Garden of my ancestors

A chat with Bridget Hilton-Barber this SA Garden Day.

Garden Day with Bridget Hilton-Barber

As a travel writer, Bridget Hilton-Barber has never been known to stay in one place for too long. That is, until she became the hotelier of Kings Walden Garden Manor, her family homestead and its spectacular 116-year-old Eden that overlooks some of the best views in Limpopo.

It was just over a year ago that Bridget gave up her career in journalism to run her family home, Kings Walden Garden Manor. The boutique hotel sits on a hilltop on the edge of the escarpment looking out onto the green swathes of avocado and macadamia plantations in Agatha, Limpopo.

As the former editor of South African Airways’ Sawubona in-flight magazine and a travel correspondent for Radio 702, Bridget was always on the move. She has travelled to over 50 countries, from Spain to Ethiopia and everywhere else in between, all while documenting her adventures through her wacky travel writing and within some of her nine books.

Today, she makes her way between local producers and suppliers across the valley to offer her guests a taste of what the province has to offer.

What does a visit to this part of Limpopo offer travellers during Garden Day and springtime?

The surrounding areas are fantastic in spring. The clivias, azaleas and cherry blossoms burst into bloom and there are beautiful spectacles to behold, all the way from Magoebaskloof to Agatha, which is where Kings Walden is situated. It’s a day-tripper’s delight, you can visit four or five different gardens in the area, eat good food, enjoy the scenery and just chill out.

Give us a quick timeline of Kings Walden’s gardens.

My grandmother, Elsie Margaret Tooley, started the gardens. Her family, the Dicksons, came from Scotland but she lived in Joburg at the time. In the late 1920s she came to visit her sister who had married the entomologist living next door. She looked at the view, and said “Oh, it’s so beautiful. I never want to leave”. And my grandfather said, “Marry me and you can stay forever”. And so that’s how they met.

She was very influenced by an English gardener called Gertrude Jekyll. The garden was built in three layers that were supposed to represent a ship sailing out into the Limpopo Lowveld. We’re talking in the 1930s-1940s, during the pre-war jazz era. It was very White Mischief in its day with its tennis courts and gin and tonics. Our historic gardens feature fountains, romantic walkways, archways, secret hideaways and seasonal masses of colour.

Why is there such a big pride of (stone) lions in the garden?

Those are from when my mom, Tana Hilton-Barber, came along. She was mad about lions. Every time I came up from Joburg, she said, “Please just bring me another lion”. And they weighed a tonne, especially when I was in my little student car making my way through these mountain passes.

This is Steve the stoner – she says pointing out a particular lion as we walk through the garden – he has a very different expression. The others are all sorts of noble and Roman, he just looks like a party guy!

How are you trying to create a water-wise garden?

When I got here in January of last year, this garden had been completely neglected. I spent 18 months clearing and weeding. You couldn’t see any of this. So, these agapanthuses now become a sea of purple in summer. I’ve taken out about 30 non-indigenous trees. I’m trying to be water wise, not just politically correct. These yellowwoods are next, and I have one more jacaranda to go. Once it dries, we’ll use it as firewood for the fireplaces in our rooms and perhaps I’ll commission some local artists to make carvings and artwork from them.

How can day visitors best enjoy these historic gardens?

They can book a delicious country picnic basket that is made up of seasonal produce from our local suppliers to be delivered to their selected spot in the garden. Though the gardens are best enjoyed during the day, we also set up candle lit picnics on our lawn beneath Limpopo’s Lightening tree.

Otherwise, we always welcome visitors to come up for a stroll and to enjoy our fresh mountain air and glorious views looking out onto the avocado plantations and macadamia below. Afterwards, we can serve them lunch or dinner alongside a Dragon Fruit gin and tonic from the Tzaneen-based Old Packhouses Distillery or a local Zwakala beer.

And if they would like to stay the night, we have five garden-facing rooms in our heritage home that is now a four-star boutique hotel.

Give us an elevator pitch for your bestselling memoir that centres around the garden.

Sex, drugs and gardening. That’s the spirit of Garden of My Ancestors. It’s a story about our family farm set in the wild and misty reaches of Limpopo, where the garden is the central character. It is an African tale of my ancestors who settled here more than a century ago. White Mischief meets magic realism in its pages. Garden of My Ancestors is sad, tragic, funny and philosophical.

Which other gardens do you recommend that travellers visit while they are in the area?

Travellers should definitely go on a garden ramble through two of the area’s most prominent gardens. The 20-hectare Cheerio Gardens, famous for their outrageous spring show of azaleas and cherry blossoms and the magnificent Sequoia Gardens, which is famed for its autumn colours.

Bridget’s Tip:

Don’t head home before you visit one of our many local nurseries to buy an Impala Lily, which is indigenous to this area. | @kingswaldengardenmanor

Words and Photographs: Iga Motylska