I’m always a sucker for an atmospheric ruin with a romantic backstory. But the Barnsley Resort, about 60 miles northwest of Atlanta, went one better. When my friend Patti and I arrived last December for a short getaway, the shell of the old manor house at the heart of the property was festooned with holiday lights. The moody ruin had an incongruously cheerful glow.
The family estate turned resort has enough tales to fill a Charles Frazier saga. But the foundation story involves young Godfrey Barnsley, who left England in 1824 for a better life in the American South. By the 1840s he was a married man with enough wealth from his cotton and shipping enterprises to purchase land in the rolling hills of north Georgia. Inspired by landscape designer Andrew Jackson Downing, Barnsley planned to create a mansion and gardens for his wife, Julia. When Julia died in 1845, Barnsley abandoned the project. Legend holds that Julia appeared to her husband and insisted that he finish what he had started. By 1848 an Italianate mansion and formal gardens had risen in the Georgia high country.
Clent Coker, the resort’s historian, loves to tell that story. With a natural gift for a good yarn, Coker leads tours of the property and oversees a small museum in the original kitchen wing.
“This was the first house in the state to have modern plumbing before the Civil War,” he told us. Although the house has fallen to skeletal ruin, the landscape has fared better. “These boxwoods were standing before the Civil War,” Coker said. “They were standing when Union troops camped here and when Union and Confederate soldiers tramped through these woods.” Family lore holds that Barnsley’s daughter, also named Julia, might have been one of the models for the strong Southern women in “Gone With the Wind.”
Coker is a fount of family gossip, but he can also be succinct. “Wars, storms, and depressions took their toll,” he said, swiftly summarizing more than 150 years of history.
The mansion’s roof was blown off in a tornado and the property passed out of family hands in the 1940s. The future looked grim until 1988 when Prince Hubertus Fugger of Bavaria bought the property and set about bringing it back to life. By 1999 he had created a resort of cottages clustered in an English-style village. Thirty-six cottages range from one to seven bedrooms. Many feature wood-burning fireplaces and front porches with rockers. This year, a 55-room inn opened to offer even more lodging options.
During the day, I felt like I had the run of a private estate. I followed one of the hiking trails to the family cemetery where Godfrey Barnsley is buried and visited the goats and horses in the barnyard. Patti signed up for a horseback outing while I opted to try my hand at the sporting clays course.
“It’s like golf with a shotgun,” my instructor Joe Gimelli told me. Alas, my hand-eye coordination was not up to the challenge. Even though the shotgun fired 359 pellets, not one of them ever managed to hit a target. Neither Patti nor I care much for golf or fishing, but we did find our way to the spa in an English-style carriage house. I swear that a facial took 10 years of wear and tear off my face, at least for a day or two.
In many ways the property is best when the sun goes down. When more than a million lights wink on, the grounds become enchanted. The outline of the old mansion and the boxwood parterre is especially dramatic — and a big draw for many Georgians who consider a visit to the suddenly festive mansion to be a holiday tradition. Undeterred by the missing roof, determined decorators even fill some of the empty rooms with trees encrusted with ornaments and lights.
After chatting with several families, Patti and I made our way to Dugan’s Tavern, named for Barnsley’s great grandson, a heavyweight boxer who fought under the name K.O. Dugan. The bar has its own craft beer on tap, and we tried a spicy seasonal offering that the bar staff jokingly dubbed “gingerbread beer.” We snagged a table by the fireplace in the adjacent Woodlands Grill, which offers a lesson in refined Southern cuisine with offerings such as pork chop brined in molasses and pan-roasted Georgia trout. After dinner, we settled at one of the outdoor fire pits and ended the evening with glasses of wine and roasted marshmallows.
Patti, a Texan who now lives in Lexington, Ky., has been on a campaign to make me an honorary Southerner. My stay at Barnsley might have sealed the deal.
BARNSLEY RESORT 597 Barnsley Gardens Road, Adairsville, Ga., 877-773-2447 or 707-773-7480, barnsleyresort.com. Rates in December from $219 for an inn room and $349 for a one-bedroom cottage suite.Patricia Harris can be reached at email@example.com.