Restoration work is to begin at a secret garden – Devon’s answer to the Lost Gardens of Heligan – that lay hidden for decades.

The Italian Garden at Great Ambrook, which has been described as Devon’s answer to the Lost Gardens of Heligan, has been awarded a £48,900 grant from The National Lottery Heritage Fund.

The National Lottery award will help fund a two-year project to carry out essential conservation works and launch a programme of community engagement at the Italian Garden at Great Ambrook, near Ipplepen in South Devon.

The work will improve the garden entrance, provide on-site facilities and launch a programme of events including opportunities for volunteers, skills training, art and educational workshops as well as guided tours for visitors.

South West Farmer:

The Italian Garden has a wonderfully rich history. It was commissioned in 1909 by Arthur Smith Graham of Great Ambrook House and designed by acclaimed architect T H Lyon to bring a taste of Italy to South Devon.

It was intended to be used as a private space for entertaining friends and intellectual discussion and the four acre site has been described as Devon’s answer to the Lost Gardens of Heligan.

Over the years though the garden fell into decline, was finally lost during the 1960s and only rediscovered again in the late 1980s.

It is a rare example of an early 20th Century designed landscape – a walled, secret garden of pools, terraces and garden buildings – all hidden away in the Devon countryside.

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Commenting on the award, Stephanie Berry and Kim Partridge, directors of the Community Interest Company that manages the garden, said, “We are thrilled to have received this recognition and support from The National Lottery Heritage Fund which will help raise the Italian Garden’s profile and allow us to share it with the broader community. This funding will launch a vital restoration programme of the buildings and structures which make this garden so unique.”

South West Farmer:

Stuart McLeod, Director, England, London & South, added: “The COVID-19 crisis has proved how much we cherish our outdoor heritage spaces and also how important volunteers are. Thanks to money raised by National Lottery players, this project will benefit the future of both at The Italian Garden and ensure it can be enjoyed by many more people.”

Back in January, Teignbridge District Council’s planning committee approved a scheme to build a holiday home within the walled garden that the owners said was key to ensuring the survival of the gardens.

It would see a holiday home built within the walled garden at Great Ambrook, as well as the reinstatement of the south eastern wall of the walled and to reinstate the limestone wall with the new building positioned up against this wall.

Repairs and preservations of the existing walled garden would be made, and parking for the proposed holiday accommodation would be provided on the existing hardcore parking area within the Italian Garden, while a new gated entrance to the Italian Garden would be installed.

South West Farmer:

Councillors heard that any income generated from the proposed holiday accommodation would be used to help fund the restoration of the Italian Garden, and a Section 106 agreement to ensure this is the case was included as a condition by the officers who had recommended the scheme be approved.

The garden is of enormous architectural, literary and aesthetic importance, according to the Devon Gardens Trust. Built for Arthur Graham, an aesthete of considerable means who owned Great Ambrook between 1899 and 1928, it is the only surviving garden created by T H Lyon, first Director of the Cambridge School of Architecture.

The garden is thought to have been built between 1909 – 1912 by Lewis Bearne, who also worked on the construction of Castle Drogo on the edge of Dartmoor. Together with the rest of the Great Ambrook Estate, the garden was recreated as the fictional Sonorusciello, the idyllic secluded estate in the novel Nicolas Crabbe: A Romance, by Frederick Rolfe.

Graham died in 1928 and the next two families who owned it employed head gardeners. But in the early 1960s, the Great Ambrook wider estate was split up and sold off with the garden forgotten about until it was discovered again by accident in 1988 by subsequent owners, the late Mr and Mrs Kenneth Rees.

They were kicking through leaves in the autumn and happened upon a path made of stone, and gradually they began to peel back the growth to reveal an incredible garden.

South West Farmer:

Ken and Doris Rees slowly revealed the garden and maintained it for 25 years, with Ken only taking on a gardener to help when he was 83 years old.

But when Ken died in December 2013, the garden fell back to nature until its sale three years later.

Stephanie Berry and friend Kim Chapman purchased the gardens in 2016, and since then have been putting down plans to restore them to their former glory.

A number of mature trees and plants survive from the original planting scheme, with evidence that Graham bought many specimens from the renowned nursery of the Rovelli brothers on the banks of Lake Maggiore in Italy.

South West Farmer:

The garden contains numerous trees planted in the early twentieth century, including western red cedars, japanese cedars, chusan palms, maidenhair trees, monterey, lawson’s and nootka cypresses, yew, holm oaks, london planes and a Magnolia acuminata.

One section of the South Walk is covered by a 111ft pergola, planted with Akebia quinata and Vitis coignetiae, both of which appear in early photographs of the garden.

It was designed as a walk through a landscape, with a series of irregular paths of portland stone meandering through the garden and joining at a terrace.

The history of the garden has been uncovered by garden historian Angela Dodd-Crompton and it was down to her work that the garden secured Grade II listed status for the garden with English Heritage in 2014.

Details of events, activities and project updates will be available on the Facebook page