The Malta Independent 5 December 2023, Tuesday
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Marie Benoit Diary: The gardens of Villa Frere: After a storm, a rainbow

Marie Benoît Sunday, 25 September 2022, 09:02 Last update: about 2 years ago

I am an admirer of Villa Frere, of its creator the Rt Hon John Hookham Frere, and now of the handful of volunteers who are slowly trying to return the gardens and the buildings into something of their former glory. My hat off to the person who started it all, Perit Edward Said. The more awful blocks of flats are built, mostly by pulling down houses of character, the more I believe in restoration. Perit Said is above all a dedicated restoration architect.


I have for a long time been an admirer of Hookham Frere, the Cambridge scholar, diplomat and poet, who had retired to Malta and lived here for 25 years.  His diplomatic career more or less ended after the Battle of Corunna and the disastrous British retreat from Madrid to Corunna where Sir John Moore was killed. This reflected badly on Hookham Frere, who had advised the British to withdraw. I recall the beautiful poem by Charles Wolfe The Burial of Sir John Moore after Corunna (1817). I am sure many of you may have studied it at school as I had, when, at the time, it meant nothing to me. Not a drum was heard, not a funeral note/As his corpse to the rampart we hurried; Not a soldier discharged his farewell shot/O'er the grave where our hero we buried. What a magnificent poem, so full of emotion. Do read it. You will find it on internet.  But Hookham Frere was so much more than a diplomat. What he did for Malta and the Maltese is truly commendable. But this is not the place to discuss it.

The original land of the gardens he built was "little more than a bare, rocky hillside sloping down to the sea, a wilderness of walls, prickly pears and Aruba trees."  Josephine Tyndale-Briscoe, who through her grandmother, Dolores Baxter (née Price),  has a strong connection to Villa Frere, has written an interesting book about it, Villa Frere: A lost Maltese Garden Rediscovered, which is available at Villa Frere. She writes: "Although an architect must have been employed, there does not appear to be a record of the design of the gardens but there is a map showing the layout. The land was levelled into many terraces, and on each level there were several water cisterns and wells (possibly as many as 13) to catch the water in the winter rains, and to provide irrigation during the dry summertime, all with elaborate carved stone well-heads. Recently one of the larger cisterns has been excavated and appears to have been very well built and still intact. A vast sum of money must have been spent on creating this British style garden of gardens, which includes orange groves, Dutch tulip garden, flower terraces, a vegetable garden, a sundial garden, a reed-filled fountain, pergolas and terraces and a large garden temple. Upon inheriting his father's wealth, John Hookham Frere was a rich man, with obvious good taste and generosity."

I spoke to Fernando Mifsud who together with his brother and father are at Villa Frere regularly. Other volunteers you see in the photos are George (Fernando's father), Steve, Andrea, Fran, Marianne, Edward, Sean. They are working on several restoration projects  but their main project is Villa Hay the summer house of Lady Erroll, wife of John Hookham Frere. Says Fernando: "After years of neglect and almost completely in ruins, in the last year we replaced the ceilings. We have replaced whatever needed to be replaced at roof level. My father George and his assistant Steve finishing the job just a few days ago."

Apart from helping with the upkeep of the gardens the lady volunteers at Villa Frere helped George Mifsud and his assistant Steve with the painting of the original apertures after Mr Mifsud restored them. They are also working on getting the building waterproofed and are about to apply the deffun on the roofs of the building. Deffun, Fernando explains is the old way of making roofs waterproof. Work has been done on a boundary wall which is partly finished.

And so it goes on. Such a vast undertaking, so brave and generous that so many should give their time to restore this historic villa which has been neglected and vandalised for too long.

Villa Frere is again open to the public next Sunday, 2nd October,  after the hot summer months. I visited with my sisters a few months ago, not for the first time. Getting there by car is easy. You go to the entrance of St Luke's Hospital and then follow the signs. Parking is never a problem. We took some simple eats with us and a thermos flask of tea. There is plenty of seating and the surroundings are an oasis of green, what with the trees and flowers and old stones which have much to say. It is open from 9 to 5pm. Don't be alarmed if you suddenly hear a helicopter landing. There is a helipad adjacent to the garden. I wonder what the great Hookham Frere would have thought of this. Among many distinguished persons who visited was Queen Mary. Entrance is only Euros 5. Do go and have a look. You will love it for it has retained some of its patina of age.

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