Vergelegen – fabulous farm & formal gardens

Vergelegen – fabulous farm & formal gardens

One of our fav wine farms to visit, Vergelegen, is often over-looked as it is near Somerset West and not Stellenbosch or Franschhoek. It is full of history, intrigue and awe, coupled with huge financial, long term investment. There is always something new to enjoy – recently the Nguni Pop Up Cafe and new trees in the 54-hectare arboretum. about 7 500 trees will be planted over ten 10 years.

The beginning of Vergelegen as we know it, was a Deed of Grant signed by a visiting Commissioner of the Dutch East India Company (VOC) in 1700. This gave the land (400 morgen – 342 ha) to Willem Adriaan van der Stel. He was the Governor of the Cape at the time (1699 – 1707) after his father, Simon van del Stel; some would call this a huge abuse of power, even corruption. Willem Adriaan named his new property Vergelegen meaning “far way” – it would have been a day’s ride from Cape Town (three days by ox and cart). The uncultivated land became lucrative vineyards and fruit orchards, thanks to Willem Adriaan’s talents and the hard work of 200 – 300 enslaved labour.

Willem Adriaan’s house was unusually large in scope, style and size. It was very unlike anything else seen here before or since. While the Dutch influence was strong, particularly the large gables, its façade had classical details giving it a Baroque feel. The garden was laid out in an octagon shape, probably for mathematical and aesthetic reasons. There was an orange grove in the middle. (The octagon has since been repeated many times, ranging from the shape of the new cellar and the fountain in the centre of the herb garden, to the current logo.) Image below is from the Contra Deductie I got from an antiquarian auction site; it was used when Willem Adrianne was in trouble!

Willem Adrian used his power to get the best workers, prices and trade with the passing ships. Locals, especially the farmers, were jealous and protested. The leaders were imprisoned in the Castle of Good Hope. But the VOC punished Willem Adriaan, sending him back home to the Netherlands. The VOC wanted Willem Adriaan’s fine house to be demolished (most of it was). The farm was sold. It was subdivided leading to the village of what is now Somerset West and farms, including today’s Lourensford, Morgenster and Cloetenburg (as well as Vergelegen, of course).

Vergelegen has had, unsurprisingly, many owners. The record for the longest goes to the Theunissens who owned it for over a hundred years, 1798 – 1899. They were successful wine producers; their 1816 beautiful Cape Dutch cellar today is the Library you can visit. It was converted by the Phillips who bought Vergelegen in 1917, as they didn’t like wine and even pulled out the vines.

Before the Phillips the main house had been ‘modernised’ and, like the farm, wasn’t in good shape. The Phillips rectified this – they had the money – Sir Lionel was a mining magnate. Their architect, Percy Walgate was a protégé of Sir Herbert Baker who did so much to revive the Cape Dutch style which is what the Phillips were after. Walgate did a phenomenal 95 drawings for the house and went with Lady Phillips on many visits locally (the east gable is based on Paarl’s old Pastorie). The exterior was painted ochre and the stoep laid with red quarry tiles and klompie bricks which is what we see now. Electricity was installed which meant hot water and radiators for the first time. The overall cost, excluding the gardens, was £32 684 (an overrun of £12 684).

After the Phillips died, “Punch” Barlow bought Vergelegen in 1941 (Peter Barlow bought Rustenberg wine farm nearby). Vines were replanted but the farm remained mixed agriculture (some people still remember the milk). After 40 years the Barlows sold Vergelegen to the mining corporation, Anglo American. However, the Barlows remained involved initially and some of their things are still here, such as the piano in the library and large carved wood Zanzibar door on the stoep of the house.

Local heritage architects, John Rennie and Greg Goddard, carried out an in-depth survey of the fabric and trees of the historic core, before major renovations. Walgate’s 1920s style was the main reference. The Phillips’ bedroom wing was converted into private guest suites, and bedrooms were added in the attic. The thatched roofs were replaced with Albertinia reed. Services were upgraded, notably electricity, cabling and plumbing. The renovations used Vergelegen camphor, teak, yellowwood, klompie bricks, Delft tiles, brass fittings, ironmongery, old baths and basins.

In 2011 the East complex, by contrast, was given a contemporary feel by Cape Town based MLH Architects and Planners (Paul Truscott and Belinda Young). The horse stables (and the then old visitors’ centre) were converted to a new wine tasting centre, gift shop and bistro (the Stables).

One of Anglo American’s aims is to make Vergelegen a leading wine farm. The wines have won over 200 awards since 1999, including two for the best red blend in the world. In 1992 a new multi-levelled, sunken hilltop winery was opened (architects Patrick Dillon and Jean de Gastines). With its contemporary design (a first for a winery in SA) it is deliberately set away from the historic centre. (Rumour has it a restaurant will open here.)

The unexciting Lady Phillips Restaurant was given a make-over, opening as the Camphors, a fine dining experience (eighth in the Top Ten restaurants in South Africa, 2018). The artwork includes prints by William Kentridge. It is closed because of Covid – staff are working at the Nguni Pop-Up Café, near the car park, which opened in July. I can imagine it will re-open post pandemic, particularly for the Mining Indaba in Cape Town –  Anglo American guests were helicoptered to Vergelegen from CTICC).

Gardens and biodiversity

By the time the Phillips moved to Vergelegen the formal gardens were already in the old kraal ie the walled space behind the house which was used for livestock. Traces of the original octagonal wall were discovered and the present wall rebuilt on its foundations. Lady Phillips insisted it was tended by her English gardener, Bill (William) Hanson, who was persuaded to come to live in South Africa. Shrubs, trees and herbaceous borders were planted in the style popular in England at the time. (The Barlows re-employed Bill Hanson!)

Five Camphor trees survived from ones planted in 1700 (a couple of these are in the picture above). They are thought to be the oldest in the country and so became a National Monument in 1942. (The camphor trees nearby are seedlings from these.)

Anglo American replanted all the gardens and continue to do so. They initially used landscape architects Ian Ford and Associates, then OvP Associates for the East and Rose Gardens. Now there are two/three contract individual landscape architects for specialist knowledge and projects. Penny Moir, who worked a OvP, is designing the new arboretum.

There are 17 themed garden areas (“rooms”) including formal and informal, indigenous and exotic, contemporary and traditional. The East Gardens have modern lines being near the new buildings, yet are reminiscent of a VOC garden grid (similar to part of Company’s Gardens which OvP designed).

The camellias are SA’s first and only International Camellia Garden of Excellence. There are 39 in the world; this is the only one in Africa and the only other one in the Southern Hemisphere is in Australia! It is the focus on our tours by Alistair Tite (see image) who lives close by and propagated many of the camellias here. His friend is the horticulturist, Richard Arm, who is the Gardens Manager (plus two recently qualified horticulturists).

Anglo American have ambitious and long term eco-sustainability aims for most of the farm (2 240 of the 3 000 hectares). A landmark was in 2018 when large tracts became a nature reserve after 14 years of alien clearing.

The Nguni cattle and Bontebok, have recently been joined by five Eland antelope (introduced as part of a doctoral thesis).

Vergelegen became a Provincial Heritage Site in 2019.

100 000 visitors annually, pre Covid.

Images below: octagon shaped fountain, Alistair Tite with a Culture Connector in the main camellia garden and artist’s impression of the slave quarters

Further reading and info sources

The exhibition panels of the brilliant social history exhibition at Vergelegen (1741 map below is from here)

No Ordinary Woman: The Life and Times of Florence Phillips by Thelma Gutsche and

Marianne Gertenbach, John Rennie and Dr Timothy Visser

SA Property News: R20 million facelift for Vergelegen wine estate (2011?)

Marion Whitehead’s Heritage Gardens of Vergelegen (2016)

Ray Hartley SA’s corrupt government rigs tenders and enriches a tiny elite. The year is 1699 (2017)

Exploring the Cape Winelands by Doris Jansen & Kay Leresche (2013)

Thanks to Marina Richards for help with research and editing this.

I have more info if you would like it?

Feedback welcome,

Kate x