Hunte’s Gardens

Remember Brigadoon’ As portrayed on stage and screen, it’s a magical village in Scotland which emerges into the present dimension once every hundred years, and then recedes into the mists of time. When stumbled upon, it seems like a dream.

Approaching Castle Grant, at the edge of Barbados’s Scotland District, a ribbon of road runs between a canefield and a high hedge, the type that often conceals a historic house. If your car windows are open as you slow for the turn, you might well hear the voice of Callas or Domingo wafting through the great gates of the old plantation. It’s a Brigadoon moment. Stop there, and you’ll discover Hunte’s Gardens, where enchantment could hold you for hours.

The setting suggests an epic story whose theme is the inexorable cycle of growth and decay in the tropics.  Grand buildings are erected, only to be swallowed by greenery. Established in 1620 by a Scottish planter, Castle Grant plantation once encompassed the canefields you drove along to get here, and produced sugar syrup in its now mossy coral-stone outbuildings until the 1940’s.  Afterwards, some fields were devoted to breeding legendary race horses. Now, overgrown paths lead behind a nicely restored manager’s house to a flower farm and orchards beyond. You likely won’t see these, but the glimpses are intriguing. A large plantation house of uncertain vintage lies up the hill with a separate entrance, skirted by pig pens and old staff quarters in various states of repair.

The working entrance to the plantation yard has been transformed into a welcoming embrace, with urns atop the gateposts and a low serpentine wall of bricks. The 1917 iron weigh bridge now serves as a huge, historic welcome mat, and your passageway into Barbados’s Brigadoon.

The soaring music lures you inward, into the past, and through a microclimate of lushness. Species familiar to temperate zone dwellers have grown robust beyond their imagination. It’s nice to see the little plants we keep prisoners in our bathroom fully expressing themselves here, is how a Canadian tourist put it. ‘I’ve gone back in time,’ said another. ‘I feel I should be wearing a long dress and carrying a parasol.’

The atmosphere is theatrical. Stone lions laze in the shade, Adonis clutches his drapery, and a fat Buddha stretches toward a shaft of sunlight. Huge, organically-shaped metal chandeliers hang over walkways and in farm buildings reclaimed from dereliction. Turn and find yourself at the gaping entrance to the centuries-old coral-stone syrup factory, now filled with pots, shrubs, buckets of cut flowers, wardrobes, and worn couches.

Someone will appear and lead you through a profusion of greenery and blossoms to the rim of the garden’s centrepiece, a round sinkhole plunging 30 or more feet into the coral-limestone cap of the island. The sides of this natural basin have been grooved into narrow terraces spilling with blooms and shrubs. Everywhere, the density of growth and the variety of shapes, textures and colours are amazing.

To walk a metre in Hunte’s Gardens and absorb everything in it induces a kind of time warp. Tender portulaca clings to some slopes, while tufts of heather cascade over others. Velvety, almost black elephant ears look solemn compared to the gaudy red torches of flowering bananas. Orchids display their range of character: prim, provocative, delicate, and tenacious.  Bright bougainvillea shines like smiling friends in a sea of strangers. Giant ginger lilies loom overhead. Philodendrons scale towering trunks. Humongous ficus trees display the vine-like beards for which the island is named. Waxy anthuriums with their phallic stamens spring from coconut hulls like flashers in bright raincoats. Red-stemmed palms rise decorously from urns. Bromeliads cup water around their blooms. Ferns unfurl in shady spots.

Choose your spot and sink into one of the chairs that are placed in secluded clusters. Let your eye roam up to spot the birds swooping in the tall trees, or perhaps a monkey at the edges of the day. Listen to the harmony of leaves and birdsong in the breeze, underscored by Baroque melodies or operatic arias. Let the moments unfold. A tray of flowers will materialise, and on it are your drinks. Don’t let the teapots fool you. What’s inside might be tea or top-ups for seductive rum punch. Either way, say ahh.

You hear voices. Is that an overgrown elf holding forth on some subject, or the owner himself in battered shorts and an old straw hat’  A bit of both, really. That’s Anthony Hunte, who has ploughed his latter years into nurturing exotic plants and intensifying the natural beauty around the property.

Mr. Hunte is another of the realm’s attractions, a talkative and knowledgeable eccentric whose mind seems to work like one of those electronic games where burrowing animals pop maniacally out of a matrix of holes.  When he’s not mixing potting soil, arranging flowers, planting, or charming his customers, he could just as well be scheming up donkey polo or beetling around his magic kingdom sprinkling fairy dust in its crannies. ‘My dyslexia makes me disorganised,’ he says happily to a visitor. ‘I’m so glad you came to distract me from my bookwork.’ And then he’s off on a number of topics-how dung baskets are made from the very vines you see here, Barbadian history, celebrity visitors, or whether plants have intelligence. ‘I hope not. They’d be screaming,’ he says.

He points out a hummingbird, and plucks the flower that it has visited. He passes it around and explains, ‘The hummingbird sticks his long beak in the opening. Then, see these holes- That’s where the yellow breast has punctured it to feed. And afterwards the ants come for the rest. So this flower is actually a restaurant. Isn’t it wonderful’

Born and raised in the overseer’s house at Balls Plantation, where the Barbados Horticultural society is now located, young Anthony’s job was to watch for cane fires and ring the bell. He started his first garden there as a child, and eventually moved on to open a shop. In 1990, he acquired the house, outbuildings, and remaining attached acres of Castle Grant, where he started a plant nursery and then began developing his dream garden. Ten years later, he was awarded the BCH, Barbadian Centennial Honour, for his contribution to horticulture.

Anthony may invite you to take refreshments on his veranda, built onto the stables that he converted a few years ago, to live in. The coral stone has been exposed and cleaned, the floors redone in lustrous green heart, and jalousied french doors installed to let the outdoors in. Oriental carpets, fine old clocks, assorted antiques and plenty of local art adorn the little sitting room and spacious veranda. You can see why he prefers to live here on the rim of the basin rather than in the big house. The view into the treetops and down the flowery slopes is spectacular, and consummate peace prevails.

Jovially, he may invite you to buy the plantation itself. Before you recover your senses, you may want to, and just stay in Hunte’s Gardens, Barbados’s Brigadoon, for the next hundred years.

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