Text Bridget Hilton-Barber Production René Slee Photographs David Ross At the end of a sweeping green lawn stands a giant, bone-white blue gum tree. It is white because it’s dead, struck by lightning some 30 years ago, but still standing in defiance against blue skies and dramatic views of the northern Drakensberg mountains. The dead tree is an icon of Kings Walden garden. Mentioned in Thomas Pakenham’s Remarkable Trees of the World, it is probably the garden’s most talked-about feature. The panoramic views are capable of bringing grown men to their knees. It was here in the 1930s that my grandmother, the young Elsie Dixon, stood spellbound and said: ‘I never want to leave.’ At her side was my grandfather, Bill Tooley, owner of the view. ‘Marry me,’ he replied, ‘and you will never have to.’ Kings Walden garden was born of this romantic spirit. It was my grandmother who began it. She ordered the building of a series of low stone walls to provide definition and create different levels to the garden, which she imagined as a ship sailing into the owveld beyond and below. She planted many of the now enormous exotic trees – Brazilian kapoks, Australian blue gums, South American Tibouchinas and frangipanis – and was influenced by the ideas of English gardener Gertrude Jekyll who was popular at the time for her bold views on mass colour and composition. But it was my mother who really took the gardens to its greatest poetic heights. Retaining the original stonework and structures, she has, over the past 25 years, created a dramatically landscaped English romantic garden. Like her mother before her, my mother gardened boldly in the face of adversity, commemorating life’s events through plants and trees, flowers and shrubs, lions and gargoyles. Every time there was a crisis – and there were many – she made another bed, created another garden. Kings Walden is a philosophy, an allegory, a marvellous mix of tragedy and love. Every place evokes an emotion by marking an event, mourning a loss, celebrating an achievement, enshrining a cat. Like a series of protectors, lion statues guard the garden. They stand watch at the entrance, flank columns, sit on pillars, spit from fountains, gaze smugly out at the views. From the dead tree, a series of wide stone steps lead down through an acre of heady purple agapanthus intersected by trickling fountains and punctuated with slender cypress trees. The steps take you down to the heart of the garden – a vast ornamental lake called the Bibigar (place of spirits), which is guarded by a pair of enormous concrete sphinxes, whose nipples you must rub for good luck. The Bibigar used to be the old tennis court, and clubhouses and some ivy-clad ruins were incorporated into the design along with a circular fountain. The lake is shaded by an ancient Waterberry tree crawling with ivy and granadilla creepers. From the Bibigar, moss-clad paths lead through walkways and pergolas to different parts of the garden. The white garden, with its zebra grass, white iceberg roses, irises and white azaleas, is designed around a sundial, fountain and mountain views. The garden is in remembrance of my late brother, Steven, and his infant son, Benjamin. Camellias and gardenias surround the fountain, which is a trickling goat gargoyle with decorative tiles. Tucked into a shady corner is a sunken garden with a small pool (first used by my grandmother when she learnt to swim at the age of 60-something) surrounded by a circle of Australian tree ferns that slice the subtropical light. In spring, the clivias flower in oranges and peaches, and in summer, and St Joseph’s lilies nod their creamy heads. Further up the slope is a rose garden, designed Italian-style with whitewashed busts and columns and reflecting mirrors. The resident monkeys are very fond of sitting on top of the busts, muddying them so they appear to be wearing toupees. There is also a secret garden with a tiled bench and a rose-clad trellis surrounding a mirror, where mint and nasturtium and maidenhair ferns grow beneath azaleas. And a decorative herb garden, where neat box hedges enclose rosemary and comfrey, fennel and dill. Births, deaths, marriages and love affairs are sewn into the landscape; they are part of the trees, the soil, the birds, and the flowers. They are what make Kings Walden grow. Adapted from Bridget Hilton-Barber’s Postcards from the Ledge – Travel Tales of the Lowveld (Struik, 2006). For a more detailed account of Kings Walden garden read Bridget’s Garden of My Ancestors (Penguin, 2008).
Kings Walden garden is open to the public and is best enjoyed at a gentle pace with a bottle of wine, a camera and good company. Being sub-tropical, it is beautiful all year round. The Kings Walden restaurant and guesthouse are currently being renovated, so the garden can be viewed by appointment only until early September. Contact David Hilton-Barber on 083-380-3262 or email firstname.lastname@example.org. This article was originally featured in the August 2009 issue of House and Leisure.