Jonathan Chancellor is one of our authors. Jonathan has been writing about property since the early 1980s and is editor-at-large of Property Observer.

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Jonathan Chancellor

5 September 2014

Retford Park and Markdale: Glorious gardens to thrive beyond Open Gardens' demise

Retford Park and Markdale: Glorious gardens to thrive beyond Open Gardens' demise

After 27 years of opening private gardens to the public, Open Gardens Australia has announced that its present season would be its last.

Open Gardens Australia started in Victoria before going interstate and has been behind the opening of almost 20,000 private gardens across Australia to the public.

In its heyday more than 800 gardens opened annually, but just under 500 gardens will be open this season.

Only last week Australia Post announced that it would be featuring five beautiful private gardens from Open Gardens Australia in a new stamp issue.

There were five domestic base rate (70c) stamps and products available, although the website indicates that they are currently out of stock.

Our shocked and saddened property contrarians Jonathan Chancellor and Margie Blok have been to many of them - certainly never taking unauthorised plant samples - and now nominate their favourite garden tour.


It has to be Retford Park, established by Samuel Hordern in 1887.

James Fairfax now is the keeper of the English park and garden that features magnificent trees, mature shrubberies and hedged garden rooms, all sustainably managed using organic principles.

Rhododendrons and azaleas at their peak in October. Century old bunya bunyas, redwoods and oaks impressed. I recall the more freshly planted Wollemi pines.

There's an impressive collection of classical and contemporary sculptures and that marvelled Guilford Bell swimming pool pavilion.

One later occasion on a private visit, Jeffrey Smart was there strolling the grounds. Sadly no painting ever emerged to immortalise the pavilion.

Of course as I've previously reported, the philanthropic former newspaperman James Fairfax intends to gift his historic Retford Park estate in the NSW Southern Highlands.

Its envisaged the Italianate 1887 residence will sit within a protected 32-hectare heritage curtilage.

It will be preserved in perpetuity for the community with some funds from the neighbouring prestige residential development being directed into a trust which will pay for the long-term upkeep of the home and gardens.

The gifting won't take place until subdivision sales take place. I notice they are progressing quite well.

The Old South Road property, which sits on the southern edge of Bowral’s rapidly suburban expansion, has long sat on about 100 hectares including the land now zoned for subdivision.


Under the proposal, the 29-hectare eastern part of the estate has been subdivided into rural-inspired lots ranging from 8,000 square metres to four hectares lots.

The philanthropic former chairman of the ailing publishing company that bears his family name, first advised he would bequeath Retford Park for the benefit of the public in an article written by me in 2009 in the Sydney Morning Herald. It was his idea for at least three decades.

Retford Park has been the country home of the arts patron since he paid £15,000 in 1964 for it on a then four-hectare holding.


Retford Park, with an Italianate revival-style mansion, dates back to the 1880s when it was the summer retreat of the retailing Hordern family

"I think Retford Park is an important part of the heritage of the Wingecarribee Shire area and provision has been made in my will for the house and the immediate surrounding land, including the garden, to be left in trust to be viewed by future generations," Mr Fairfax told me in 2009.

Listed on the register of the national estate since 1980, Retford Park takes its name from the village in Nottinghamshire, the northern England town from where Anthony and Ann Hordern immigrated in 1825.

The grounds have many heritage oaks, an enduring association with the Hordern's retailing business, whose emblem was an oak tree under which were the words: "While I live, I'll grow".


It was first sold after Anthony's great-grandson, Sir Samuel Hordern, died in 1956, leaving an estate of $279,000. It was briefly owned by the cattle stud operator King Ranch (Australia), of which Edwina Hordern's husband, Peter Baillieu, was managing director.

In his 1991 book, Regards to Broadway, Fairfax recollected he'd had no plans to buy a country house. "But chatting to Peter Baillieu at a cocktail party in December 1963, I learned that Retford Park and 10 acres [four hectares] of land were to be sold." 

It occurred to James that it might be a suitable place for his mother to stay on her annual six month visits from England.

Fairfax, the eldest son of the late Sir Warwick Fairfax and his first wife, Betty Wilson, then set about regularly buying adjoining rural land.

He also set about enlivening the house. 

"When my offer of £15,000 for the house and 10 acres with an option to buy another 10 in three years was accepted, I went into the usual ‘What on earth have I taken on?’ syndrome, but soon recovered as I got involved in the redecoration which was being done by Leslie Walford," he recalled to Sue Rosen in 2011.

"Some six months later, in the winter of 1964, I commissioned Donald Friend to paint a mural in the dining room," he said.

Leslie Walford, who died earlier this year, said in a 2011 interview with Rosen that he recalled flying up to Mittagong with James to inspect the house.

His first impressions of it was "the garden choking the house".

"The house was a sort of cow-pat colour, a very unappealing colour. It had thick walls and narrow long slit windows and a tower, a rectangular piece of work with lots of frilly balconies, cast-iron lace and a pretty porte cochere. It had some delicate prettiness added to the strength of the architecture … it was a wonderful looking house."

Colour photos courtesy of Highlife Magazine, which reports on life in the Southern Highlands of Australia.

Margie Blok has her say on the next page. Please click below.