiences, the merging of the two turned out to be mutually advantageous. Shipped over from South Africa, the steel and timber Viper starts on the museum’s roof and, after a lively 6m snake down through the canopy, terminates at the timber deck entrance at its far end.

Distracted as you are by the treetops themselves, the revealing of the glazed facade of museum out of the side of the dell is all the more surprising for the fact that it’s done by degrees, a twist on the traditional Ha-Ha. The glazing, close to the woods, behaves like an invisibility cloak, the building’s principal elevation reflecting the treescape and stealthily hiding what is effectively a concrete bunker. 

The impressive, 5m tall glass bi-parting doors  – indeed the whole east facade – was designed with glazing consultant Tim Macfarlane, who helped generate its seamless reflectivity. Stonewood partner Nicola Pisanie insisted on a structure-free facade and Macfarlane delivered neither fins nor steel toggles, but huge 60mm thick panels, with 10mm structural silicon joints instead sliding into deep stainless steel channels at bottom and top. A steel fascia is fixed back to this, hiding the channels, and acting as the attachment point for the building’s roof balustrade, a slightly uneasy variant of the walkway’s curved one. From the west, sitting squarely in the estate’s deer park, this balustrade is the only intimation that anything is here at all. As herds wander unrestricted over the museum’s intensive grass roof, the industrial Roltrac doors below open and close for visitors with the discreet firing of a pneumatic piston. 

To the south, disappearing into the hill, is the 1m thick wall of rough, rammed concrete and Hadspen stone aggregate, whose 600mm striations, like those of Stephen Taylor’s Shatwell cowshed, record the daily ‘lifts’ that created it. A deep rusted steel reveal frames a huge oak door whose patinated steel handle is fashioned into a spade form – the symbol of Irish St Fiacre, the patron saint of gardeners – taking visitors to the oak-sett pathway, that leads to the old ‘Druid Tree’ yew safely at the far reaches of the estate. 

 

  • When the museum and walkway were brought together, the logic of both as part of the garden journey became apparent
    When the museum and walkway were brought together, the logic of both as part of the garden journey became apparent Credit: Craig Auckland
  • The Hadspen stone concrete aggregate wall increases in height As the north end of the building burrows into the hillside.
    The Hadspen stone concrete aggregate wall increases in height As the north end of the building burrows into the hillside. Credit: Craig Auckland
  • The 5m high entrance café/reception looks west back across to the canopy of the trees in the adjacent dell.
    The 5m high entrance café/reception looks west back across to the canopy of the trees in the adjacent dell. Credit: Craig Auckland
  • WC walls and sink trough are clad in curved green and white Dutch tiles.
    WC walls and sink trough are clad in curved green and white Dutch tiles. Credit: Craig Auckland
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Internally, it’s about little more than the poured resin floor and finely-finished concrete soffits, where services run neatly below with heating and air-conditioning kept to a minimum. The primarily audio-visual, interactive nature of the exhibition needed only the heating, and it’s in keeping with the nature of the experience that visitors, while shedding muddy boots to walk around in the socks provided, might keep on their coats as they do so. This utilitarian quality is reflected in the design of the toilets too, crisply fitted out in white and green tiles. Sourced from Amsterdam, even the long sink trough is made of them, their edges finished with satisfyingly complex ceramic bullnoses. This, and the white marble finishes of the long reception desk that doubles as the café’s servery, reinforce a civic aspect in a sylvan setting. 

Other than the east elevation’s hypotenuse of glass and wall that marks the ­gradual burrowing of the building into the hill; internally, the architecture makes way for Dutch exhibition designer Kossman de Jong’s whacky whistlestop tour of the world’s gardens through time. Drawing visitors in and out of an artificial box hedge, guided by high tech tablets, there are individual vignettes of, among others, medieval, Japanese, Renaissance and modern garden designs. Opposite, garden equipment from wellies to hoes runs along the far wall, while between the two curious interactive exhibits challenge you to dig for soil knowledge or teach you how to prune. It certainly doesn’t have the archival collection, or indeed the English particularity of Lambeth Palace’s garden museum – by comparison this is all quite low-brow – but I found myself surprisingly entertained, and so would my mum. Piet Oudolf has even had a nose around. An immersive VR headset presented Tivoli’s stunning Villa d’Este. It was great, but set alongside Babylonstoren’s own garden, I felt the interests of neither were served.

But, much as Stonewood Design’s Pisanie defends the clients’ role as ‘responsible landowner’ (they’re a big local employer), I sense the lady doth protest too much; for the English landscape has never been anything other than the product of vested interests. She admits that an FCBS architect she’d shown round recently had asked: ‘Why, why, why, do any of this?’. But as with any landscape design, the legacy is all, and the sums here are big, if The Mail’s £50 million headline is to be believed. Planning advisor AZ Urban Studio won’t comment on figures but does call it ‘probably the biggest rural diversification project in the country’, adding that Stonewood is now building a Roman villa based on the ruins of one excavated on the estate. And to the far south, The Newt is converting more buildings into a discrete private hotel complex accessed via a new underpass that Bekker had built because South Somerset wouldn’t let him move the A371. Pisanie thinks it’s intended for exclusive clients ‘like Beyonce headlining at Glastonbury’. It all seems very rock’n’roll.

Earlier that day, Arthur Cole recalled the Parabola’s less glamorous allotment period, when locals occupied the sloping walled garden. ‘It was first in, first pick for plots,’ he tells me. ‘But as the compost heap was at the centre, if you were at the top, gravity helped you down to it. At the bottom, you were always pushing a full wheelbarrow uphill; so it made sense to get in early.’ It’s a Sisyphian task we can all relate to; a sublime ‘memento mori’ in the finest traditions of the picturesque. But top or bottom; in the end we all return to the compost heap.

Credits

Client The Newt in Somerset
Architect Stonewood Design
Structural and civil engineer Hydrock
Services engineer E3
Cost consultant Synergy
Contractor Beard Construction
Planning consultant AZ Urban Studio
Exhibition designer Kossman de Jong
Glazing consultant Glass Light and Special Structures
Viper architect Mark Thomas Architects
Viper engineer Henry Fagan and Partners

 

Suppliers

Local aggregate concrete Woodmace
Glazing and glass doors IQ Glass using Roltrac mechanisms on doors
Flooring Sphere 8
Joinery Edgewood
Balustrades MJ Patch

 

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