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February 4, 2023 – Published in Design & Decor Autumn-Winter 2022 issue
A stroll through the iconic Villa Frere and its tranquil gardens
Nestled behind a centuries-old villa along the Pieta seafront lies a beautiful garden with a fascinating history.
Once an extensive stretch of blossoming terraces and unique stone features, today the property encompasses a mere third of its original area of 14,000sqm. Nevertheless, the garden at Villa Frere retains its natural beauty and notoriety to this day.
The villa’s first residents in 1821 were the Rt. Hon. John Hookham Frere, his wife, Lady Elizabeth, and his sister, Susanna.
The illustrious English diplomat, poet, and scholar was a keen gardener. Frere was indeed the first to design the grounds, tasking three skilled architects to transform the rocky slope behind the villa into picturesque terraces with numerous follies and a grand Doric tempietto overlooking the property. A 70-foot-deep doline, or sinkhole, was discovered during these works, which was then connected to the garden via a tunnel.
After Frere’s death in 1846 and an assortment of tenants, the garden was severely neglected. When Captain Price, a gardening enthusiast himself, took up residence at the villa with his new wife, Josephine, in 1886, he set to work restoring it to its former glory – adding cacti and a succulent garden, a Japanese-style garden, and English gnomes – and elevating it to the level of a botanical garden.
These embellishments awarded the property with local and international recognition – in particular, a prestigious feature in renowned British magazine, Country Life, in 1930 – and encouraged several famous visitors, among them royalty. Sadly, neighbouring development and the extension of St. Luke’s Hospital through the years, as well as bombings during WWII, diminished the property to its current 5,000sqm, and it was once again abandoned for seventy years.
In 2013, a group of committed volunteers formed an NGO, Friends of Villa Frere, and took over the restoration of these historic gardens.
The aim of these enthusiasts is to rehabilitate the property whilst recovering as much of its original style as possible. Villa Hay, formerly Lady Elizabeth’s summer house, is presently undergoing renovation and weatherproofing of its ceilings, walls, and apertures. The gardener’s cottage is also being restored and now houses the NGO’s workshop on its ground floor. The upper floor will eventually be turned into the NGO’s headquarters.
Various original elements within the garden remain to this day, among them the neoclassical royal gazebo, featuring a ceiling rose and two marble plaques commemorating the visits by Queen Mary in 1912 and Queen Marie of Romania in 1924. Stone steps passing through this structure lead up to other areas of the garden. Two original wellheads in the form of a triangle over two columns have stood the test of time, along with the neoclassical tempietto and two large fountains. Among the newly added classic benches providing visitors with ample seating, three original stone benches also survived through the years.
Scheduled as a Grade 1 heritage monument, Villa Frere is truly a blend of architecture and nature.
In partnership with Heritage Malta, Friends of Villa Frere will continue to revive this charming property for the Maltese population to enjoy. Their wish is to continue reintroducing the variety of trees and plants according to its historical vegetation inventory.
Villa Frere is open to the public every first Sunday of the month, between 09.00-16.00 from October to May and 17.00-21.00 from June to September. A collection of succulents and other plants grown by the volunteers themselves is available for sale during these open days.
Follow the NGO’s Facebook page @friendsofvillafrere, as well as their Facebook group, Friends of Villa Frere.