Garden Visit: Withycombe, Mount Wilson
“Withycombe found us,” says Barbara Landsberg. “We didn’t go looking for it, we didn’t plan for it. It just happened!” The story of how it happened is rather wonderful, and began over 30 years ago with a bunch of young twenty-something women in a beaten up old car on a cold winters night.
Back in 1987 Barbara had a bunch of friends from the UK visiting her. One of them had a cousin in Mount Wilson, a small town in the Blue Mountains of New South Wales, who’d invited them up for the weekend. So, they jumped into Barbara’s car and hit the road.
Barbara had no idea of where Mount Wilson was, and ended up getting lost and arriving hours late.
I remember looking at the house as we drove through the entrance gates thinking ‘Oh my God, this is one of the most beautiful places I’ve ever seen. Who owns something like this?!’”
Following that first visit, Barbara became firm friends with the then owners Helen and Gary Ghent. She took her husband up there when they were first going out, and their wedding present from Gary and Helen was a week at Withycombe!
“It became a sanctuary and a very special place for us well before we had any idea we would own it,” says Barbara. “As we became closer with Helen and Gary my family started coming up to visit too. My mum had her 60th birthday at Withycombe and my sister had her 40th here. As a family, it just became part of our lives.”
Barbara and her husband and two young children then moved to England for a few years. Each time they returned to Australia they would visit Mount Wilson. “I’ve got pictures of my children – who are now 21 and 20 – sitting on the kitchen bench aged one or two. They’ve known Withycombe since they were born,” Barbara says. In 2001 Helen and Gary phoned and said they were ready to sell the property. “And there we were,” says Barbara.
We were entirely unprepared to buy it but it was too important to us as a family, so we just found a way to make it work.”
When Barbara told her parents of her purchase, they initially thought she was mad, but her recently retired father was quick to come up with a plan – “dad blew me completely away by suggesting he and mum move up there to help us look after it,” she says. They did, and are still there today.
Withycombe is one of the original properties of Mount Wilson. The house was built between 1878 and 1880 for the family of politician and pastoralist George Henry Cox. It was purchased by Ruth and Victor White, parents of Nobel Prize winning novelist Patrick White, in 1921. Originally named Beowang, an indigenous name for the tree ferns covering the property, Ruth White changed the name to Withycombe, her maiden name, and removed many of the tree ferns….
Withycombe has changed hands many times since Patrick White roamed the property as a teenager in the 1920s. Apparently the only area relatively untouched since the late 1800’s is the formal lawn at the front of the house, framed by a huge Spanish oak tree (Quercus falcata). “Each successive owner has changed the gardens at Withycombe, leaving a somewhat eclectic landscape with indistinct heritage,” says Barbara, a landscape designer with perhaps the greatest ever weekend project – developing and shaping a garden of the scale and historical value of Withycombe!
When Barbara and her husband first purchased the property, the garden was wild. “The garden was not Helen and Gary’s main focus, the house was,” says Barbara. “It was overgrown and begging for attention.” Joe, Barbara’s dad, spent the first few years on the chainsaw, removing dead trees and taming the overgrown eight-acre garden.
Since Barbara and her family’s custodianship there’s been many developments – a new tennis court, a vast lawn amphitheatre, rose gardens, vegetable beds, an orchard and more. The old parts of the garden have been loved, shaped and re-worked where required. It was these old bones that transfixed me during our visit.
The many narrow little pathways through wild expanses of hydrangeas, camellias, and azaleas, the layers of autumn canopy, and the desire to just see what’s around the corner could have occupied me for a week.
Its got a great heart of its own,” says Barbara when I mention my feelings about the garden. “That’s what we first fell in love with. Its definitely got a strong energy, and it’s very much itself.”
I couldn’t draw myself away from the garden at Withycombe. It has such an interesting feel. The house is grand from the outside and even more grand from the inside – the looseness of the garden really balances this. It’s big, meandering, and clearly a patchwork of different eras, ideas, and directions, yet it’s overall feel is absolutely inviting, modest, and intriguing. There’s something about old trees covered in moss and lichen that gets me every time.
And Withycombe’s future? I ask Barbara of her plans for it and she tells me emphatically she and her family aren’t going anywhere. Her focus lies firmly on the garden. “Our gift to Withycombe will be the revitalization of the garden,” she says. “Whilst there is still many years of work ahead of us, we’re starting to enjoy the slumbering garden awakened; of the same character but invigorated and extended, replanted, and energised.”