Italian Garden at Great Ambrook

Ipplepen Italian Garden at Great Ambrook

- Ipplepen Team

Italian Garden at Great Ambrook

Exploring the Italian Garden

The garden that was designed and built for Arthur Smith Graham between 1909 and 1912 was in the spirit of the age with many of the features found in gardens designed by Harold Peto but is unique in style and innovative in its design. It is the only surviving garden created by Devon architect Thomas Henry Lyon who was also the first Director of Design at Cambridge University’s School of Architecture and designer of Sidney Sussex College Chapel.

The Italian Garden was constructed on higher ground to the east of Great Ambrook House. It covers an area of 4-acres and comparing the 1842 tithe map, 1904 sales map and the 1954 edition OS Map it can be seen that the garden was sited across the existing boundaries of two fields to include a disused quarry as its central design feature. The garden is surrounded on three sides by rendered walls, 15 ft high in parts and wired for climbing plants. There is a small, walled kitchen garden between the Italian Garden and Great Ambrook Avenue that pre-dates the garden. 

Both owner and architect were gay and the garden was deliberately created in a secluded location, separate from Great Ambrook House and surrounded by high walls. Graham wanted an intimate, private space where he could entertain his guests at a time when homosexuality was condemned by society.

The garden has a special and unique charm thanks to both its original design and current romantic, lost feeling. Designed as a walk with some unusual features to give an interesting visual experience along the way, it is a fluid design that relates to the earlier tradition of picturesque walks rather than the compartmentalised, formal layouts of the Arts and Craft era.
The garden has several interesting structures and features. As one walks up the hill, a balustraded terrace closes the vista. The tennis pavilion, which overlooks the tennis lawn, has an octagonal plunge pool and Ipplepen marble bench and is cleverly placed to make the level transition seamless. Beyond the rose garden, an avenue leads to the ogee-roofed summerhouse which is the most imposing structure and the focal point at the highest part of the garden; a gate leads to a secluded arbour on the outside of the wall giving countryside views towards Dartmoor. 
The sunbathing area beside the swimming pool is at the end of another walk which runs along the south-east side of the site and includes a section under a 111ft long pergola. From the central viewpoint, with views of parkland trees, the Palm Walk provides a short link to the Centre Walk which runs alongside a wild, sunken area, known as The Dell, which was once a quarry. 
Surrounding the summerhouse is a large semi-circular terrace and, concealed underneath, there is a huge spring-fed tank that, together with other lined tanks, feeds the complex water system, bathing and ornamental pools and may once have provided the water supply to the house. The wide, stone-flagged paths are edged with shallow rills to carry the water down the site and give interest to the walk. 

Graham planted a variety of trees and shrubs, many of which remain, including Maidenhair Trees, Monterey Cypresses and Western Red Cedars. From the original lead plant tags that have been found it is clear that some plants were imported from the Rovelli brothers renowned nursery on Lake Maggiore. 

Arthur Smith Graham died in 1928. The garden was still in good condition when the Devonshire Association visited in 1946 ‘the fine Italian garden at Great Ambrook, laid out at great expense by the late Mr Graham’. The last Head Gardener left in 1961 and the Great Ambrook estate was broken up in 1963 by which time the site was already overgrown, the situation quickly worsening from then onwards. When the new owners of the Coach House, Kenneth and Doris Rees, arrived in the 1980s, it appeared to be woodland. They gradually uncovered the paths and structures to reveal the garden once again. The present owners, Stephanie Berry and Kim Chapman bought the garden in 2016 from the estate of Kenneth Rees and have a mission to gently restore the garden, make it a part of the local community and bring its original owner and designer the recognition they deserve.

heritage trust logo

BBC Spotlight with the team from Dame Hannahs

Tennis pavillion


Pergola Vista

30m Pergola

Ipplepen Village, Devon, Community Information