Old Cape Dutch garden

Text Elaine Coaton Eksteen Production Mariette Theron Photographs David Ross Driving through the ornate iron gates into the forecourt of Northwards in the Jo’burg suburb of Parktown you can almost hear the horse-drawn carriages crunching on the gravel as they turn in front of the Cape Dutch-gabled entrance. The house and its gardens pay tribute to an era gone by. One when women in billowing skirts and men in tailcoats nibbled on sandwiches while chatting genteelly amongst neatly clipped lollipop topiaries and Italianate arches. Had you visited then you’d have been quite likely to see José Dale Lace at the reins of a carriage drawn by zebras. José, wife of Colonel John Dale Lace, a diamond-mining magnate for whom Northwards was designed, would certainly have kept the Johannesburg high- society grapevine buzzing. She is believed to have spent hours languishing in a marble bath filled with milk and to have been mistress to England’s King Edward VII. José and Colonel Dale Lace lived at Northwards between 1904 and 1911. The 40-roomed property – more mansion than house –is one of five Sir Herbert Baker-designed buildings in Rock Ridge Road, which include Baker’s own home, Stonehouse. Northwards features the rough-stone walls and arches, Tuscan columns and Venetian windows synonymous with this renowned architect’s design. ‘Baker believed a property should grow out of its site,’ says Neil Viljoen, curator of Northwards, ‘and much of the quartzite used for the house was quarried here’. Today, just four acres (1.6ha) remain of the original 18-acre (7.3ha) estate. Owned by the Northwards Trust, the heritage building houses the offices of various educational and non-profit organisations. Once a month the ballroom fills with the music of classical concerts, held here for charity. A magnificent rosewood 1895-built Steinway piano with exquisite inlay work is often used in these recitals. Northwards is ‘not a museum,’ says Neil; ‘rather, it’s a living monument.’ The same can be said for the gardens. ‘Baker designed the original Italianate layout based on the ideas of Gertrude Jekyll and Sir Edwin Lutyens,’ explains Neil. And although much of the original land was sold off and the terraced plantings subsequently tragically demolished, the gardens have been re-created so as to suggest what would have been. Syzygium and escallonia trained into arches and columns, and viburnum clipped into hedges and lollipops give the garden structure. Duranta Sheena’s Gold and lavender add softness and colour inside this frame. The shady terrace to the south is home to a bust of Baker commissioned by the then Transvaal Institute of Architects, which used to have its offices here. Put up in 1992 to commemorate the centenary of Baker’s arrival in South Africa, it was sculpted by plastic surgeon Professor Laurence Chait. In summer the ground around it is carpeted in lilac jacaranda petals. Sir George Albu and his wife, Ginny Rosendorff, who bought the house from the Dale Laces and lived here until 1951, added the four deodar cedars, which stand watch to the east of the terrace. Nobody knows why the trees were planted so formally in a square, but perhaps the Albus had visions of two hammocks strung up between them to enjoy the views northwards to the distant Magaliesberg. The adjacent pergola leading to the summerhouse is covered in wisteria, pink Banksia roses, and the yellow ‘Golden Showers’ climbing rose, which adds its perfume to the summer evening air. Below the west terrace, hydrangeas, azaleas and camellias punctuate clipped viburnum. ‘It’s a beautiful area that has benches for sitting,’ says Neil. In fact, there are a number of benches dotted around the garden. It’s an inviting space. The arches beckon you on, promising new-hedged rooms to explore, new vantage points from which to watch the sun paint patterns on the foliage. If you close your eyes and listen, you might just hear the bustle of ladies’ skirts along the lawns, the clinking of bone china teacups from the terrace and those zebra hooves on the gravel. This article was originally featured in the October 2009 issue of House and Leisure.