Saltram: threats and popularity

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?

Saltram from the South West by Philip Rogers, 1813  National Trust, Saltram; 

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.

“A View of the amphitheatre belonging to Mr Parker…” from the Journal of Christopher Borlase, 1748 Image from Morrab Library, Penzance.

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.

The Amphitheatre at Saltram 1770
William Tomkins (c.1732–1792), National Trust

John Parker II (1734/1735-1788), 1st Baron Boringdon, by Joshua Reynolds,  National Trust, Saltram; 

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.

Theresa Robinson (1745-1775), Mrs John Parker, Joshua Reynolds National Trust, Saltram; 

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.

panorama from the amphitheatre

The Orangery

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  [1775] whilst her brother designed the octagonal Gothick Castle summer-house.

The Gothick Castle

The Castle interior







A chapel [now the tea-room] was built in the grounds around the same time.

The Chapel

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.

The Boringdon Arch, by Robert Adam, image from Devon Gardens Trust



John Parker III (1772-1840), 2nd Lord Boringdon, Later 1st Earl of Morley, as a Boy; National Trust, Saltram; 

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!

Cheltenham Chronicle – Thursday 23 July 1829

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.

Saltram from the North East, by Philip Rogers; National Trust, Saltram; 

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.”

View of the Plym from the Grounds of Saltram House, by Philip Rogers, Royal Albert Memorial Museum, Exeter 

Albert (1843-1905), 3rd Earl of Morley; National Trust, Saltram; 

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.

The orange grove garden

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.

Edmund, 4th Earl of Morley, 1930, National Portrait Gallery

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 view of Mount Edgcumbe and Plymouth Sound from Saltram, William Tompkins, c.1770   National Trust, Saltram;


The plans for Sherford.
The right hand yellow circle shows the new town, and the right hand one a proposed housing development at Saltram Meadow adjacent to the estate.

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.

Times [London, England] 29 Mar. 1961:

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 lime avenue on the left, with the holm oak s on the right now bring bought under control

The view from the lawn over the parkland and  towards the meadows

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 Saltram Estate showing the path of the Devon Expressway, Historic England

Times 24 July 1968

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.

The expressway and one of the bridges can be seen just to the north of the house

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!


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1 Response to Saltram: threats and popularity

  1. tonytomeo says:

    Even here where our heritage is barely over two centuries old, preservation of historical sites is difficult. We do not have nearly as much to preserve, but so much of it is not a priority to those who came here from somewhere else, which is most of our population. Our history is often changed for a variety of reasons. A new movie ‘Winchester’ sounds interesting, but I am in no rush to see it because I know it was made more for entertainment than to be historically accurate.

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