From land to larder at Iford

Iford Manor is entrenched in history, because this site in the Frome Valley has been lived in, cultivated and farmed at least as far back as the Romans. Current owners Marianne and William Cartwright-Hignett now take care of its beautiful Italianate gardens and have introduced a restaurant and café where produce is sourced from the estate. Emma Clegg investigates

William’s mother Elizabeth bought Iford Manor in 1965 and she and her husband John Hignett transformed it over the years from an overgrown wilderness, using local stonemasons to help rebuild and enhance, recreating Peto’s imaginative structure and planting. The management was taken on by William and Marianne in 2018 and their contribution since has included the restoration of the cloisters, when one of the corners had started to subside, because the pillars were not load-bearing and there were only four inches of foundation below. This project won the 2020 Historic Houses Restoration Award. Appropriately apples from the estate were used as plumblines as the cloisters were put back together!

After a garden tour we visited the restaurant (and­­­­ adjoining café), a new build overseen by William, built on the site of an old Georgian barn and 1960s stables using some of the stone from the original barn. The restaurant – with its oak beams, terracotta walls and mounted vintage garden utensils, along with Elizabeth’s first carriage wheel – and the café are separate to the garden so visitors can eat there without a garden entry ticket. But the estate farm and the walled garden are integral to the restaurant because a large proportion of the food and drink that is served there is grown, reared or foraged from across the estate and from the walled vegetable and flower-cutting garden, which is being developed by a small garden team with head gardener Steve Lannin at the helm.
Head chef Matt Briddon told me more: “We’ve got a garden that grows produce ranging from wild garlic and basil to asparagus and potatoes. We have the farm for our lamb, and for beef in the future. We’re making our own sourdough and our own charcuterie and we are jamming, pickling, fermenting and preserving, making kombucha and our own vinegars. We make our own mozzarella, we make cider [or rather it’s pressed by ‘Joe up the hill’], and we will have cordials from this winter. And finally – what every chef really wants – we’ve even got truffles.”

There is a Wisteria sinensis that grows on the front of Iford Manor that has been there for nearly 200 years. Planted by the Gaisford family in the 1820s, the plant only came to the UK in 1816 and so it is one of the oldest in the country. When it blossoms in May the scent is all-pervading.

This is just one of many physical references at Iford Manor and gardens that hark back to the estate’s deep-rooted history. This Grade II* listed building dates from the late 15th century and sits on the steep south-facing slope of the Frome Valley, hovering on the Wiltshire Somerset border. Going further back in time, the Romans settled at Iford and there were six known Roman villas there. How appropriate then that the steep gardens behind the manor are Italianate in character.

The footprint of the current manor was lived in by powerful regional figures over the centuries as well as being rented by monks in the period after the Black Death. The Horton family then arrived in the late 15th century and used the buildings as a cloth factory at a time when the whole area was a hub for the cloth trade. The gardens as they are today were the creation of Harold Peto who lived there from 1819–1833. An architect and keen botanist, Peto re-designed and expanded the garden, incorporating the artefacts collected during his travels around the world, with features including an Italianate courtyard, a colonnade lined Great Terrace and cloisters. Marianne Cartwright-Hignett, who now manages Iford Manor with her husband William, tells me, “Peto did a lot of research on the history of Iford, and as you go round the design echoes much of his understanding and the knowledge of the history of this place.”

Take the loggia entrance to the garden with wall-mounted reliefs of Roman emperors and Byzantine rondels with Aesops Fables cameos; the window in the loggia dating from the 1300s removed from a Venetian Palace and rescued by Peto; the ancient Roman sarcophagus as you make your way to the cloisters; and the millstones set into the loggia patio that refer back to the building’s history as a wool factory.

Peto’s approach was to give soft landscaping, plants and trees life and energy within an architectural setting. “When Peto was creating the garden he wrote about how plants alone don’t allow you to visualise another place in a way that fragments of masonry can, so he aimed to achieve a balance between hard architecture and soft growth to create those associations,” says Marianne.
Iford is teeming with diverse flora and fauna and the landscape is managed under a Higher Level Stewardship Scheme agreed with Natural England. Part of the valley is designated a Site of Special Scientific Interest because of its large maternity roosts for the rare Greater and Lesser Horseshoe bats. It was also used as a location in the BBC’s Wild Isles series with David Attenborough.
There is unending continuity: sheep grazed there at the time of the Domesday Book in the 11th century, just as they do today. “It was pasture land at that time, as it still is now. And there was a farmhouse here. So in some ways, very little has really changed over the centuries,” says Marianne proudly.

There is an unending continuity: sheep grazed there at the time of the Domesday Book in the 11th century, just as they do today

William estimates that the restaurant and café business is 90% self-sufficient. And if it’s not produced on the estate, then it’s local. Even the fish is sourced locally, with the fish man calling Matt at 2.30am each day to confirm the catch. And nothing is wasted. “It’s important for us to make sure we’re using the whole animal and all parts of the vegetables. We use the roots of leeks, we make carrot-top pesto, we use vegetables including peelings for fermented purées. Nothing goes in the bin, so you have to be inventive and creative,” says Matt.

The sourdough is another story, because there is a ‘mother sourdough’ involved that originates from Germany – given to Matt when he was working there by a baker whose sons didn’t want to continue in the trade – this mother sourdough is about to celebrate her centenary. The mother dough is an ancient leavening agent made of a mixture of flour and water fermented with bacteria such as Lactobacillus, Acetobacter and Saccharomyces. To create it and keep it alive requires patience and constant care. Matt says of the sourdough, “It takes a day to make, three days to ferment, half a day to prove, and then three hours of baking, scoring and resting. Bread made in this way is better for your digestive system, because it’s natural bacteria. It’s tastier, it has a great crust and flavour and a chew to it, and when you squeeze it, it bounces back because of the air bubbles and fermentation.”

That’s me sold. Although I didn’t need to be persuaded because I sampled some of Matt’s sourdough over lunch, served with the Iford Charcuterie plate with garden chutney and whipped butter. We also ordered the Iford Burger, with dry-aged beef, confit pancetta, onion chutney, Westcombe Cheddar, garden salad and pickles, and Wiltshire truffle fries, a combination that has already established itself as a hands-down popular winner. I sampled the Catch of the Day, Halibut perched on a rich sea of crabmeat and lobster risotto. The dessert menu tempted us with Limoncello Tart with meringue, raspberries and mint and a Clotted Cream Panna Cotta with strawberries, jam and scone crumb. The wine menu, with selections curated by William, is comfortably offbeat and will soon include the Stonedance, a Shiraz/Grenache blend from South Africa which we sampled (along with two others) over lunch.

I can only suggest that you visit Iford Manor for insightful heritage, breathtaking gardens, the romance of the natural landscape and the animal world, and home-grown good food and drinks. Or just visit for the latter, which has the character of the other elements within it.

Iford Manor Kitchen and Café are open year-round, from 10am – 4.30pm on selected days. Friday supper clubs are every fortnight. Iford Manor jazz festival runs from 29 June – 2 July; and there is a free Nature & Butterfly Day on 16 July. Iford Manor Garden is open between April and September. Do check the website for opening times and days and further information: