Just half a mile south of Bradford on Avon – on one side of a beautifully green and lush-leafed valley where Somerset and Wiltshire face each other across the banks of the River Frome – lie the terraces of a little corner of Italy and what must be the smallest opera house in the world!
I had discovered – and its approach is well-hidden down a steep and narrow stone-banked lane – a little gem of a garden near the end of its viewing season. (The last week-end the tea shop would be open and only four Sunday viewings in October left to go)!
It’s The Peto Garden at Iford Manor. A Grade 1 Italian-styled combination of architecture and plants that is famous for its tranquil beauty.
From 1899 to 1933 it was the home of architect and designer Harold Peto who became increasingly interested in garden design after a 16-year architectural partnership came to an end.
Peto was a much travelled collector of anything that fed his tastes for the style and decorative arts of the Italian Renaissance.
Several long trips to Italy had a big influence on his attention turning towards combining both house and garden design together.
He was responsible for creating several combined villas and gardens on the Continent but carried out commissions in Ireland and England too – including Wayford Manor and Burton Pynsent House in Somerset.
Peto was searching for a country manor he could both transform and live in. He bought Iford Manor in 1899 and took up the challenge of moulding the steep, awkward landscape and trying out his ideas.
Over several years – and with a limited budget – he arranged the grounds as terraced walks in reflection of some of his favourite Mediterranean gardens.
Within it he also made good use of his collection of antique fragments which he had amassed during his career.
Peto thought a garden was at its most beautiful when it combined architecture and plants.
Iford is certainly a worth-while ‘theatrical’ experience but be prepared to exercise your lungs climbing the steep terraces to experience it all.
In his manuscript The Boke of Iford – published after his death, Peto wrote:
‘ 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. Gardens that are too stony are equally unsatisfactory; it is the combination of the two, in just proportion, which is the most satisfying.’
I mentioned what might be the smallest opera house in the world and it is time to tell you where you will find it.
One of Peto’s theatrical pieces is the Cloisters which he completed in 1914 – partly to house his remaining antique fragments and partly as an historical reference to the Cloisters which has once existed on the Conervatory lawn.
He adopted the Italian style of about 1200 AD with two Lombardic 13th century lions guarding the entrance with a doorway which is believed to have come from a house in Mantua and to date around 1450 AD.
Inside the structure is a beautiful and compact space used to stage regular opera productions before which people picnic in the gardens and then return by the light of flares to listen to the performers.
It’s a very intimate atmosphere with little to separate musicians and singers from those seated around them.
The season runs from the last week in June through to the end of July. Check out the website www.ifordarts.co.uk
Peto’s Garden is open on Sundays between April and October and on Easter Monday between 2pm and 5pm.
While from May to September daily between 2pm-5pm except on Mondays and Fridays. More information on www.ifordmanor.co.uk