Babylonstoren: an historic garden in the making

Back in September I was in South Africa and taken to see Babylonstoren, an impressive  “new” garden about an hour north of Cape Town.

The 200-hectare estate lies at the foot of the  Simonsberg mountain range near Franschhoek in the heart of the Cape Winelands, and it has one of the grandest – and probably most productive  – kitchen gardens in the world.  Even though it was only the very beginning of spring there it was obviously somewhere you could spend days wandering and not feel satisfied that you’d seen enough.  As one other visitor put it  “clearly, no money has been spared on its creation and ongoing maintenance, but nothing is over-done, nothing feels pretentious, it all just feels exquisitely, tastefully ‘right’.”

Babylonstoren is garden history in the making. Read on to find out why…

Aerial view with the Simonsberg Mountains and the koppie [small conical hill] on the left

The images are either my own or from Babylonstoren’s website unless otherwise credited.

The Babylonstoren estate was part of the original land in the Drakenstein valley granted to  [ie seized by] Dutch settlers and the initial farm was set up  in 1692 by Pieter van der Byl,  making it one of the oldest  European farms in South Africa. The settling of the Drakenstein valley  was part of the Dutch East Company’s attempt to increase food production, particularly grain, for local inhabitants as well as the growing number of ships who stopped over in Cape Town en route between Europe and the Asia.

Van der Byl had been born in Holland, joined the wave of emigration to the Cape and became a prominent citizen in Stellenbosch, the first major Dutch settlement outside Cape Town itself.   These early Dutch settlers were very religious and often named their farms after Biblical sites and since   the  koppie (small conical hill)  on his new landholding  made  people think  of the Tower of Babel, it was dubbed, in Dutch, Babilonische Tooren, later Babilonstoring or Babylonstoren.  As others have pointed out its actually quite an appropriate name for other reasons because it suggests too the linguistic melting pot of the area. Apart from the indigenous Khoi and San peoples the valley was also home not only to the Dutch but also French and German settlers escaping religious persecution in Europe.

It was Van de Byl too who first began to landscape the grounds, adapting the stream and laying out the werf or the homestead and its farmyard etc, and planting the first vines.   By the late 18thc his buildings had been rebuilt in stone and the werf   expanded and redesigned to include  barns, animal housing, stables, a wagon house and wine cellar.  Much of the werf was walled and an impressive gateway added.  Outside were  two long barns which  form an approach, but instead of being parallel to each other they were  slightly raked  to fool the eye into thinking the approach is longer than it actually is.  These are, by and large, the buildings that can be seen today, and its their alignment and proportions  which underlie the layout and design of the present garden.

Phylloxera hit Babylonstoren in 1886 as it did everywhere else in the region which resulted in the Grubb ing up of all the established vines and  with fruit trees while new vineyards were laid out on virgin soil with vines grafted onto resistant rootstocks. This switch transformed the local landscape and laid the basis for today’s Cape fruit industry.

In 1844 the farm had been sold   to the Louw family and they remained there until 2007 when the farm was sold again, this time to Koos Bekker and his wife Karen Roos who were looking for a rural weekend bolthole, although given that they bought 590 acres perhaps its slightly more than most of would think of just for a weekend cottage!  But then he is chairman of the media group Naspers  while she is a former editor of Elle Decoration. 

The main  house dates back to 1777 and is among the finest unspoilt examples of traditional Cape Dutch architectural styles and has been restored carefully. If you want to see inside there’s a Guardian article about it from earlier this year.

The Bekkers love gardening, and if you think you know their names its probably because they   have also bought  17thc Hadspen House, the former home of Penelope Hobhouse and reinvented it as The Newt.

From what I have read it is Karen Roos who was the driving force behind the transformation of Babylonstoren. But not alone. During a holiday in France the couple had  been inspired by a visit to the newish gardens around the mediaeval Prieure de Notre-Dame d’Orsan near Bourges. They obviously appealed enormously so when she was thinking of beginning work at Babylonstoren, she turned to its  owner and creator the  French garden designer Patrice Taravella.

The “official” book on Babylonstoren doesn’t have a great deal to say about the process of designing the gardens although  what it does say, probably unsurprisingly, is that “Patrice was at first alarmed by the scale…” But its clear very early on that it was decided that the estate was not going to be just a weekend and holiday home but a complex that included a small hotel, restaurant and spa alongside that, and that central to that they would need to create a largely productive, rather than purely ornamental garden. That must have led very quickly to the obvious local parallel: The Company Gardens in Cape Town.

Company Gardens by Peter Kolb 1725

As I explained in another recent post this was laid out in 1652 just weeks after the Dutch decided to set up their permanent base at Cape Town, and was designed to supply fresh produce to  not only the small European population but equally importantly the ships sailing between Europe and Asia. The Company Garden is well documented historically from its foundation onwards, and there is a really clear and detailed  early map showing a very formal layout of rectangular beds divided by wide paths. It was this that formed the basis of Taravella’s scheme, And, according to  the “official” guide, he” tried to place himself in the original architects shoes.”

 

He “analysed the axial arrangements of the historic farm buildings, and discovered a measurement of 42 m between the two gates leading into the garden site from either side of the Homestead” Then using this  “as well as the main axis running across the garden site centred on Babylonstoren and the koppie, [he]developed a grid of 3.75 m squares, which was then superimposed on the site [and]  dictated the design of the garden, maintaining proportions by using multiples or divisions of the basic grid unit.”

The result is a garden divided into blocks with some set aside for the obvious components of a kitchen garden such as vegetables,  fruit, nuts, citrus, berries, and  herbs and others  for bees and poultry  but also some allocated to more quirky ideas.

At the same time the Bekkers set about restoring the farmhouse and  outbuildings around the werf  to create a 14-room boutique hotel, which Conde Naste Travel voted southern Africa’s top hotel in 2021. And of course there’s an associated restaurant.  Later  more guest cottages were  built on the footprints of the original labourers’ accommodation.

So what did Taravella design? Quite simply : a spectacular 8-acre (3.5 hectare) potager.  As you can begin to see from the garden plan and the aerial views the grid plan appears remarkably simple – as one visitor commented its just “a few parallel lines, intersected at 90 degrees by a few more parallel lines” but the reality is far more complex  since each section of the garden varies so much within that overall grid.  As Karen Roos said in an interview “Taravella understands the way people move around a garden and he thought carefully about how to make the garden  ‘hold you and calm you down’ It subtly  proves the point that  great design often looks entirely obvious.

It is not an easy site. It might have been farmed for over 300 years but mostly the soil is poor, with a thick layer of sand over heavy clay. In order to make it more productive, and to keep it so, huge quantities of compost and manure were and are continually added. Everything recyclable goes back onto the land.   Further out the farm is watered by streams that start in the mountains, but these created swampy land in lower lying sections and over a kilometre of pipework had to be installed for drainage.  This has, however, also been turned to advantage as we’ll see later.

An avenue of carob trees blocks for fruit on the left and vegetables on the right.

You will be getting the clear feeling that I’m impressed and you’d be right. But its about much more than just design. Everything thats been done has been done in as sustainable and ecologically balanced  a way as possible, and with a practical purpose too.  The potager has to be productive as well look good, and provide whatever is needed for the restaurant – and now a cafe as well as the farm shops and on-line sales too.

There are several keys to its success. Perhaps two being more critical than the others. The first is that the garden is managed and maintained by knowledgable staff who care about what they’re doing, and its obvious that’s the case.  The other is that gardening on this scale and complexity need high and consistent standards. It isn’t cheap, but it’s clear that compromises are not being made or corners cut. What this means is that the potager is both functional and extraordinarily beautiful.  Even in the very early South African spring everything was immaculate and there were plenty of things to harvest, yet even the bare earth looked weed free and in good shape. There are some other defining strengths.  Regular free garden tours undertaken by enthusiastic and lively staff, visitors are allowed, indeed encouraged not only to smell and touch but even to sample the produce, signing and notices are clear, and there are lots of little stories waiting to be discovered.

So lets take a walk around…starting with the entrance through a traditional Cape Dutch  gateway

 

 

 

All the original farm buildings have been restored and repurposed without losing their character. They now house the ticket office and a range of shops., mostly selling products from the estate.

Armed with a map which is both simple in concept and complex in content you can try and plot a path through the site. It’s not as easy as it looks and there is no suggested route. Whichever way you go, you soon realise that you’ve missed something by not going the other way, and despite the fact that the grid pattern is clear, the internal design of each section is different so its actually quite easy to get confused, if not lost.  Such diversions from the original route can also be partly blamed on the enormous range of eye-catchers and structures that are dotted around.

This has meant that my attempts to write  an orderly description  have failed so instead I’m just going to look at some highlights of the potager and then move on beyond the formal areas, to  the  peripheral areas and the wider estate.

There are a series of wide main axial avenues,  but with many narrower cross paths and then narrower internal pathways. Some are  tree-lined with full sized trees such as olives, citrus, carob  and guavas, others hedged in, bordered by step-over fruit trees, or covered with pergolas.

Many of the intersections have rose towers rising 6m over the, with a stepped roof to support the climbers which provide shade as well as scent.

Van Rieebecks rose

 

 

 

One rose in particular is of significance because it is thought to be a descendant of the first rose to bloom for the Dutch on the 1st November 1659 from plants imported from Holland the previous year. Thought to be  a complex hybrid of Rosa centifolia and Rosa gallica, it was introduced to the garden in 2020 and first flowered last year on exactly the 1st November.

But it was not only rises that van Riebeeck introduced in those early =years of Dutch rule. The apple pips in the Company’s gardens soon after his arrival in 1652, with the first fruit harvested ten years later.  This is “Witte Wijnappels”, popular as both for eating and cider making, and one of several historic varieties in the orchards, including notably a direct descendant of Isaac Newton’s “Flower of Kent” apple from Woolsthorpe Manor.

image from The Gardens of Babylonstoren

He also introduced citrus and olives and both of these can be found in all round the gardens. There are  no less than 25 different sorts of citrus around the garden and, apart from their use in hedging in other parts of the garden,  most can be found in the citrus “block”.

This is divided into four square sections which are cobbled and surrounded by kumquat hedges. The whole area  can be irrigated by flooding from a network of gravity-fed channels which are controlled by sluices. Known as leiwater these run all round the garden. 

In the centre of this citrus block is a shallow pool lined with tiles inspired by traditional Delftware and featuring a sailing ship, as a reminder  of the role citrus played in treating scurvy-ridden sailors .

Each of the squares has a different centrepiece such as this little fountain with chairs for visitors to take a rest.

 

One of things that surprised me was how rigorously virtually all the fruit trees, including the citrus, were pruned, and not just for those trained as espaliers, cordons or on geometric frames, and often not just once a year.

How about this  four-legged medlar? It was growing on its own roots and trunk quite happily when four quince trees were planted around it and the tips grafted into the trunk. When all four had taken the lower part of original medlar trunk was cut away leaving  the upper part flourishing on its quince roots. The trick is being repeated on second specimen close by. [If you are interested in knowing more about tree sculpting see this earlier post]

 

 

 

 

 

 

The wider paths like the one above are surfaced with ochre coloured local laterite which compacts really easily because of its high clay content. Elsewhere more unusual materials are used. The extensive areas for stone fruit have paths made of peach stones while in other places you can find yourself walking on shells including Babylonia.

 

 

In one section of the more “traditional” planting areas a sinuous metal tunnel divides two blocks of vegetables. In the summer its covered with climbing plants such as pumpkins and gourds

 

 

 

Integral to the potager is a rather nice house for chickens which even has its own mini garden enclosure.   There are several varieties kept  which  have roaming rights across the whole garden, as do a small flock of turkeys.

 

 

 

 

 

Ducks on the other are kept out because of their destructive grazing habits but a large flock rove freely around the vineyard and other areas where they cannot cause damage to productive crops. There is also an entire section given over to bees, which is locked but can be seen through spy holes.  The estates entomologist and beekeeper explains more in a short YouTube video.   And of course what garden these days is complete without a bug hotel

 

Unfortunately, although I haven’t quite finished the tour of the kitchen garden,  I’ve reached my own self-imposed word limit and haven’t even started on the rest  of the estate so I’ll stop here and continue in another post shortly.

There really is nowhere apart from the babylonstoren website to look for further information. I bought The Gardens of Babylonstoren by Francesca Watson from The Newt by mail-order but it doesn’t look as if they’ve still got it in stock and otherwise it seems only to be available in South Africa.

About The Gardens Trust

Email - education@thegardenstrust.org Website - www.thegardenstrust.org
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