Heritage Gardens of Vergelegen

It’s known as the Versailles of South Africa, where every owner of Vergelegen has left a mark on the wine estate’s world-class heritage gardens…

Words: Marion Whitehead

Pictures: Marion Whitehead & Supplied

Dutch governor Willem Adriaan van der Stel built the walls surrounding the octagonal garden east of the main house at Vergelegen high enough to keep out lions, as this was where his cattle were kraaled for safety each night at the turn of the 18th century, outside what is now Somerset West.

By the time Sir Lionel and Lady Florence Phillips were in residence some 200 years later, the kraal was a lovely (certainly well-fertilised) formal garden. The lady of this grand estate added a couple of marble urns picked up on a trip to Italy, as well as a couple of antelope sculptures, which are copies of a buck found at the base of Mount Etna, perfectly preserved in the volcanic ash.

“She had an eye for beautiful art,” comments Vergelegen’s horticulturalist, Richard Arm, on one of his entertaining tours of the gardens of the renowned wine estate, now owned by Anglo American and maintained as a heritage site that reflects the layered history of our country.

Each owner has added a touch to the garden, which tells the story of the grand estate and feeds the soul. Wandering its paths, you can’t help pondering the changing times, right from when commercial agriculture was first established at the Cape under the controversial Van der Stel.

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“The gardens still reflect those pioneering times, from the ancient camphor trees planted to supply wood for construction, and the majestic oaks, to the white mulberry that recalls plans to develop a silk industry,” says Vergelegen MD Don Tooth. “The gardens are an important part of this historic legacy.”

Vergelegen has been nominated as part of a serial World Heritage Site depicting the Cape Wineland’s cultural heritage. Some 100 000 people visit the estate each year, not just to taste the wine, picnic under the camphor trees, dine at the restaurants and peep inside the historic Cape Dutch homestead – the 18 diverse gardens on 10 hectares are as big an attraction on the 316-year-old estate.

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Today, Vergelegen still follows Van der Stel’s original layout plan for the formal gardens. The fragrant rose garden, replanted last year in a stunning palette of graduated colours, reflects the same octagonal shape as the old cattle kraal. “The rose garden is in a colour-wheel formation radiating from the centre to ensure we don’t have a ‘Smartie box’ effect,” explains Richard.

In the award-winning, new, east garden outside the Stables bistro restaurant, we gaze across 14 000 agapanthus, planted in diagonal bands according to colour and variety, towards the mauve Hottentots Holland Mountains.

These indigenous beauties will be at their best from November, and the diagonal planting reflects the estate’s orchards and vineyards. “This was a working farm where generations of the Theunissen family grew all they needed,” says Richard.

The agapanthus vista is flanked on either side by a maze with walls of vines that change with the season, and an adventure play area where we watch kiddies exploring a shallow stream and clambering on sculpted wooden animals. “They’re all made from trees felled on the estate,” says Richard.

Everything is on a grand scale – even the new 70-hectare arboretum is bigger than Kew Gardens in the UK and already boasts 15 varieties of oak.

As we round the corner of the grand homestead, we see the first of the estate’s champion trees. The row of five gnarled camphor trees that are 300 years old was declared a National Monument in 1942. The trees tower more than 26 metres above the old driveway – they are bigger than 1 000-year-old camphors in their native China.

“The carriages used to cross the river and stop under the shade here,” explains Richard. “Everything was planted for practical reasons.”

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Another Vergelegen champion is the oak tree, reputed to be the oldest in Africa south of the Sahara, and planted by Van der Stel to make wine barrels. At 14 metres it’s not terribly tall, but its girth is a great 11 metres. Richard lets me peep inside the hollow trunk and I see iron bars used to reinforce it some 30 years ago by retired tree surgeon and fellow Cape Horticultural Society member Barry Thomas. On a recent visit to Vergelegen, he was thrilled to see his former ‘patient’ doing so well. When he and his brother worked on it 1974, Vergelegen was owned by the Barlow family and the old oak tree was in a sorry state.

“The top had been ripped out in a storm and, like most English oaks in South Africa, was full of mildew and rot.” The Thomas brothers reduced the crown, cut out all the rotten heartwood and fitted metal bars to reinforce what was left. “Lo and behold – some 30 odd years later ‘our’ oak is a picture of health with a big crown that is verging on top heavy,” says a delighted Barry.

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For the last 15 years, Dr Yolanda Roux, professor of Pretoria University Forestry and Agricultural Biotechnology Institute, has given these trees their annual ‘medical check-up’ to ensure their health and well-being. “They are living encyclopaedias of the plant world – they have seen so much over the years and lived through a changing environment,” says Yolanda of her special ‘patients’.

The Royal Oak, planted from an acorn from the last of King Alfred’s oaks at Blenheim Palace in the UK in the 1920s, had special fascination for Queen Elizabeth when she lunched at Vergelegen in 1995. “She asked to see the tree as she had fond memories of collecting acorns from it with her father on the royal visit in 1947,” Richard says. The acorns the young princess collected now grow in the Great Park at Windsor.

MWhitehead_Vergelegen-24Everyone is encouraged to explore and find their favourite ‘secret spot’ in the Vergelegen Gardens. To show me his, Richard takes me across the suspension bridge over the Lourens River, to the giant Outeniqua yellowwood, aged anything between 150 and 400 years old. “Look at all the babies coming up under it, and how the youngsters form a circle around it,” points out Richard. “Children love meeting Vergelegen’s ‘mommy tree’.”

Walking back through the Camelia Garden of Excellence, the only one to enjoy this status in Africa, we are blown away by the gorgeous blossoms of the extensive collection, donated by Jan van Bergen to supplement those planted by Cynthia Barlow. Peering into a rich crimson bloom, I experience a moment of sublime ecstacy as the scent envelopes me. The path curves along the edge of the tranquil river to an inviting bench. “This is also my favourite spot,” confesses Richard.

By the end of my visit to this splendid heritage garden, I appreciate Richard’s difficulty in selecting just one favourite spot. Would I choose the white reflection garden as my favourite? What about the enchanting giant yellowwood where I half expected to see a fairy peeping out at me? With a garden that encourages a sense of discovery, I guess I’ll just keep on exploring…

Handy Info

  • Daily heritage and garden tours depart from the Wine Tasting Centre at 10h00. Garden club tours by arrangement.
  • Every year Vergelegen gives away free seeds of the ancient Outeniqua yellowwood, South Africa’s national tree, during Arbor Week (4-10 September 2016).
  • Contact and more information: 021 847 2100, [email protected]www.vergelegen.co.za

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