Nestled in the folds of South Somerset lies a nature lover’s paradise. A place where apples hang abundantly from trees, walking trails weave through ancient woodlands, and ducks wander freely from pond to lake. Beautiful honey-stone buildings house a luxury hotel, spa, Cyder Press, Garden Café, Farm Shop and more, and there’s also an enchanted grotto and a full-size Roman villa to explore. Welcome to The Newt.
Encompassing a staggering 800 acres, this historic West Country estate was bought in 2013 by the South African hotelier Karen Roos and her husband Koos Bekker, the couple behind Babylonstoren; an 18th-century estate and boutique hotel located in the wine region outside Cape Town. It took them six years to transform The Newt into the spectacular destination that it is today, and in 2019 they finally opened its doors for all to enjoy. An ode to all things Somerset, this magnificent, no-expense spared playground celebrates everything that the county has to offer, and more…
Inspired by local heritage and sustainable agriculture, The Newt in Somerset is a working estate, and at the core of it all lies acres of truly magnificent gardens that have been lovingly tended to for over 250 years. I found even the short walk from the car park enchanting; a winding wooden walkway led me through peaceful woodland and, like some sort of teleportation device, seemed to magically transport me from the modern world and gently deposit me into a glorious rural utopia.
To get my bearings, I opted for one of the regular garden tours first, which provide an insight into the fascinating history of the estate and the vision that drives it today. There are significant gardens to discover, most recently designed by renowned Italo-French architect Patrice Taravella and now cared for by an expert gardening team. We started in the productive vegetable garden – an organic, no-dig operation that cultivates over 350 vegetables and salad varieties, and supplies the on-site cafe and hotel. Next, we arrived at a waterlily filled pond, where we encountered the resident population of protected newts that inspired the estate’s new name. We wandered on through the historic ‘colour rooms’ – each one planted in a different hue designed to stimulate the emotions – before arriving in an idyllic country garden, complete with a picture-perfect thatched cottage.
Passing lawns, fountains, and stunning views galore, we then arrived at The Newt’s remarkable Parabola – a 3,000 sqm walled garden filled with a baroque-style maze of 460 perfectly trained apple trees, each divided by county and intermingled with seashell-strewn pathways, trickling streams and historically accurate planting.
It may all sound terribly impressive, and it is, but there is no unnecessary formality here. Instead, playfulness abounds; signs encourage guests to pick and eat an apple should they wish, giant toad sculptures spurt water spontaneously, and free-range chickens happily snooze in the grass, while South African designer Porky Hefer has created human-sized nests for visitors themselves to curl up in. The garden design is outstanding; input and influence has come from a variety of different people over the years and can be seen in varying forms, ranging from Margaret Hobhouse who elevated the gardens to a Victorian ideal over 100 years ago, to the stunning floor mosaics created more recently by one of the landscapers who worked on The Newt in its infancy. It is this sum of parts and the contribution of many that gives the gardens their palpable sense of warmth and personality today.
Elsewhere, there is a Japanese Garden to discover, a Victorian Fragrance Garden, and a greenhouse filled with unimaginable cacti. You need a full day, at least, to see it all, and I was keen not to miss the other jewel in The Newt’s crown: cyder.
Somerset, historically, is cider-making country, although The Newt has chosen to opt for the old English spelling of the word (cyder). Over 3,000 cyder apple trees grace the landscape here, and old orchards that thrived on the estate over 300 years ago are now being revived. Today, it grows 70 varieties of bittersweet and Somerset apples and features a cathedral-like cellar and state-of-the-art cyder press – a striking stone-and-glassclad building filled with vast stainless-steel tanks, where modern cyder-making techniques are celebrated, and where guided tours and tastings take place.
The estate’s more traditional West Country-style cyders are fresh, aromatic, and sing with the sweet flavour of a bucolic Somerset orchard on a summer’s day, but in true Newt style there is innovation too. The Winston, for example, is the first sparkling cyder in the world to be bottled as an imperial pint in honour of a certain British Prime Minister, and The Newt’s award-winning Fine Cyder, which comes in tall, slim, elegant bottles, is crafted using winemaking techniques and select dessert apples only. It takes 10 months to produce, and the result is a sophisticated, almost wine-like still cyder, with fruitiness on the nose and a crisp taste of apple and lemon.
Soon, it was lunchtime. Freshly made picnics and light bites are available from the Cyder Bar or there is the Garden Cafe – an impressive, glass-walled space with a roaring fire at its centre, which serves a vegetable-led menu overlooking the Parabola, kitchen gardens and orchards beyond. Wherever you choose to eat, every plate of food served on the estate features something grown or foraged here.
I headed for The Botanical Rooms, the sophisticated restaurant located within the hotel’s historic walls, and enjoyed delicious grilled young leeks with smoked cod’s roe and cured egg yolk, day boat fish with nasturtium butter, garden peas and girolle mushroom, and a glass of wine from The Newt’s South African sister property, Babylonstoren. The interiors are sublime; everywhere you look, the past has been cleverly reimagined by combining historical features with contemporary architecture and modern design pieces, while a vibrant colour palette echoes the surrounding gardens and sweeping views of the countryside.
After lunch, I ventured across ‘The Viper’ – a suspended treetop walkway that snakes its way high above a deer dotted woodland – in search of The Story of Gardening; an extraordinary, immersive exploration of garden design throughout time. Also tucked away in the woods is the architecturally striking Beezantium, which explores the connections between bees, the land and humans; here, amid giant honeycomb-shaped walls, I marvelled at The Newt’s wild and native bee colonies in observation hives and admired them hard at work. A short walk later and I found myself at the recently unveiled Grotto – a staggering cave embellished with millions of shells, and crystals, and at its heart, a smoke-breathing dragon emerging from a pool of water. It is these elements of pure imagination and sense of fun that make The Newt completely unique and utterly captivating.
Its latest star attraction opened in summer 2022; Villa Ventorum is a pioneering archaeological experience encompassing the staggering reconstruction of a Romano-British villa found on the estate, which dates back to 351 AD. Seven years in the making, this incredible landmark is the most ambitious reconstruction of a Roman villa ever undertaken in Britain. An audio tour guides guests as they move through the space while virtual-reality technology provides further fascinating insight, and there’s also an opportunity to try some rather delicious Roman style street food. You definitely need more than a day to discover all there is to see here…
There are various ways to experience The Newt; day-visitors are warmly welcomed (you’ll need annual membership or come as the guest of a member), and throughout the summer months The Newt’s Great Garden Escape whisks passengers to and from London by train for an unforgettable day trip filled with Newt-y delights.
Alternatively, those staying in its beautiful hotel are granted unrestricted access to all that the estate has to offer. Located in a Grade-II*-listed Georgian manor house known as Hadspen, it was the seat of the Hobhouse family for more than two centuries. Today it has been transformed into one of the most exceptional country house hotels, comprising 23 beautifully and individually designed bedrooms, a restaurant, bar, croquet lawnn, and a world-class spa, among other attractions.
In June 2021, the Farmyard was unveiled; an entirely new part of The Newt’s hotel offering set within a hidden valley half a mile from Hadspen. Home to a swimming pool, 17 contemporary and elegant bedrooms, a bar, and an all-day kitchen. This modern, more rustic addition is set within the estate’s former dairy and can be reached via picturesque orchards either on foot, by bicycle or in one of the estate’s many golf buggies, which guests are free to whizz around in throughout their stay.
Soon my visit was coming to a close, but thankfully there was just enough time for an ice cream. The Newt’s gelateria, which uses fresh buffalo milk from the estate, is not to be missed, whatever the weather. Then there is the farm shop, with its impressive butchery, wonderfully fragrant cheese room and array of delectable artisan treats. I picked up various things here, from cider and chutney to fresh bread and granola, desperate to take a slice of this pastoral paradise home with me. And then, reluctantly, back down the wooden walkway I floated. Back out into the real world, yes, but filled with the wonder of nature, and revelling in the spectacular feast for the senses that is The Newt.
Annual membership to The Newt is priced at £75 per adult, with children (0–16 years) free of charge when accompanied by an adult member. Members can also bring up to six visitors per day, priced at £20 per person. Membership is included for hotel guests; room rates start from £520 per night based on two sharing on a B&B basis.
Text by Sophie Farrah