I don’t often write more than one post on a garden. But then few gardens are quite as extraordinary as Babylonstoren. After last week’s look at the 8 acre formal kitchen garden I’m going to look at the rest of the estate.
This is equally impressive and very diverse. It includes areas devoted to individual plant families, several greenhouses, ecological and wilder zones, water gardens, and even, believe it or not, a garden inside a snake!
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
What’s in a name? Eleanor Fortescue Brickdale sounds like an escapee from a Victorian 3-volume bodice-ripper or maybe the wicked governess in a 1920s girls comic – well that’s what I thought when I first saw her name. That will teach me to be prejudiced and judge a book by its cover or somebody by their name.
In fact she was one of the most popular artists in Britain at the turn of the 19th and 20th centuries. She specialised in historical and legendary scenes often incorporating gardens into her work. Her work later fell from popular favour as tastes changed, and she was according to her obituary The Times “the last survivor” of the pre-Raphaelites. That may explain why after her death in 1945 her work largely disappeared from sight. That is, as I hope you’ll agree when you’ve read the post and seen some of her work, a great pity.
Way back in April 2021 I wrote a piece about the Elizabethan painting below, which as you can see from the detail, has a maze in the background. It struck me as an unusual things to put into a portrait, although I soon discovered that it was almost certainly an allegory about finding the right path in life, rather than anything in the sitter’s own garden.
What I hadn’t fully realised then was that the idea of walking round a low-level maze wasn’t actually that strange because the English countryside was once dotted with earthwork labyrinths or turf-mazes of a similar kind, although not many survive today.
Nor did I realise quite how popular mazes and labyrinths were, with many intriguing stories around them, although usually with very little hard evidence to back them up. Indeed there is an entire sub-culture debating their origins and purposes, and as a result the boundary between fact and fiction, or evidence and conjecture, is “flexible” to put it mildly. There is sound academic research but also a lot of “new age” fantasy where in the end you can almost believe what you want. Today’s post is just going to wend its way through the labyrinth looking at just a small part of this world: the turf maze.
Breamore mizmaze from Google maps
There can’t be many garden tools that have caused hundreds of people to demonstrate in the streets against their introduction. But that’s precisely what happened in 1840 when a committee decided to test a new device against traditional methods and equipment. The protests would be the other way round now if gardeners were forced to give up what is probably the most popular and easy to use hand tool in the shed.
So what on earth am I talking about and if it’s so easy to use what caused the problem?
Apologies if you were hoping for a firework related post but I did that last year with Here Be Dragons and Marvellous Contrivances so check them out!
Noah at work in his vineyard, c.1350 Continue reading