We tend to think of properties owned by the National Trust as being protected in perpetuity. Their land is usually inalienable and their pockets to restore and maintain great houses are deep and usually well-filled. But this is not alway the case. Sometimes the threats come from an unexpected place: being too successful. If that sounds a bit crazy the example of Saltram, described by the executors of the 4th Earl of Morley, the last private owner as a “white elephant”, might illuminate the point.
In August last year I visited Saltram House just outside Plymouth as part of the Gardens Trust conference. I was in a group taken round by the Head Gardener, and was taken aback by some of the problems he reported, which were not caused by neglect or lack of vision but because of sheer success of the Trust’s policy of increasing revenue and interest by attracting more and more visitors.
I had the opportunity to revisit a few days ago, and turned up 20 minutes after the gardens opened on a Monday morning in mid-February to find the car park almost full. By mid-morning the FULL sign went up. There was a temporary loo block in the entrance area, the small cafes had queues and the circular parkland walk is hard-surfaced in most places and at times was a bit like a busy High Street in the sales. So what’s Saltram got to offer that attracts so many people?
Although there was a Jacobean mansion at Saltram, described by Celia Fiennes in 1698 as a ‘very large house…[which] look’d very finely in a thicket of trees like a grove’, the real story starts in the early 1740s when it was inherited by John Parker of the nearby estate of Boringdon. He and his wife, Catherine seem to have decided to move their home from there to Saltram. She was the wealthy sister of Earl Poulett and seems to have funded major work to the house and grounds, perhaps advised by Charles Hamilton of Painshill, Surrey. Hamilton who was described by the Earl as “certainly ye top man of taste in England [now Mr Kent is dead]”, is known to have visited Saltram with him.
Although there is almost no hard knowledge of what happened, there is according to Judith Teasdale of the National Trust, a lot of circumstantial evidence, because the next generation of Parkers carried out further major works but seem to have been working within an already established framework.
The one thing that does survive is a drawing, from c.1749, of the amphitheatre overlooking the river Laira, which implies the long series of zig-zag ‘prospect’ walks that descend the steep slopes through Saltram Woods to the riverside and to Saltram Point were also already in place. There is however no indication of a park being in place on the 1765 county plan, although, as can be seen, one is shown at Boringdon.
John Parker II, who succeeded in 1768, also married well. His wife, Theresa was the daughter of Thomas Robinson, Lord Grantham. Luckily she was a great correspondent and there are many surviving letters between her and her siblings, before she died young in 1775. These allow the story to be continued with more confidence.
Although the pair, like most of the wealthy, spent much of their time in London they escaped to Saltram in the summers. On her first day at the house as mistress in May 1769 she described it as “this delightful place” and went on to describe the celebrations: “French horns playing all dinner time and again in the woods in the evening when the guns were fired.” Judith Teasdale suggests these were a series of miniature cannons arranged around the amphitheatre.
The couple also took a great interest in improvements, both architectural and horticultural, soon commissioning Robert Adam to create a series of neo-classical rooms inside as well as redesign the approaches to the house. Nathaniel Richmond, who had worked for Theresa’s brother at Stanmer in Sussex, supervised further developments in the gardens and grounds, including the Orangery  whilst her brother designed the octagonal Gothick Castle summer-house.
A chapel [now the tea-room] was built in the grounds around the same time.
Richmond also oversaw the layout of the wider parkland, as part of the Parkers’ decision to “turn Farmers and make such improvements in Land, Estates, Ploughs etc that Posterity shall bless the Day.”
Adam later returned and was tasked with designing a triumphal arch high on the Boringdon estate which was then easily visible from Saltram [although no longer quite so clearly because of the woods and shrubbery] and acted as a focus for drives and rides. From the arch there were magnificent views towards Saltram and Plymouth Sound.
John Parker II was created Lord Boringdon in 1784, but died in 1788 and was succeeded by his son, yet another John, who was still a minor. As a result Saltram was let, but when he came of age in 1793 John Parker III ambitiously started expanding the parkland and building new lodges and carriage approaches. Later he reclaimed land from the Laira river to create Chelson Meadow to the south-west of the park, which was then used as a racecourse!
He was also heavily involved in national politics which led him to being created Earl of Morley in 1815. Unfortunately when he died in 1840 he was heavily in debt because his plans were expensive and often unsuccessful.
It was around the same time that John Claudius Loudon paid a visit, although sadly and unusually he only wrote a short account of it in the Gardener’s Magazine in November 1842. The park was: “very extensive and judiciously planted, and in the kitchen-garden are some very good orange trees against the walls; and myrtles, magnolias, acacias etc as standards.”
The second earl was unable to restore the family fortunes and so in 1861 Saltram was let and little done to the grounds until 1884 when Albert Parker,the third Earl, returned with his wife, Margaret Holford , daughter of Robert Stayner Holford of Westonbirt. They set about restoring and modernising the estate, and luckily they were passionate about gardening and plants.
In particular they worked on the Great Terrace and the Orange Grove garden. He kept careful records which show that many of the new plants came from his father-in-law’s gardens. Even in mid-February this sheltered spot had plenty of life and interest.
Saltram featured in an article in Gardeners’ Chronicle in December 1903, which shows that the earl and countess had cleared a ‘wilderness of laurels’ and taken advantage of the protected nature of the pleasure grounds and were experimenting with tender plants. The link with Westonbirt continued after Albert’s death in 1905. His son, Edmund the 4th Earl was also the eventual heir to the vast Holford fortune which included Westonbirt and its nearly 8000 acres as well as Dorchester House in Mayfair. As you can see from my earlier post he sold them both a few months after inheriting in 1926 although retaining the arboretum. It’s clear that a number of the specimen trees and shrubs at Saltram still survive from this time.
But unfortunately the money raised from the sale of the other properties didn’t last long, and so together with the neglect caused by the war, by the 1950s things were desperate. There were heavy death duties to pay, and more looming, so with the support of the National Land Fund, the house, garden and 291 acres of the park were accepted by HM Treasury in lieu of tax, and passed to the National Trust.
Unfortunately Saltram soon suffered at least three major blows to its dignity and integrity which have been dealt with in different ways and with differing levels of success.
The first might not seem that relevant, and indeed it wasn’t drastic in the short term. The post-war rebuilding of nearby Plymouth also included wide scale development in its suburban fringes and surrounding small towns.
However, Saltram’s rural views over the estuary and the surrounding countryside began to disappear, as housing and industrial sites spread out. This even impacted on the estate itself when the former kitchen garden, which was not included in the tax deal, was sold in the 1980s for housing.
Far from this being the end of encroachment the estate will soon come under even more pressure when Sherford, a small new town built just 1.5km to the west, with 5500 more homes. This will obviously increase pressure on the parkland as available leisure space and ensure that the car park is almost permanently full! On the positive side the plans for Sherford sees Saltram included in a much larger country park, which will act as a “green belt” separating other existing developments. Although Saltram will be integral to this plan, it will mean further adaptation of the estate to meet the needs of even more visitors.The next problem began in 1961 with a decision by the earl to sell Saltram Farm and Chelston Meadow to Plymouth City Council. This was disastrous. The result was that the meadow became a dump for quarry waste and then a landfill site for the city’s rubbish.
Since this was only 600 metres from the house and separated merely by the remnants of a shelter belt planted around 1800 something had to be done. The Trust responded by extending that but also planting a further belt of evergreen oaks parallel to the great lime avenue that ran 260 yards along the ridge from the house towards the Gothick Castle.
The trouble was that as the tip expanded so the Trust tried to protect the house by planting more and more trees. In fact all this did was to block more and more views – even if they were no longer that Arcadian.
That damage cannot be repaired and obviously the open views over the estuary and sound cannot be opened up again. However the permanent harm has been mitigated by better environmental standards. In 2008 the landfill site was closed and the Environment Agency ruled it had to be returned to grassland. Almost 5km of subterranean walls, up to 9 metres deep, were built, to try and prevent the leaching of noxious substances from the 18 millions tonnes of rubbish dumped there over the previous 44 years. Apparently there was also enough gas coming from the site to power six gas turbines to feed back into the national grid. The site was then covered with several layers of protective membranes, and then landscaped with 120,000 tonnes of sub-soil and 60,000 tonnes of seeded top soils. So no river views BUT at least there will be trees on the skyline instead of seagulls wheeling over heaps of garbage.
The third disaster was just a few years later with plans for the Devon Expressway – at 6 lanes effectively a motorway – across the estate and the major access ways to the house. The National Trust fought this hard, but the Ministry of Transport argued that the Trust had known of the road plans when they were given the land and, despite the Trust declaring the land inalienable, that was that. The road went ahead, taking 27 acres of land and more seriously isolating another large section of the park.
Luckily the long cutting and its bridges are somewhat softened by mass tree planting, between the entrances and the inner parts of the estate, but road access is now much more complicated, and has to be via residential areas. Long term it has reduced the sense of scale of a traditional grand estate to something more akin to that for a suburban golf club. The need for even more parking is a current threat to the landscape immediate to the house, and one hopes that a solution, perhaps having car parks pushed to the outer limits of the estate as at Waddesdon and Lanhydrock, can be found, even if it means longer walks for some and a buggy train for others. Other proposals can be found in the local development plan.
Saltram is rightly a very popular local destination. It combines exceptional historic interiors with wide open spaces in the immediate parkland and a largely woodland garden of great horticultural interest. But somehow the estate and especially the inner core has to find ways to cope rapidly increasing numbers of visitors. There were 16,000 paying visitors in 1967 but 85,000 in 2014, 125,000 in 2105, and 176,000 in 2016 BUT in addition there were probably 4 times as many who use the wider parkland and do not pay – for 2016 its thought this figure reached 827,000 and the forecast for 2025 is currently 1.3 million, although that seems unreasonably low given recent growth rates.
As Judith Teasdale of the National Trust said in her comments to visitors from the Gardens Trust in September: ” the task before [us] now is to keep the spirit of Saltram alive, celebrate its beauty and distinctiveness, and conserve the natural and cultural heritage for future generations to enjoy.” It’s going to be a hard job but at least it proves Saltram is no longer a white elephant!