Italian Idyll


The sun is setting gently on the county of Somerset, and I am careening round a bend on the back of a golf buggy driven by a man named Ken. “If you look to your left,” says Ken, one of the guides at The Newt, “you will see our herd of fallow deer and to the right our red deer—who aren’t actually supposed to be there.” We pass darkened hedges and ever-blackening fields, and I am glad that Ken has availed us of a tartan mohair blanket because I fear the looming hand of frostbite.

Soon, out of the dark, I see it, one light at a time—a full-sized Roman villa embraced by an enormous vineyard of Pinot Noir grapes. One thing the Newt Hotel isn’t is short of surprises. The villa that comes into view has a gymnasium, a Roman plunge pool and working kitchen; the complex is heated entirely in the Roman style by a huge fire and under-floor watercourse. Our guide explains that the successful implementation of the present heating technology is a first, as everyone else who tried to recreate the original system “cocked it up”—English for “did something wrong.” The reason for the heating system’s presence, explains Ric Weeks, the director of the accompanying museum (itself an architectural wonder of glass and local oak), is because this was the site of an actual Roman villa in the 4th century. The Reverend William Phelps, the well-meaning prelate who discovered the Roman ruins in the 19th century, made a bit of a pig’s ear of the excavation. (For readers who do not know, to “make a pig’s ear” of something is roughly the equivalent of “cocking it up.”) It is an extraordinary building to tour and made even better by its having a Roman street food stall that offers innumerable stews in the winter, as well as fresh wraps in the summer.

The Newt itself, so named for the salamanders on the property whose tunneling activities delayed its ultimate renovation, sits contented and secure, as if it has grown from the ground, near Castle Cary, one of those English market towns that is untroubled by modernity. The property as a whole is a pretty place, for sure, but eyebrows were raised when Karen Roos, former editor of Elle Decoration South Africa, and her husband, Koos Bekker, chairman of an African technology and TV company, bought the estate in 2013.

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This story appeared in the Spring 2023 issue of MILIEU