05 Nov 2022 | 4 mins

‘I’m obsessed with beauty’: why Paul Bangay is selling Stonefields - AFR

‘I’m obsessed with beauty’: why Paul Bangay is selling Stonefields - AFR

Australia’s pre-eminent garden designer opens up about selling the country’s best garden – and why he’s never moving back to Melbourne.

Even seasoned real estate agents weren’t prepared for the response to the news renowned garden designer Paul Bangay had listed his beloved rural estate, Stonefields.

“The agent said ‘we just can’t work out what’s happening here – what is happening here?’ And I’m going, ‘I did warn you it would probably get a little bit of media attention’, and they said they’ve never seen anything like it,” says Bangay.

Located between Kyneton and Daylesford in Victoria’s Central Highlands, the 50 acre home has been listed through Michael Gibson at Forbes Global Properties, with an asking price of between $8 million and $8.8 million.

Purchased as cow paddocks in 2004, Stonefields now features a four-bedroom house, a 16-metre pool with valley views, a chef’s kitchen along with a separate guesthouse and office – all overlooking one of Australia’s best country gardens, complete with Harold, the roaming peacock.

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Bangay in the grounds of Stonefields: “I think it’s about how much people love gardens in Australia.” Image by Brendan McCarthy

“This was the first bit of land I saw, and I just drove my car, parked it where the house is now and looked at that view of the valley and thought ‘this is just perfection’ and bought it the next day,” says Bangay.

When Bangay shared his decision to sell, his Instagram account erupted, garnering around 11,000 “likes” and 500-plus well-wishes from garden lovers to high-profile Bangay devotees including media personalities Rebecca Maddern, Catriona Rowntree, and interior designers Steve Cordony and India Hicks.

For Bangay and husband Barry McNeill, the Stonefields social media love-in brought home just what the property means to the broader community.

“I think it’s about how much people love gardens in Australia. I mean gardens are really loved and to have a personality attached to that gives it double the appeal,” says Bangay.

For Bangay, his love of gardening has been life-long, and was sparked by his mother’s skill and encouragement. From the moment he “threw down some Yates kids seeds packet and watched them grow” in his Vermont home in Melbourne’s eastern suburbs, he knew dirt and design were in his DNA.

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The swimming pool at Stonefields.

At his academic father’s insistence, Bangay studied horticulture at Melbourne University. He later received a scholarship to travel Europe and the US.

In 2001 he was awarded the Centenary Medal for public design projects and in 2018 he received an OAM for service to landscape architecture. He has also published six garden design books (two of which are based on Stonefields) and more are in the works.

Why goodbye?

With the Packers and Myers on his client list, Bangay has been the toast of society garden design for almost four decades since opening a boutique nursery in Toorak in 1985. Now approaching 60, he believes he has one more garden to create.

“I always thought I’d be here for the rest of my life and hopefully die here” says Bangay, who concedes his drive to garden requires a blank canvas.

Forbes

The new owner might be an owner-occupier or use it as a country retreat. Forbes Global Properties

While Stonefields is his magnum opus, Bangay feels “creatively frustrated” after having achieved gardening nirvana, and says the decision to sell has been gestating for around two years.

“I’m obsessed with beauty and just to create a garden that’s beautiful and that’s all it has to be is one of the greatest joys.”

From Versailles-esque geometry to Tuscan hillside topography, every corner of Stonefields has been shaped by Bangay’s extensive travels, “it’s really a melting pot of all I’ve seen around the world.” Rather than selecting a favourite area, he says the changing seasons reveal the garden’s sensory delights.

During summer, Bangay gravitates to the Iranian-inspired walled rose garden where the old-fashioned flowers fill the enclosed space with intense perfume. If it’s a particularly hot day, Bangay and McNeill seek respite in the English-feel woodland garden where the temperature drops at least five degrees.

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Bangay created his stunning garden from a paddock. Forbes Global Properties

While the garden often steals the headlines, the Stonefields residence has proved an ideal base for Bangay to play host and enjoy friends and family.

Just last week, Nobel Prize winner Professor Peter Doherty visited Stonefields for an annual Doherty Centre fundraising lunch; and the estate’s kitchen has provided the Belgian slate workbench for culinary heavyweights Maggie Beer and Stephanie Alexander. “They’ve all cooked in our kitchen and just love the layout,” says Bangay.

Bangay was mindful not to go overboard when it came to the interior design, “we’ve tried to balance the feeling of bringing luxury into it but not being ostentatious, still having that lovely country feel to it.”

What’s next?

Stonefields has been the setting of choice for countless Bangay-McNeill family Christmases, Easters and celebrations, and it’s around the 20-seat table on the terrace where Bangay feels most at home: “I sit at one end, and Barry sits next to me and Ruby our dog sits opposite that and Harold the peacock sits opposite us as well.”

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Paul Bangay is already dreaming of his next garden design. Brendan McCarthy

When asked if he could ever return to inner-city Melbourne, Bangay guillotines the line of enquiry with an emphatic “no”. He says the property has transformed his priorities, swapping nightclub stamps for compost-encrusted fingernails.

“Before Stonefields, you know I was fairly young, and I used to love urban life and night-life. I think Stonefields has really taught me to slow down and really enjoy the countryside.”

On handing the reins to a new owner, Bangay remains surprisingly circumspect, “as long as someone doesn’t come in and bulldoze the whole thing, I’m resolved to the fact a new owner is going to put their print on the thing.”

Forbes

The sitting room at Stonefields. Forbes Global Properties

Bangay simply hopes the new owners will share his love of gardening, as he turns his design gaze towards the next project. He says his next garden will retain his signature geometry but will reveal a “slightly softer, slightly wilder” look.

While Stonefields will always be “the one”, Bangay is ready to embark on another bucolic love affair to take him into his twilight years along with McNeill, Ruby and Harold the peacock by his side – if he can catch him.