Beautiful secret garden is Devon's answer to the Lost Gardens of Heligan

The former tennis pavilion in the Italian Garden at Great Ambrook Credit: Vicki Gardner Photography

A beautiful garden that lay forgotten for decades is set to be restored.

Great Ambrook, an Italian garden near Newton Abbot, has won £188,050 from the National Lottery Heritage Fund to bring it back to life.

The Ipplepen attraction was created by Arthur Graham over three years from 1909, and is a rare example of an early 20th century designed landscape.

It includes a walled garden of pools, terraces and garden structures – all hidden away in the Devon countryside.

Credit: Vicki Gardner Photography
Credit: Vicki Gardner Photography
Credit: Vicki Gardner Photography

Over the years though it had fallen into disrepair. It was ‘lost’ during the 1960s and only rediscovered again in the late 1980s.

A team of volunteers has been working on essential restoration work since mid-2020 and visitor access has been enhanced in recent years.

This new funding will allow completion of essential infrastructure – improved facilities, repairs to paths and a partial restoration of the summerhouse.

It is hoped that this will improve the visitor experience as well as provide a better working environment and new training opportunities for the dedicated team of volunteers.

Credit: Vicki Gardner Photography
Credit: Vicki Gardner Photography

Stephanie Berry, project leader, said: “We are thrilled to have received this support thanks to National Lottery players and are delighted this project will allow The Italian Garden to secure its place as a key heritage asset and a unique contributor to the local South Devon community.”

Made possible thanks to money raised by National Lottery players, the project focuses on developing the garden as a place of well-being and learning for the local community, whilst protecting its unique environment.

The grant will also fund new community partnerships, providing activities for school children with learning difficulties and adults in need of mental and social support.

Through new planting and wildlife monitoring with local organisations, the project will support biodiversity and the environment.

Telling the story of the garden in the social context of its time will bring its LGBTQ+ perspective and broader social history to life.

Credit: Vicki Gardner Photography
Credit: Vicki Gardner Photography
Credit: Vicki Gardner Photography

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 is the only surviving garden created by T H Lyon, first Director of the Cambridge School of Architecture.

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.

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.

Credit: Vicki Gardner Photography

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.

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

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.

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.

If anyone is interested in volunteering to help with the restoration work to contact us via the Italian Garden website.

People can book new holiday accommodation in the adjacent orchard garden, with all profits going towards the restoration of the garden.

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