Vergelegen - Icon Of the Early Cape Farmsteads

Vergelegen - Icon Of the Early Cape Farmsteads

Résumé en français

Dansl’environnement naturel riche de la pointe sud de l’Afrique, une architecture vernaculairespécifique s'est implantée, marquée par des influences venues d’Europecentrale, d’Inde et d’Extrême-Orient. Un nouveau paysage culturel s’est ainsidéveloppé.

Avec leurs processusde cultivation, leurs maisons et dépendances implantées le long des cours d’eauau pied  des montagnes qui dominent enarrière-plan, ces premières fermes du Cap reflètent les modes de vies, detravail et d’agriculture de la population, dans leur contexte naturel, depuisles débuts de la colonisation au milieu du XVIIème siècle. Devenues desemblèmes et des modèles à suivre  cesfermes ont été ensuite réinterprétées et reproduites par d’autres domaineslocaux.

Vergelegen est un exemple pionnier et remarquable  de ces fermes idéales, voir idylliques, de parson intégration dans le paysage agricole et la conservation des élémentsd’origine qui souligne son histoire. Le domaine de Vergelegen a étédéclaré site du patrimoine provincial en octobre 2019 et a récemment étéproposée à l’inscription du patrimoine mondial de l'UNESCO. Cet article traitel’histoire du domaine et des récentes initiatives paysagères qu’il a connu.

Located in the Cape and set within a natural amphitheatre formed by the Hottentots Holland Mountains, enriched by various influences accumulated from Central Europe, India and the Far East, a specific vernacular architecture developed and a new cultural landscape evolved at Vergelegen. With patterns of cultivation, farmstead and out-buildings set along water courses and framed by mountains, these early Cape farmsteads reflect the patterns of human settlement, labour practices and agricultural activities on the natural landscape since colonisation in the mid-17th Century. These farms became great set pieces which later influenced other estates through reinterpretation and replication.

Vergelegen typifies the perception of the Historic Cape Farmstead as layers of landscape that have been retained and preserved over time. Recognised for its exceptionally high heritage value, the estate was declared a National Heritage Site in 2015. Furthermore, the 3020-hectare Vergelegen Estate represents and forms part of the Greater Cape Winelands, recently nominated for UNESCO World Heritage Site status. This paper reflects the history of the estate and recent initiatives.

1685 Simon van der Stel - Formation of the estate’s footprint

Vergelegen originated in 1685 when the Dutch East Indian Company (VOC) instructed Commander Simon van der Stel to build a second military outpost in the fertile Helderberg basin at the foot of the Hottentots Holland mountains. Simon personally saw to the proportional planning of the outpost according to “the rules of Mathematics and Architecture”.

On the banks of the Lourens River he designed a double wall fortress in an octagonal form with post house, wheat storage, cowsheds, orchards, and vegetable gardens. Unknown at the time, he set the geometry for his son, Willem Adrian, who was later to become his successor as the Cape’s third governor.

Veregelegen 1700 plan
Historic layout with Oranjerie

1700 Willem Adrian van der Stel – Setting the historic structural layout

In February 1700, Governor Willem Adrian van der Stel was granted 342 hectares but claimed 30,000 hectares, including the outpost structures. He named the property Vergelegen meaning ‘Far Away’, being a day’s ride on horseback from Cape Town which at the time was a mere refreshment station for passing ships.

His official brief was to promote settlement of the Free Burghers to encourage the production of vegetables in order to prevent scurvy prevalent on the VOC ships serving the spice trade between Europe and the East. A visionary by nature, Willem Adrian went beyond that. He set out to understand and explore the nature and possibilities of the soils and climate of this new land. Unlike the Free Burghers who simply imposed European crops and planting methods on the African soil, Willem worked systematically, recording his findings in a ‘African Gardener’s Almanac – a Guide for Farming in the Cape’ expressing opinions on horticulture, botany, forestry, and husbandry.

Historic Core Plan Circa 2018

He demolished the western and eastern walls of the octagonal fortress to make way for the Manor House and farmhouse symmetrically placed on axis at either end. Both sides of the doubled wall enclosure now contained pens for farm animals and defined the inner Orangerie octagonal in plan, in subsequent years to become known as the ‘Octagonal Garden’.

At every level of agriculture he planted trees – Camphors, Chestnuts and Oaks. He planted numerous vegetables also testing indigenous varieties and herbs. He laid out fruit orchards, orange groves and vineyards on the mountain slopes, experimenting and recording. He stocked grazing fields with cattle and imported sheep from Java for breeding experiments. He constructed reservoirs, dug irrigation channels and diverted the Lourens River to enable the complete geometric layout of the homestead.

Willem Adrian set out to test what the soil of Africa could viably support and in a short period of six years, he created both a private paradise for himself and the potential of something good for the community. Sadly, his expansive lifestyle as a farmer led to envy from the local Free Burghers who complained to the VOC leading to Willem’s dismissal as governor in 1706 and being ordered to return to the Netherlands.

Three years later Vergelegen was sold and divided into four separate farms. The core farmstead went through phases of decline under the Free Burgher owners, until the farm began to prosper again towards the turn of the 18th Century. In 1917, the Manor House was close to ruin when it became the property of Florence Phillips. She initiated the first major restoration of a Cape Dutch home, a pioneering example to others.

The farm too was given a new life, its land contoured, roads and canals rebuilt, and the foundations of van der Stel’s original Octagonal Orangerie was discovered. A new garden was laid out strengthening the visual approach to the manor house on the East West axis all within the confines of the historical octagonal enclosure. Roads were constructed and dams built. The vineyards were removed and replaced with mixed agriculture. In June 1941 ‘Punch Barlow’ acquired the farm and began farming by planting vines on a small scale.

1987 Anglo American farms (AmFarms) – 20th Century Interventions

In 1987, AmFarms bought the now 3,020 hectare property. Up to that time it was known as a private estate with public access by appointment only. Anglo’s vision of the farm to become Africa’s premier wine estate was underscored by the realisation that this man-made landscape is of great cultural, educational and recreational value, to be preserved for people to experience into posterity.

In developing the estate as an amenity accessible to the public, AmFarms adopted a holistic approach to understand the relationship between the homestead, the gardens, parkland and farmland and to consider the estate as a single entity as originally conceived by Willem Adrian in 1700.

AmFarm’s approach to cover all aspects of the farm was twofold:

  • Planned economic development of the farmlands, essential to reinforce the agricultural character.
  • Concentration on the historic core of the estate - the homestead and its parklands which are to become the focus for public enjoyment and education.

Their development strategy called for the appointment of an interdisciplinary team of experts in viticulture, architecture, landscape, and heritage, in collaboration with estate management.

Appointed in 1987 and for the following 23 years, the late Ian Ford, Landscape Architect, in conjunction with John Rennie, Architect, was involved in the restoration of Vergelegen’s historic core. At the time Ian commented that their approach was that a purist landscape restoration was not possible due to the numerous inputs from the various owners over the farm’s history of 300 years. Demolition and removal would have been blatant vandalism if a complete restoration of the 1701 plan was to be implemented. Retention of the best from all period principles was adopted, reflecting closely the period of architecture to which the gardens related. Typically building, walls and trees tended to divide the external spaces into precincts, thereby creating both generous and intimate spatial zones. This sequence of experiences was used as a design tool to reinforce areas of detail and complexity, contrasted with bold open spaces of great simplicity.

1993 Octagonal Garden Restoration

Restoring the well-known Octagonal Garden to the original Orangerie was not feasible as it would have required the removal of a row of mature Camphors aligning the North-South axis. A herbaceous border of over 300 shrub varieties has replaced the formal beds, now reinforcing the actual pathway approach to the homestead. To the East the pathway extends beyond the garden gates for 350 meters. A layered avenue of trees leads the eye to the distant Hottentots Holland mountains – much as Willem Adrian would have imagined his farm laid out on the principles of geometry, symmetry, and proportion. These principles pertain to the Octagonal form and cross axes and became the spatial informants in structuring the ongoing regeneration actions on the farm. The octagon geometry has endured as an iconic symbol for Vergelegen. It is replicated in the layout of various formal gardens and in the estate’s logo.

2010 Continuity versus Contrast

The landscape framework of long tree-lined vistas, combined with carefully composed spatial order along the main routes of the various gardens, is now enhanced with improved legibility and cohesion. A series of 19 diverse gardens are linked along these routes, each one distinctly different from the other yet united by strong geometry and simple built forms. None of these gardens are visible at once but are linked as a series of landscaped rooms and are revealed as visitor’s transverse the estate.

In the design process, Vergelegen adopted the principle of “continuity versus contrast”; new buildings in the historic core are not to be copies of the past but clearly of the present, yet reflecting continuity in terms of scale, form and choice of materials. The same principle applies to the design of gardens and is best illustrated by the most recent work by OvP Landscape Architects as shown below.

Central core gardens and axis

2012 The East Gardens of Vergelegen – Gardens Extended

The formal gardens of Vergelegen’s historic core were extended in 2012 to include the stables precinct. The new ‘east gardens’ are placed strategically to align with restaurant and wine tasting buildings and with footpaths that provide opportunities to link back to the main historic axis, or beyond into the arboretum. This contemporary garden space does not compete with the primary historic gardens, but rather provides respite to the historic core and additional areas of interest for increasing numbers of visitors and their related hospitality needs.  

The provision of a maze, play area, and extensive agapanthus garden form the key elements of this garden, centred either side of the east-west axis that runs parallel with the historic geometries. Activities are carefully placed to ensure they do not impose on the sensitive nature of Vergelegen’s landscape. Patterns – both physical and symbolical are subtly experienced in alignments of paths, and planting, choice of plant and hardscape material, and shapes of various elements.

East Garden Concept Plan
Perspective drawing of the East Garden
Aerial view of the East Garden

Unlike the historic gardens, which are enclosed by mature trees, forests and tall werf walls, the east gardens open up to the natural landscape of the surrounding mountain amphitheatre. The majestic mountain vistas inherent to the historic setting are once again enhanced and celebrated.

2015 The Rose Garden - Revitalised

Tucked between the camphor tree forest and the great lawns of Vergelegen’s Manor House is the large Rose Garden. Upgraded and replanted in 2015, a traditional concentric layout included a central octagon shape in keeping with Vergelegen’s symbology. Planting of roses were arranged according to height and colour in a slightly more contemporary character. The standard block planting of colours was instead graded according to rosebush height from lowest at the centre to highest around the perimeter and overlaid by a ‘rainbow wheel’ colouring pattern. Arriving upon this clearing in the ‘forest’ is a striking colour display that adds to the intrigue of exploring the hidden garden rooms that are linked across the Estate.

Aerial view of the Rose Garden

2016 Vergelegen’s Arboretum – Expansion of the Treescape

Vergelegen has demarcated 60 hectares of land for the establishment of an Arboretum. Already over 1000 trees have been planted in the first phase, including the propagation of 110 Redwood saplings.  The vast size of the arboretum is divided into zones by concentric paths/ tree avenues that also represent a timeline of events on the farm from 1700.

The historic core sits comfortably at the edge, with key vistas stretching out and beyond. This is a long-term project that includes sourcing, growing and research into tree species from around the world. The arboretum project lends itself to the already recognised status of Vergelegen being legendary for its treescape and protected champion tree collection.

The Arboretum Concept Plan

2020 Vergelegen’s Natural Heritage – Rehabilitation Projects

As the estate is lauded for the exemplary way in which the Cape Dutch homestead and gardens are being preserved as a living heritage, its natural and environmental conservation is given equal recognition. In the light of global warming and the loss of biodiversity as a reality, it is encouraging to know that Anglo’s goal is to ensure that at least one third of the estate be transformed into a pristine example of the Cape’s environment. Considered the largest private conservation initiative in South Africa, over 2000 hectares of Vergelegen’s alien infested land has been cleared and rehabilitated with indigenous vegetation which acts as a natural filter boosting the water flow. The farm’s assets now include 80 hectares of wetlands fed from the mountain range catchment area – now supporting a thriving habitat for wetlands associated wildlife.

The Lourens River is the only South African river that has heritage status as a Protected Natural Environment, of which 10 km crosses the estate and is managed by Vergelegen. This conservation initiative has helped to clean up pollution and encourage biodiversity.

Don Tooth, former MD of Vergelegen; on the declaration of the estate as a Provincial Heritage Site on October 28, 2019, stated,

“From the start, the purpose was to restore and develop this historic jewel to reach its full glory and to open to the public for all to enjoy. We are completing this circle today recognising that this heritage belongs to the nation.”


Ford, Ian. 1993 Restoration of Vergelegen. Parks and Grounds. No. 72.

Frazer, H. 2010. The Modern Wineries of South Africa.  Cape Town: Quivertree Publications.

Kench, John. 1981. Cape Dutch Homesteads. Cape Town: Struik Publishers.

Tooth, Don. 2005. Vergelegen: Environmental Excellence in the Making. Optima, Feb. 2005.

Winter, S. ‘Early Cape Farmsteads, World Heritage Site Nomination, Groot Constantia and Vergelegen: Integrated Conservation Management Plan’.  Accessed 24 February 2019,

Vergelegen. Accessed 21 February 2019,


Images provided by OvP