Designs worth caring for - the legacy of Harold Peto

Anna Pavord visits two Edwardian gardens of the rich and opulent

Anna Pavord
Friday 02 August 1996 23:02

How many nights did Harold Peto, garden designer and architect to the pampered rich of the Edwardian era, spend in his own bed at Iford Manor, Wiltshire, in the year 1910? I'm not trying to invent a particularly arcane trivia game. It just happened that within a space of a few days, I visited two gardens that he was involved in that year. One was for the MP John Annan Bryce, on Garinish Island, County Cork. The other was for Willie James, who expensively entertained Edward VII at West Dean Park just north of Chichester in West Sussex.

Given the fact that 30mph was a dizzy speed for a motor car in 1910, managing those two projects alone would have been difficult. But Peto was on the Riviera as well that year, designing a house and garden, the Villa Rosemary, for Arthur Cohen in the Alpes Maritimes. At the same time he was conjuring up colonnades for the garden at Isola Bella in Cannes. Peto could do colonnades in his sleep. Pergolas, too.

We came upon Garinish in an ideal way, sailing into Bantry Bay on a yacht which we were taking on down the coast to Kinsale. From outside, looking in, the island seemed wildly romantic, lush with foliage, surrounded by outcrops of rocks. And seals.

Being a big fan of Peto's, I'd long wanted to see Garinish (or Ilnacullin as it's now called), so first thing next morning we lined up on the quay to take a boat out to the island. You are not allowed to land on the place under your own steam.

It should have been magic. The setting. The views. The superb Italian casita swathed in wisteria. The sunken pool garden. The pavilion with its rosso antico marble columns. The rare plants. But for me, the garden was a huge disappointment. It seemed completely worn out - tidy, but exhausted. The sunken pool garden was overwhelmed by harsh, inappropriate bedding out. The walled garden, apart from the central mixed borders, was almost entirely abandoned (though there seemed to be plenty of gardeners about).

Occasionally a frisson up the back of your neck reminded you of how enchanted this place might be: a glorious stand of Iris japonica in the pool with stepping stones halfway along Happy Valley; a beautifully built flight of slate steps, edges as complex as a millefeuille pastry, leading up to the belvedere balanced high on the western edge of the island. From here you looked out over a pattern of slippery silver sea interlaced with green tongues of land.

Given the disappointments of Ilnacullin, I hadn't allowed myself to get too excited about West Dean. Consequently I wasted days of pleasurable anticipation. The place is a miracle. Five years ago a new Gardens Manager, Jim Buckland, was appointed. He and his wife, Sarah Wain, persuaded the Trustees of the Edward James Foundation (Edward was Wille's son and a friend to the Surrealists - Magritte, Dali and co) to spend a significant amount of money bringing the gardens - particularly the huge walled garden - up to scratch. It was money well spent.

In the central enclosure of the walled garden is an astonishing hamlet of greenhouses, old Foster and Pearson models of the turn of the century. There are pit houses and hot houses, three-quarter span and lean-to houses, all superbly restored and filled to bursting with beautifully trained figs and peaches, vines and nectarines. The smell of the ripening white peaches, fanned out textbook fashion against the back wall of one of the lean-tos, was the most sensuous thing that has passed under my nose the whole of this year.

Several of the houses are filled with the collections of chili peppers and tomatoes that Sarah Wain has been building up this year - 75 different peppers, 58 different tomatoes. The houses that aren't growing crops are crammed with tropical plants: bromeliads, vast hairy begonias, phalaenopsis orchids, lush arching ferns. I felt drunk with excitement. I have never been in a kitchen garden so rich, so profuse, so well ordered, so tempting.

Yet as a whole the garden, surprisingly, lacks a grand design. The house is not linked to its surroundings in any convincing way. Perhaps this is what led James to say to Peto - who had been with him at Harrow - "Peto! Produce me a pergola". The pergola itself is astonishing, more than a hundred yards long and made of stone pillars linked by wooden overthrows. The design and detail at the top of the columns mirror those of the pergola Peto made that year at Isola Bella. Perhaps he had a yard full of these stone columns, ready to run up pergolas on command.

It is beautifully planted, clematis now taking over from the earlier rambling roses such as 'Veilchenblau' and 'Sanders White Rambler'. It runs roughly parallel with the house, though well to the north of it. Walking along it in the direction of the house, the view is terminated by an enchanting small summerhouse. If you walk the other way, the view falls off into nothing, because steps at the end of the pergola lead down to a small, sunken garden with an oddly shaped dog-leg pool.

So the pergola, though fabulous as a feature, looks un-anchored in its setting. None of this matters, because the standard of gardening is so high - the roses and wisterias expertly tied in, the choice of the ferns and hostas at their feet quietly appropriate.

I'm going back to West Dean as soon as I can. They sell some of the produce from the kitchen garden in the visitor's shop. There were fat, bursting figs on the day I visited. I'm hoping some of those white-fleshed peaches might be on offer.

The gardens at West Dean (01243 818210), five miles north of Chichester, West Sussex are open every day until the end of October (11am-5pm). Admission pounds 3.

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