The hum of countless bees can be heard in the late-afternoon air at Babylonstoren’s garden of Eden. Here, owners Karen Roos and Koos Bekker cultivate more than 300 varieties of edible or medicinal plants in the extraordinary gardens inspired by the farms that supplied ships passing the Cape of Good Hope in 1692, which was when the farm was first granted to burgher (citizen) Pieter van der Byl. Today, the werf and its structures remain among the finest unspoilt examples of traditional Cape Dutch architectural styles.
In this positively utopian setting in South Africa’s Cape Winelands, The Owner’s House at Babylonstoren is irresistible. Karen’s deft touch and nuanced appreciation of tradition are pronounced in the honesty of her Cape Dutch homestead, which has been not so much restored as reinvigorated.
When Karen and Koos first bought Babylonstoren as their weekend retreat, one of its attractions for Karen was the fact that the farmhouse, which dates back to 1777, had never been officially ‘redone’. The most recent work was completed in 1931, when a Victorian renovation that had removed the gables was reversed, and the gables replaced.
Surely one of the clearest signs of her commitment to authenticity is in the central sitting room: here, Karen supervised the painstaking removal of 23 layers of paint to reveal the original ochre-hued walls finely edged with stripes of teal, cream and brown. This was exactly matched and the room carefully repainted in these hues. ‘It has the benefit of downplaying the heaviness of the dark wood built-in cupboards that the Dutch loved so much,’ says Karen. ‘They have the potential to be overwhelming if the walls are whitewashed, but here they simply melt in.’
The home’s traditional H-shaped layout has been honoured and fittings revived, with worn flagstones polished to a high gloss, wide yellowwood floorboards and ceiling beams, and wooden windows and sills set deep into thick clay walls built to beat the African heat.
Despite the estate’s grand heritage, this is unmistakably a farmhouse. Much of the action takes place in the kitchen, which serves as a cooking space and gathering place, and features an Aga and wood-burning stove. In front of the open hearth is a huge refectory table where the family reconnects and refuels, and friends kuier. The chandelier – made from an antique wine-bottle drier – is rustic yet refined, adding to the home’s authentic and modern sensibility.
Karen herself is as cosmopolitan as the Cape was in the days it was first settled – when the Dutch made it a halfway point between the West and the Orient – and the mixed, rich layering in the interiors says as much about her as it does about the home. The South African-born style maven has spent many years living abroad, and her appreciation for cultural diversity can be seen in historical references as well as new-age touches that add the freshness that defines Babylonstoren.
Whereas the sitting room and bedrooms are the essence of comfortable minimalism, the library-cum-study is a wonder room. Cabinets of curiosities are filled with fascinating collections and objets, from shards of pottery dug up on the farm and VOC Delftware to massive ammonites and an encyclopaedic collection of butterflies. Where the sitting room – with its modern linen, leather and steel furnishings that meld seamlessly with the 240-year-old structure – is cool and calm, the library is endlessly stimulating and interesting. That said, a scarlet couch is the perfect spot for an afternoon nap in front of the fireplace lined with narrow klompie bricks.
It is fitting that this home, which has been continuously occupied for 240 years, is no stiff museum piece. Its interiors pay tribute to its heritage, but it is Karen’s appreciation for contemporary aesthetics that brings The Owner’s House to life. The en suite bathrooms are a wonderful example of this: individual in style, they evoke a grand era of Edwardian spas and the luxury of indoor plumbing.
All in all, Babylonstoren is a living, invigorating celebration of Cape Dutch style – as well as Karen’s personal design aesthetic. Her interpretation connects the past to the future in the most gracious and subtle of ways.