Wild living, lightning and sorrow in the Garden of the Ancestors

Wild living, lightning and sorrow in the Garden of the Ancestors
Tana’s scrapbooks. Photo: Kings Walden

The women of Billo Tooley’s dynasty started to garden and with the burgeoning gardens came the food, dramatic feasting and furious champagne drinking. Now a luxury lodge, Kings Walden Manor and its dramatic and eccentric history has been home to the Hilton-Barber clan since 1904.

The hills before me were aflame. Fiery orange light and bright bougainvillea blazed in the sunset. Bridget arrived and we drove right into the inferno, through it and up, up above the earthly heat of an end of a day, to rare, deepening coolth on a fountain garden plateau.

My dramatic introduction to Kings Walden, in Tzaneen, was appropriate. Here there is and has always been either delicious or dreadful drama.

It was named by Bridget Hilton-Barber’s grandfather when he’d bought the farm just after the turn of the century before last. King’s Walden was the name of his Hertfordshire home village, where his parents ran the royal estate, more parkland than garden. Here, near Agatha, in the southern part of Africa, he began to grow food, all of it exotic. He planted oranges and granadillas, litchis and pecan nuts, avocados, tomatoes.

The seeds of deliciousness were planted. Seeds of tragedy would take root too.

It’s that thrilling, gooseflesh producing, when I stand on what is now a smooth lawn that runs to the edge of the escarpment, looking out to the magic Wolkberg, over a great, green and fruitful valley. But I am by no means the first.

Ess Dickson, a 1930s journalist from Johannesburg, had walked over from her neighbouring sister and brother-in-law’s house. She’d gasped at the view and, sipping a sherry from crystal, sampling refreshments from silver plates, had famously declared with gooseflesh on her arms, to her tall, 20-years older host, “Oh, it’s so beautiful here, I never want to leave.”

Equally famously, Billo replied to the woman he had just met, “Marry me and you’ll never have to.”

Ess had truly felt a garden coming on, her green fingers tingling to fill the spaces among all the lush greenery with fiery orange and red-hot blooms.

The two stood on this plateau before there were gardens, under the now-symbolic tree, in the days before it was struck by sorrow and lightning because of what the ancestors already knew.

Within a year the wedding champagne was drunk here too. Ess built the first little garden walls and started planting brightness. She installed a fountain with a lion, the first of a great pride of garden lions to come.

Often present were Ess’s sisters. Petie was still living next door and there was Lana, a thoroughly modern, cigarette-in-a-long-holder-smoking concert pianist, whose adorable, curly-haired terrier was an important part of her performances, at the SABC or elsewhere in the world.

They were to become extended-family ancestors and they filled the gardens with colour and the glasses with more champagne. Parts of the gardens are dedicated to them and the ensuing ones. Bountiful meals were taken overlooking the valley, toasts made to the mountains.

Billo and Ess’s child was born. To be the tall, wild, wilful and lovely Tana, now six years deceased.

I look curiously at her pictures on the ancestor-wall on my way to the sitting room, where her very husband, Bridget’s dad, writer and publisher David Hilton-Barber, is having a glass of wine with his now-wife, Trudy. The sitting room is also a kind of library. This family is literary, having started with Ess, precociously feminist for her time. The bestseller among Bridget’s own books, The Garden of my Ancestors, revolves around Kings Walden, the guesthouse now run by Bridget and her remaining brother, Brett.

I am merely here to find out what a Kings Walden feast is.

It’s a cool evening up here in the gods and we eat indoors, in the dining room or restaurant, looking out at the garden stage that has been the setting for so many ancestral comings and goings, wonderful meals, lightning and other moonlit nights.

One moonlit night long ago, Billo slipped away. It wasn’t unexpected, just dreaded. Essie grabbed a bottle of his whisky and wandered out into the night, to be found among the flowers the next morning by her brother-in-law who’d had a crush on her from the day he first saw her, not unlike Billo had. He’d wasted no time on waking her with his kiss. After the funeral, Lana came to stay and, for comfort, they dressed in their most outrageous clothes, played music and danced, smoked and drank champagne, punctuating events by flinging the glasses wildly into the fireplace every now and then to commemorate Billo.

On this moonlit evening we drink wines and talk and talk and drink more wine and somewhere I appreciate how genuinely tasty and beautifully prepared is the four-course meal, how freshly interesting the salads, that the beef is exceedingly tender. But my taste memory fixes particularly on a tomato tart, which is a supremely juicy tarte Tatin, one where the tomatoes have blistered just a little and those caramelising juices begun seeping onto their buttery, puffed base. It also put me in mind of one of Billo Tooley’s colonial crops.

One of the signature dishes of Kings Walden features another of his crops, granadilla, in a cheesecake, sweet-sourly, creamily.

And his avocados were the favourite of his daughter, Tana. David, sitting opposite me this evening, would smoke his own trout in a little machine of his that ran on wood shavings and meths and Tana would dish up trout and everything else with avocado and drama, in the garden as a kind of table picnic. A starter for which she was known at their infamous parties consisted of half an avo per person, with soy sauce, lemon juice and crushed pecans, another of Billo’s crops. A Tana and David favourite dish for get-togethers was their Greek-style leg of lamb, basted in yoghurt while roasting. They called it The Lamb God Made in Anger, after the book, The Land God Made in Anger by Bridget’s godfather, John Gordon-Davis.

I watch David, trying to imagine him as the corduroy wearing half of the 70s-crazy, intellectual-liberal, debauched partying, rule-free-living couple with The Reputation. I suspect much of that wild panache was from the distaff side and it began with Ess and her sister Lala, continued with Tana. And the fireball has visited Bridget. The fire had fingered her mother and waited for her grandmother. These fireburst visitations in each case convinced these women to garden with a big G. Their proclivity for bacchanalian feasting and drinking seemed to come with that compulsion.

In the morning, after a lawn visit to the mountain, I meet Elizabeth Phokungwana the chef, trained by a Michelin chef inter alia. She’s Balobedu, not too surprisingly since the Mudjadji kingdom ruled by rain queens is just to the left of what can be seen from the plateau garden. It is one of the oldest-documented peoples, going back to pre-dynastic days in northern Africa. I am in awe, though a large part of it is because of that tarte Tatin, the pastry of which we discuss with excitement.

Kings Walden Kitchen staff: head chef Elizabeth Phokungwana, server and kitchen trainee Valentine Ramadzuli, owner and hotelier Bridget Hilton-Barber, chef Creasy Sono, F&B manager Lara Luis, server and kitchen trainee Walter Machethe. Photo: Kings Walden

In a glass room looking straight out at The Dead Tree, Bridget and I go through her mother’s own recipe books of clippings from magazines and newspapers, her own written ones, probably noted in the days when Tana and David ran Kings Walden as a guesthouse and maybe before. There is one for caviar pie that Bridget laugh-snorts over: “Typical!” Then she’s quiet and quickly saddens. Seeing her mother’s handwriting, so personal, has affected her. I see her later, cheery in the gardens. But what we’d noticed among the papers and ingredients before she left me with them was a receipt for a picnic. A Kings Walden picnic. Our eyes had locked. Of course. A feast of a picnic.

From a clear and calm sky on the night on which Essie died, the Kings Walden tree was visited and struck to the death by an enormously wild bolt of surprise lightning. It had been Tana’s turn to remove Essie’s champagne glass and do the flinging to commemorate her mother.

We plan The Feast of Kings Walden, a decadent sort of picnic, as Bridget and I walk the succession of gardens. It’s for the next day. I’m leaving after that. It seems to make so much sense. This family has been having outdoor food and drink celebrations since the day Billo and Ess met. All the family photographs are taken in one part of the gardens or another. The ultimate picnic photograph, Bridget believes, is one of her mother, drunk and delighted, where she almost becomes the picnic. It was taken one party night on the lawn after a guest had offered to take some plates through to wash. Tana laughed, crying, “We don’t do any washing up!” throwing the food plates onto the lawn, where the dogs and cats instantly approved of the notion, then grabbing two passing chickens before throwing herself on the lawn among them all.

Many Belgians, “for some reason”, says Bridget, stay at Kings Walden. I’d noticed that and a young Belgian boy had presented her with his artwork of a giraffe oddly surmounted by the dead tree, last night. But by day locals and other travellers pop in for chef Elizabeth’s cheesecake and pastries or they want to have lunch “somewhere outside”, when a choice of platters of very local produce and Kings Walden’s own breads and rolls are offered anywhere in the gardens.

A vegetarian spread. Photo: Kings Walden

So many deaths, like Bridget’s well-known brother Steven and then his son, so many lovers and partners, relatives and important characters have had so many benches, fountains, lions, even steps and whole gardens dedicated to them by Tana in these Kings Walden gardens. Some of the gardens are of Essa’s fiery sort but there is a white garden, water gardens, an Italianate garden, a rose garden and the Bibighar Garden, which I love most. It’s cool, blue-flowered and mysteriously scintillating with water that seems to run to the edge of the escarpment. It was named not for any rape or massacre, of course, but for the courtesans’ gardens in Paul Scott’s Raj Quartet. The Kings Walden geese gagglette loves it too.

In the morning it’s raining softly and mistily while I breakfast looking at the valley from where so much of the ingredients and food come. This honey, which I love more than any before it, is from “the macadamia and honey man”; a woman in Tzaneen sells the eggs. The bacon comes from Mokopane, fruit juices and yoghurts from Ofcolaco’s Allegraine Dairy outside Tzaneen. The rhubarb and fig jams are both made here. Plenty of avocados grow down there.

Cheese platter selection. Photo: Kings Walden

By picnic time it’s raining really hard. Perhaps we won’t be spreading blankets and lolling on any lawn. Still there’s nothing to stop my appreciating what would have been my best part of the Feast of Kings Walden anyway, the cheese platter section. It includes my favourite cheese in South Africa, Wegraakbosch’s Mutchli from misty Haenertsburg very close by, intriguingly semi-sour though firmly rich, with its funny, puzzling element of flower petals. Clustered together are goats-cheese balls from another cheesery, Klippiesveld, near Polokwane, home-pickled olives, artichoke hearts, freshly made guacamole, baba ganoush and hummus, with chef Elizabeth’s rosemary and sea salt ciabatta. The champagne is here. It’s only really the sun and the full-blanketedness missing from a real picnic feast. Anyway, this is just the cheese part of it.

The Feast of Kings Walden. Photo: Kings Walden

On my last early morning I pick across the still-damp lawn for a farewell interaction with the mountain. I now feel I understand something of the meaning of ancestral fire here and why food and elated celebration are dramatically employed with such enormous deliciousness in the face of tragic contrasts. There is a row of tiny clouds across the Wolkberg, a dotted line. I think I know what that means for me. DM

Kings Walden Garden Manor, Agatha –


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