Italian Idyll

A NEWT EXPERIENCE

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.

Italian Idyll

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 gymnasium, a Roman plunge pool and working kitchen; the complex is heated entirely in the Roman style by a huge fire and underfloor 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 ears” 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.

Italian Idyll

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.

At the time, Somerset was seen as a little bit below the salt (or, in other words, a bit inferior). Traditionally, Gloucestershire (near the then-Prince of Wales’s Highgrove), was the preferred setting for the second homes of people able to have a residence of this scale, while media types and celebrities headed for Oxfordshire; the newer-monied still choose Berkshire, given that Harrods is less than an hour’s drive away. The Newt has helped cement Somerset as a destination to rival all of those—as well it might, for it is an extraordinary place.

As you approach The Newt down its long drive, you see the main house, Hadspen House, shining like a golden orb, its yellow sandstone seeming to reflect the light. The Grade II-listed hall was home to the Hobhouse family for the best part of 300 years, and their fingerprints are still evident. Family pictures cover the walls—here a great aunt, there a long-dead heir—as are their books and their many hunting trophies. However, what is also much in evidence is the taste of the chatelaine, Karen Roos.

Italian Idyll

With a sure eye and confidence, Roos has managed to sensitively renovate the 1000-acre estate, making use of muted, traditional Georgian colors (there is much duck-egg blue) while adding modern objets d’art. For instance, as we head to our room on the first floor, we come across a sculpture of a fir tree suspended by wires from the ceiling. I don’t quite understand it, but I heartily approve.

The rooms are all stately in the main house, though in the former stable block they have an eccentric equine feel. Even a prize-winning Arab stallion would have to be doing very well indeed to be quartered here, for the accommodations are luxurious, with a quiet glamour about them. Ours are very well appointed with a modern four-poster bed, a library of books chosen by Roos, and a lavatory from which there is a view Constable might have admired—endless rolling acres of lakes and box-hedge gardens, attended, we are told, by some 50 gardeners.

Italian Idyll

After making use of the roll-top bath, which is roughly the size of Belgium, we head to the bar for pre-dinner stiffeners. The martinis are good and crisp and even. A voluble Welshman is sitting at the bar availing himself of them and manages to trap a couple of wine merchants in conversation. He kindly recommends the film “Ferris Bueller’s Day Off” and then says, firmly: “I have two Range Rovers and a Lamborghini.” We will encounter him later, snoring like a baby in an armchair. We head to an adjoining snug where I raise my camera to take a picture of a piece of sculpture and a lady in an armchair, who ostentatiously raises her Hermès bag to cover her face. We decide it might be time for dinner.

There are two restaurants. The Farmyard Kitchen, an accurate description, has a menu referred to as “hearty” and tables housed in a former threshing barn. The other, The Botanical Rooms, which is presided over by chef Ben Champkin, is appropriately upscale (with a plaque at the entrance to inform diners that King George VI ate in this room in 1941). At this point, we get slightly lost in aesthetic reverie and order oysters and Champagne, day-boat Dorset Coast fish, estate White beef with vegetables from the kitchen garden, and a burnt-honey dessert so nice that it surpasseth all understanding. “Would you like cheese?” the kind waitress asks. I decline firmly but politely.

Italian Idyll

The next morning we rise to find a carpet of frost unfurled across the grounds. We walk past the orchard garden, bountiful with apple varieties from every English county, and admire the handsome glass-front cider press, but decide it is a little early for the fermented potent brew. The apiary, called the Beezantium, lies just around the corner. Designed by Invisible Studio, an upscale architectural firm based in England, the structure—which features a roof made handsomely of copper shingles that catch the morning light–must be the most luxurious beehouse every known to exist. The beekeepers are, alas, not in. But still we find distractions in the pool, which is half enclosed in a beautiful bar area and half exposed to the elements, where on the day we are there steam rises from it like papal smoke. There is, naturally, a spa, which seems to do every treatment known to man.

Italian Idyll

After all this exercise, we decide it best to head for breakfast, once again in The Botanical Rooms. We find a table piled high with cheese, meats, smoked trout and salmon, every fruit jam you could think of, a hearty mountain of bread and cereals and patisserie. We take the fish and then a full English breakfast of poached eggs, foraged mushrooms, sausage and bacon. I feel as content as a lord.

Italian Idyll

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WRITTEN BY SAMUEL MUSTON

This story appeared in the Spring 2023 issue of MILIEU