I am a sucker for a good love story and this one is worthy of a Hallmark movie. In the years leading up to the Civil War, an enterprising young Englishman, Godfrey Barnsley, arrived in Georgia from Liverpool, amassed a fortune and wooed a Savannah belle named Julia.
They married and in the 1840s he began construction of an Italianate mansion, Woodlands, as a gift to his beloved. Alas, as almost never happens in Hallmark movies, but happened all too often in real life, Julia died before it was finished.
A grieving Godfrey stopped construction, but was persuaded to resume it after visiting the site, where in something more reminiscent of the SyFy channel than Hallmark, he felt her presence telling him to finish the house and live in it with their children.
He did just that — building a magnificent mansion, and adding a formal English-style garden, enclosed by yews and box hedges, and filled with roses, his beloved’s favorite. At one time, the garden was known as the rose showplace of the South.
Julia’s ghost, however, was not to rest easy as during the Civil War, Woodlands was the site of both a battle and devastation by Union troops billeted there. After the war, Godfrey and Julia’s daughter — also named Julia and possessed of such fierce determination that she would have made Scarlett O’Hara seem a shrinking violet —— brought the estate back to life, at least for awhile.
Despite Julia’s efforts, over the years the mansion deteriorated, and today all that is left are romantic ruins which put me in mind of Kenilworth in England, and the still beautiful (and carefully tended) gardens.
I learned Godfrey and Julia’s remarkable story from Clent Coker, Barnsley’s resident historian and museum curator, on one of the history tours he offers guests. A sprightly gentleman of indeterminate age, he has a full head of white hair, rosy cheeks and a passionate love for Barnsley and those who lived there.
Coker’s tour would be fascinating at any time, but I’m visiting when the gardens and ruins are decorated for the holidays.
The shrubs and trees are draped with multi-colored lights that on a moonless night sparkle like diamonds and twinkle like stars. It’s a beautiful sight, but it’s the imaginative way the ruins have been decorated that is the real treat.
In roofless rooms, Christmas trees give off a glow, and mantles are adorned with greenery, ribbons and wreaths. In an open air room overlooking the gardens, a giant tree and a silver sleigh complete with prancing reindeer is the focal point.
With more than one million lights around the property, to say that it exudes holiday magic is an understatement.
Barnsley Beyond the Gardens
In 1988, Prince Hubertus Fugger of Bavaria — with a look toward diversifying his American portfolio, but with a genuine love and appreciation for Southern culture as well — purchased the 3,300-acre property in the foothills of the Blue Ridge Mountains, 60 miles north of Atlanta.
With the benevolent spirit of Godfrey to guide him, he set about transforming the property to pay homage to the original owner’s vision. Thirty-six Gothic-style cottages and villas, all individually designed and decorated, line “village-y” streets and are surrounded by groves of trees. Guest amenities range from front porches with rocking chairs to fireplaces in the living room (and a staff member to light them whenever you want).
It’s tempting to just come here and sit, either in the rocking chairs or in front of the fire, but the resort provides active guests with plenty to choose from — hiking and biking trails, 10-acre lake for fishing and canoeing, horseback riding in the surrounding forest, 18-hole Fazio golf course, 28-station sporting clays course, and an 1,800-acre hunting preserve offering seasonal hunts for quail, dove, turkey and pheasant.
After a day of physical activity, you’re bound to need pampering, so a visit to the spa is a must. Designed to resemble a carriage house, it has 10 rooms and a full menu of services. I tried one of the signature offerings, a lavender relaxation massage, but I must admit I was curious about something called the Tiger Shell massage. Next time.
If there is one area that Barnsley Resort is doubling down on it’s food and beverage services. Under the direction of new dining manager Jon Mattson and his staff, the dining outlets — Woodlands Grill, Rice House and (in the summer) Beer Garden offer menus stocked with plenty of southern staples.
Breakfast at the English hunting lodge-inspired Woodlands Grill — either inside or on the screened porch overlooking the golf course — will have you set for the day, especially if you opt for the Cathead Breakfast biscuit (big enough for two) and the Logan Turnpike Loaded Grits (enough to feed a family of four).
Dinner courses are equally magnanimous; the mouth-watering lobster appetizer is large enough for an entrée. Tip: for extra ambiance, try to book a table in front of the fireplace.
In addition to trying all the restaurants, there are private dining and drinking experiences that guests should be sure to arrange. One is a cooking demo and lunch in the Rice House, a restaurant in a 19th century farmhouse.
My friend and I were treated to a three-course lunch. First came cast-iron cornbread, served with Sea Island red peas from South Carolina and Preacher Ham gravy. That was followed by an entrée of Muddy Pond Sorghum Lacquered Duck Breast with spiced cranberry-sorghum reduction and roasted winter vegetable salad with warm duck vinaigrette, and the dessert course of Appalachia Apple Crumble with burnt sugar ice cream and salted sorghum caramel.
You should also sign up for a private al fresco cocktail/bourbon tasting. Mattson sets up a long table atop Silverbell Hill overlooking the ruins, complete with the makings of the resort’s most creative cocktails. During my tasting, he made six — of which I drank five-and-a-half — probably not a good idea when you have a 90-minute horseback ride scheduled for the next morning.
That’s the thing — you don’t have to rush through anything here. Take your time to enjoy a solitary hike in the woods; a visit with the menagerie of farm animals (the goats are especially friendly and funny); a book in front of your fireplace, or this time of year, a glass of cheer while you toast s’mores over an open fire pit.
You may even sense the ghosts of Godfrey and Julia looking on with approval.
Patti Nickell is a Lexington-based travel and food writer. Reach her at firstname.lastname@example.org.