Carrie Hampton visits an estate near Stellenbosch. But it’s not wine she goes looking for… or that she finds.
Babylonstoren is that place.ow often do you go somewhere that has got it so right that a sublime sense of wellbeing washes over you? For me,
Almost equidistant between Franschhoek, Stellenbosch and Paarl – the Cape Winelands’ most established wine regions – this estate has exalted the art of understatement.
Babylonstoren’s minimalism is so aspirational that it makes you want to go home, paint everything white and chuck out all your ‘stuff’. There is nothing at Babylonstoren that shouldn’t be there, but don’t mistake modest for unsophisticated.
Gobble your way round the garden
Babylonstoren’s quiet finesse becomes ever more apparent the longer you wander around. Admire the architectural design of the all-edible gardens, the pared-down but oh-so-stylish farm accommodation and the farm-to-fork Babel restaurant and Greenhouse eatery, with a “pick, clean and serve” ethos. A plate of raw heritage vegetables never looked or tasted so good!
Behind this apparent effortlessness is a well-oiled machine of staff and technology supporting the smooth functioning of eight acres of gardens, vineyards and olive groves, retail spaces in ancient farm buildings, two restaurants and a wine-tasting venue. There’s a large contingent of feathered workers too – 60 geese and over 20 free-roaming chickens that march into the gardens each morning and gobble up all the snails.
The staff seem happy, certainly if Master Gardener Gundula Deutschlander is anything to go by. Sporting a wide-brimmed pink and yellow sun hat, blue and orange smock and yellow painted toenails, she guided our eager group around the gardens, clearly in her element.
Inspired by The Company’s Gardens in the centre of Cape Town – cultivated to supply Dutch East India Company trading ships with supplies in the 17th century – the magical Babylonstoren garden is created without a single nail and planted with the intention that almost everything should be edible.
Gundula insisted we smell, taste and touch every plant and pluck ripe figs, quince or guava and kick off our shoes to walk on the chamomile lawn. Just in case you take life too seriously, a sudden squirt of water triggered by motion as you walk between citrus-tasting spekboom bushes, prompts you to laugh out loud. It is no wonder that Monty Don paid a visit and has nothing but admiration for this estate.
While horticulturalists may prefer to know the Latin names of plants, Afrikaans lends a much greater sense of purpose to many plants. Take the kruidjie-roer-my-nie for example, translated into English as ‘do not disturb me’ due to its unpleasant smelling leaves. Afrikaans comes easily to all the staff at Babylonstoren as everybody employed here speaks Afrikaans as their mother tongue. As a modern antique language, it reflects exactly what Babylonstoren is: 90 per cent old Cape Dutch and 10 per cent modernday.
The owners of Babylonstoren – Karen Roos and Koos Bekker – are Afrikaaners, with an evident love of history. Their interest isn’t confined to South Africa, and they seek to preserve historic spaces and find a commercially viable place for them in today’s world.
As a business visionary – said by Forbes to be worth US$2.6-billion, and chairman of multinational internet and media group Naspers – Koos Bekker has an eye for a good proposition. It shouldn’t be surprising then that Hadspen House in Somerset, UK, took their fancy. Perhaps not just for it’s great potential, but for its past owner’s familial connection with Emily Hobhouse, an English campaigner against the cruelty of British concentration camps incarcerating Afrikaans women and children during the Second Boer War.
Hobhouse is honoured in this 17th century Grade II listed property through its new name ‘Emily in Somerset’. The renovation is getting the same treatment that has made Babylonstoren the darling of the moment. With an international business to run I wonder if the 30 or more guest rooms at Hadspen will be privy to the same personal attention as Babylonstoren, where Bekker is said to have chosen every library book in each guest suite.
I suspect it will. No doubt Karen’s impeccable good taste and “secure sense of style and keen eye for creative originality” – said of her as she became editor of Elle Decoration magazine (South Africa) in 2005 – will play an influential part in the Emily Estate’s new look.
When there’s chaos all around, gardens have a way of creating a sense of tranquillity. With Babylonstoren Roos and Bekker have spread their ethos of simplicity and aesthetics to every corner of the estate. They’ve done it with such apparent ease and grace, it’s hardly surprising we all want a bit of it.
- The daily Garden Tour starts at 10am in front of the Farm Shop. Book in advance.
- There’s a Special Collection walk daily at 11.30am designed to capture the ‘procession of the seasons’, such as 9000 clivia blooming in September.
- Babel Restaurant is very popular, so book well in advance during the summer for breakfast, lunch or dinner.
- The Greenhouse is a turn-up-and-order eatery with picnic-style food. Open 10am-4pm.
- The Bakery becomes a family-style self-serve restaurant in the evenings, with Italian- inspired food on Mondays and Fridays and a five-course Carnivore braai night with music on Wednesdays.
- A Tea Ceremony is held at 9.30am on Tuesdays in a Zen bamboo hut, with seasonal herbal infusions accompanied by savoury and sweet confections.
- The Wine Tasting Room is open daily from 10am to 6pm in summer and to 5pm in winter. There is a small fee.
- Accommodation comprises Farmhouse Suites, Garden Cottages, Fynbos Cape Dutch cottages and a five-bedroom Manor House.
- The Spa signature treatments are a hammam water ritual and bamboo massage.
- It can get very hot here (well over 30˚C) so bring a hat, sunscreen and water bottle.