This is without doubt one of the best gardens in the country. It is a Grade I garden inspired by Italy and the gardens of ancient Rome. Built on a hillside overlooking the river Frome, Iford Manor is an Elizabethan manor house, with a classical front which was added in the eighteenth century, when its woodland walks, planted with drifts of snowdrops and martagon lilies, were renowned for their beauty. The house had become dilapidated by 1899, when it was bought by the architect and designer Harold Peto, who made it his home for more than thirty years. Peto had become increasingly interested in garden design, and at Iford he found the country house he had been looking for. Here he created a unique and romantic hillside landscape, with terraces, sculpture and magnificent rural views.
Peto was of the view that for the highest development of beauty, a garden must combine architecture and plants. In his manuscript,The Boke of Iford, he wrote that 'Old buildings or fragments of masonry carry one's mind back to the past in a way that a garden of flowers only cannot do'. At Iford he took up the challenge of transforming a steep hillside into a unique setting where he could try out his design ideas and make use of his collection of antique fragments.
The visitor arriving at Iford first sees the fine old bridge, built around 1400, which crosses the river just below the house. On the bridge stands an eighteenth century figure of Britannia which was placed there by Harold Peto. Looking downstream from the bridge is the original ford, and remains of weavers cottages are in the orchard, now used as a car park.
Further along the road is Iford Mill, owned by the monks of Hinton, and used as a working mill since about 1300, but now a house. The visitor enters the garden by a wrought iron side gate into a paved courtyard with a triple arched loggia which has a balcony above of wrought iron dating from about 1450. The loggia contains an Italian Renaissance window with its original glass and is decorated with the first of many Byzantine roundels of animals and birds which Peto set into walls around the garden. Opposite across the courtyard is a semicircular pool with a river god and a lion mask fountain. A pair of bronze deer on plinths are copies of those found in the garden of the Villa of the Papyri at Pompeii, now in the Naples Museum. Up steps on the second terrace is an eighteenth century conservatory which replaced an earlier chapel and cloister founded by the monks.
On the terrace is a column of the sixth or seventh century identical with one in Ravenna, and another Roman fluted column. Below the flight of steps leading up to the lawn is a pair of Italian marble lions from about 1200. These and a larger pair at the entrance to the Cloisters are of Comacine origin. The Comacine Masters were a guild of masons who worked at Rome and Ravenna, but fled to Como after the fall of Rome. At the top of the steps Peto created a small pool from a stream, and made a bridge across it formed from two large stone slabs. From here a path leads up to a small paved court with several panels, and continuing up the visitor passes the blue pool before arriving at the Great Terrace. Here stands a large colonnade built with stone from local quarries. Peto originally paved the whole length of the terrace with York stone, but this deteriorated and is now replaced by gravel. A curved stone seat at the end of the terrace offers the visitor an opportunity to sit and contemplate the colonnade and the views down across the valley. In front of the seat is a remarkable Byzantine well head, probably made for the Church of St. Andrew of the Goths at Ravenna, built in 534 and destroyed by the Venetians.
Across the terrace is the Casita with tall pink marble Verona columns dating from about 1200. The building has a small wheel window of fourteenth century Venetian Gothic work, and on the walls are more of Peto's collection of Byzantine roundels and a Wisteria Sinesis stands above a small fountain. Next comes a garden of box topiary with large Tuscan terracotta pots from Siena. Further along the Great Terrace is a bronze statue of a wolf with Romulus and Remus which was made for Peto from a mould taken from the Capitol Museum in Rome. Further along is an Italian Renaissance figure of a prophet and a second or third century Greek sarcophagus.
Towards the far end of the terrace is an old stone staircase leading up into the wood, at the top of which is a column placed there during the first world war, dedicated to 'Edward the Peacemaker', in recognition of King Edward VII's efforts to avert a European disaster. At the end of the terrace is a pretty eighteenth century Garden House which Peto moved from its original site in the walled garden. Continuing up the garden, the visitor comes to Peto's last and most beautiful building, the Cloisters. This square building, completed in 1914, was built to house Peto's remaining fragments, and as a reminder of the original Cloisters which were once by the house. Built in the style of Italian Romanesque of about 1200, the iron gates from about 1350, and are thought to have come from Verona.
The doorway dating from about 1450 comes from Mantua. Inside is a little open courtyard surrounded by columns worked from a block of Pavonazzo marble, with caps and bases of Istrian stone worked in Venice. The window openings have thirteenth century Italian capitals from Pisa. In the centre of the cloister is a fourteenth century well head which came from a convent in Aquilegia. Behind the Cloisters are the remains of a Grotto, and there is a route to walk up into the woodland. From the Cloisters a path leads back down the hill to the centre of the garden where there is a lily pool, with a fountain which is a sixteenth century figure of a huntsman. When I visited in May the Wisteria surrounding the pool was in magnificent full bloom. From the pool, climb the steps to the Great Terrace and cross the terrace up more steps to the Japanese garden, with its pagoda and small waterfall, a peaceful spot to rest and reflect, before returning down the hill. Finally, a copy of the statue of The Dying Gaul sits across the path on top of the entrance to the Kitchen Garden. This is a truly extraordinary garden, not to be missed.