When someone gets around to writing a version of Pride and Prejudice set in colonial Australia, in which Lizzie is the Australian-born daughter of convicts-made-good, and Darcy is an aristocratic settler with a massive land grant, I can help out. I have found the perfect location for the Bennett home, a lovely little red brick Georgian double-fronted villa, built by convict-made-good James Harper in the formerly booming town of Berrima.
The house was constructed in 1835 and 15 years later an advertisement described a “handsomely laid out” garden at the front, with flower beds and carriage road, and a large kitchen garden “well stocked with choice fruit trees” at the back. Sadly by the time the National Trust bought the property in 1978, there was nothing to be seen of either the handsome front or edible back.
After restoring the house, the National Trust rented it to a local landscape designer, Michael Jackman, who lived there for five years and laid out a garden in keeping with the early-19th century origins of the house. Since 2004, the garden has been looked after by volunteers, giving it a settled, lived-in look.
Lizzie Bennett and her sisters would feel right at home. The “handsome front” has been restored, with a long curving bed of heritage roses winding up the hill from the road, and visually connecting with another big rose garden and perennial beds off to the east. A hazel walk leads to a woodland and pond garden. There is a large, gently sloping lawn, behind the house a medicinal herb bed, a kitchen garden, an orchard – even a maze.
The maze, through dense walls of Leylandii cypress, is a major drawcard: it gives kids just the right level of terror as escape is not obvious; and is an irresistible lure to lovers, including those with an urge for a dramatic marriage proposal. Yes, The Bachelor was here.
A recent addition is a heritage camellia walk in a sheltered area at the northern end of the property. The walk features camellias bred or introduced to NSW during the 19th century. There is a particular focus on the “Belle Epoque” camellias developed in France and Belgium. Camellia Ark Australia has donated some very rare camellias including the gorgeous green-tinged white japonica “Spinola Alba”, which originated in Genoa, Italy. Others have been grown by the Southern Highlands branch of the Australian Garden History Society, which also donated funds for the walk’s paths and signage.
To catch the spring rose show, aim to visit in early to mid-November. And for the peak of the Bennet/Bonnet look plan a visit at the very beginning of spring next year when the great plum tree at the back of the house is in glorious all-over bloom and the sun shines through its branches to throw filigree shadows on the rosy red walls of the house. You would swear you saw the swish of an empire-line gown disappearing around the corner.
Harper’s Mansion, 9 Wilkinson St, Berrima is usually open the first and third weekends of the month, 11am-3pm. Picnics welcome. Check the National Trust site for COVID opening details.