Expect a sudden mood change the moment you enter the avenue leading to Vergelegen, Somerset West. Perhaps it’s the presence of gigantic yellowwoods and oaks, or the profusion of dappled greenery, or simply the grandeur of scale that elicits a long exhalation.
Cape Governor Willem Adriaan van der Stel named Vergelegen, 'far situated', in 1700. The estate was acquired by Anglo American in 1987, ‘but it hasn’t become a corporate entity, and that's a result of attention to detail,’ says Richard Arm, resident horticulturist and garden manager. Classic design elements have been drawn from the farm’s heritage into the gardens. The octagon shape, seen in the original octagonal garden of the homestead and on Vergelegen's wine-label logo, inspired the layout for the herb garden beside the tasting centre; an octagonal fountain in the new garden at the Stables at Vergelegen Bistro Restaurant lures the eye upward to the perfectly aligned Langkloof amid a Hottentots Holland mountain panorama.
Willem Adriaan's estate included rows of oaks and a line of camphors. Straight lines feature in the garden’s present layout, in paths, rows of trees and the narrow garden ponds overlying a geographical axis beside Camphors at Vergelegen Restaurant. Symmetry, a basic principle of aesthetics, is evident in the breathtaking view through the gateway into the walled octagonal garden, the horticultural showpiece of Vergelegen.
'Everything we do on the right, we do on the left. It unfolds in front of you beautifully,’ explains Richard. Indeed, the mirror-image beds flanking the path to the homestead are a pleasing balance of delicate purples, pinks and whites – dahlias, azaleas and indigenous Geranium incanum, agapanthus and foxgloves waving in the breeze – and, of course, delphiniums, beloved by Lady Florence Phillips, who from 1917 to 1941 restored the dilapidated estate and gardens. On the stoep, a tangle of cranberry-coloured bougainvillea blooms beside the two symmetrically placed bronze buck. Dotted around are other antiquities collected by Lady Phillips, including urns and an Italian wellhead fountain in the centre of the David Austin rose garden. This is an unashamedly English country-garden experience, complete with a tinkle of water, petals flopping to the ground from luxuriant old English roses, and the sensuous fragrances of varieties such as the deep pink Dark Lady, pale Ambridge with its Turkish delight scent, and honeysuckle-fragranced yellow Charlotte.
'Scent is important in a garden. It brings back memories and creates memories,' says Richard. The large rose garden beside the Great Lawn features 18 formal rose beds laid out in a circle, with scented South-African varieties such as opulent Duftwolke (‘cloud of fragrance’), delicately fragranced Harmonie, and Just Joey.
Vergelegen's garden, blessed with ideal soil and water from a pristine river, incorporates many themed gardens. Some are simple in concept – miniature agapanthus clustered around the historic water mill; a maple-garden palette of richly coloured leaves – and others more ambitious, such as the adventure playground garden for children at the Stables restaurant, with a snaking water feature, tree house and animal sculptures. It is the monumental trees, however, that give the estate’s garden its gravitas and aura of peace. In front of the homestead stand the Vergelegen 'Big Five', the last survivors of Willem Adriaan van der Stel’s commercial Cinnamomum camphora plantation, established between 1700 and 1706 where the Great Lawn now stands, and declared national monuments in 1942.
South Africa’s oldest living oak tree, about 300 years of age, resides near the reflection garden, while a 400-year-old yellowwood in a quiet corner provides a private nook. In the yellowwood forest, camellias have been planted along a circular path. Many were introduced by Cynthia Barlow after her family bought the estate in 1941; a collection was donated by local camellia doyen Jan van Bergen in 1995, and Vergelegen’s International Camellia Garden of Excellence, incorporating approximately 550 cultivars, was inaugurated in 2010. This romantic ‘winter rose’ blooms throughout the cold months.
Beyond the camphor forest, a shady wetlands garden with arums, water lilies, and a bench awaits. With plans to create a secret wetlands alcove involving bamboo, Richard muses, ‘Something I love about this place is that sense of discovery. You are always going through a gate, a door, a hedge or a pathway and finding something new.’
This article was originally featured in the October 2013 issue of House and Leisure.