The Newt in Somerset — with its restored Roman villa and world-class apple orchard — is in a country house hotel league all of its own, says Lucy Ford.
I knew I was onto something good when the overwhelming reaction from friends, when telling them that I was off to The Newt, was one of scarcely-concealed envy . ‘Ooh, you lucky thing,’ they cooed. ‘I’d love to go there.’ ‘It looks beautiful.’ And they were right — The Newt really is something special. A destination in its own right.
On the website they describe themselves as: ‘A country estate, reimagined’. A country estate with around 900 acres in which to relax and explore at your leisure.
The estate was bought by the former editor of South Africa’s Elle Decoration, Karen Roos, and her telecom billionaire husband, Koos Bekker, in 2013. Following extensive renovations it opened to some fanfare in 2019.
I stayed inside the main building — a honey-coloured, limestone edifice, called Hadspen House. It was built in the 17th century and owned by the Hobhouse family for more than 200 years. The present-day interior choices were made by Ms Roos who has managed to create an elegant and harmonious atmosphere, melding contemporary artworks and bits of furniture with antiques and the original architecture. It’s no easy feat.
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My suite, one of the ‘Garden’ rooms on the first floor was all about subtle luxury. Nothing gaudy or flashy to distract the eye. Warm and inviting. The free standing bath and enormous shower in the generously sized en-suite is exactly what you expect to find in a hotel of this calibre, but impressive nonetheless.
There are a further 17 bedrooms on an old dairy farm next door look. The Farmyard is a mile from Hadspen, but free golf buggies and bicycles are available to ride between the two, via cider orchards and wildflower meadows. The bedrooms, designed by Richard Parr, are all different and hint at their former purpose: the Apple Loft under the eaves; the Grainstore, a huge single-storey space with a larch wood bath.
Eating and drinking
I took dinner in the Botanical Rooms where the food served is truely seasonal. It’s a short menu — indecisive diners rejoice — but entirely delicious, utilising produce from the Estate’s extensive kitchen gardens and orchards. There’s even an onsite butchery, bakery and ‘Beezantuim’ (a lakeside, observational apiary that also keeps the hotel well-stocked with honey).
Try the British white beef, which is sourced from the estate’s herd and said to be the oldest breed in Britain, alongside a glass of fabulous wine from the hotel’s sister property, Babylonstoren, in South Africa.
The Farmyard has its own restaurant, a more casual affair where fare is mainly cooked over an open fire. Forgo a menu and let the chef surprise you with a delicious carousel of sharing plates.
How they’ll keep you busy
The gardens should be your primary port of call, a short stroll along a gravel path from Hadspen House. The redesigned Parabola Garden (above) was profiled inside Country Life (November 15, 2023) by contributor Charles Quest-Ritson. ‘Nowhere else in the country has a finer display of trained apples,’ wrote Mr Quest-Ritson. ‘There are 330 cultivars, mainly Old British varieties, but also some of the best French apples.’
Sign up for a guided garden tour or a woodland tour, explore the garden’s grotto, home to a dragon (or wyvern) that roars and blows smoke from its nostrils when you tickle it under the chin, or drop into The Story of Gardening Museum. A rotating roster of seasonal workshops including painting, dawn walks and apple tree grafting.
Take a dip in the bathing pond, pop into the mushroom house, stroll the badger walk and taste some homegrown cyder squeezed from the 65 apple varieties grown here across 70 acres of orchards.
What else is there to do while you’re there
The standout attraction though is the incredible Roman villa — Villa Ventorum — the ruins of which were discovered and partially excavated in 1834. The site has since been extensively excavated and the entire villa reconstructed. And the attention to detail is something to behold. Everything has been thought about, down to the jewellery in the mistress’s bedroom, the plants in the kitchen garden and the urine dip where the inhabitants would wash clothes.
The team behind it all ‘scoured museums in countries that were once part of the Roman Empire’ and ‘trampled through Pompeii and Herculanuem’ according to Mr Bekker.
You must try on one of the virtual reality headsets. You’ll be guided through each room as an onlooker to how life would’ve played out for both Roman master and servant.
Who is it for?
Anyone who is bored of run-of-the-mill country house hotel stays.
What gives it the ‘wow’ factor
The Roman villa.
The one thing we’d change
A hotel this successful — and one with so much to offer — doesn’t come cheap and prices soar at the weekends.
Rooms at Hadspen House from £520 a night on a B&B basis. The gardens are a member’s only experience. Membership costs £75 a year, but this includes access to 14 partner gardens, including Kew Gardens and the Eden Project. Please see the link to purchase a membership here. Call 01963 577777 or book direct www.thenewtinsomerset.com