Devon Life visits Saltram House gardens

PUBLISHED: 17:13 02 January 2013 | UPDATED: 22:35 20 February 2013

Looking back at the house from near the Orangery

Looking back at the house from near the Orangery

Just a stone's throw from the centre of Devon's most populous city is a gracious Palladian house with a park and garden packed with winter appeal




Just a stones throw from the centre of Devons most populous city is a gracious Palladian house with a park and garden packed with winter appeal

Words and photos by Jan Barwick

Saltram House, near Plympton, exists in a little bubble of its own. Perched on a promontory above the River Plym, its now shielded from the traffic roaring down the main road from Marsh Mills into Plymouth by a thick shelterbelt of trees. To its south, the infamous landfill site at Chelston Meadows, which was once a conspicuous eye-sore, has been grassed over, and the southern aspect is now one of woodland and bosky meadows. Its hard to believe that a city of some 259,000 people is just there down the road. John Parker ll, who was responsible for the refurbishment of the house in splendid Palladian style in the 1770s, and who also built and laid out the parkland with its conspicuous garden buildings like the Orangery and the Castle Folly, may well have stopped turning in his grave.

The house is such an impressive example of Robert Adams style that many visitors, sated with the absolute splendour of the house, never make it into the garden. But in December and January, the house is mostly closed so you can concentrate purely on what the grounds have to offer and its well worth an exploration.

From its original inception as a landscape park, in the late 19th century Saltram was reinvented more as a plantsmans garden under the influence of Albert Parker, the 3rd Earl of Morley, who was married to Margaret Holford, daughter of RS Holford of Westonbirt Arboretum in Gloucestershire. Plants were very much in the familys consciousness, and they had become seriously interested in rare trees and shrubs, which they included in their new scheme. They were responsible for planting the magnificent lime avenue a big improvement because it acted as a windbreak to the more tender plants in what was a very exposed position.

It was never an ideal site for a garden, says head gardener Penny Hammond. Being 30ft above sea level on a promontory, it gets every breath of wind going. The soil here is very thin as well its a shillet and so free-draining that after two weeks without rain it feels like were in a drought.

The mature trees and shrubs provide a great backbone and excellent structure.

Theres a huge variety of evergreens which show off the other plants to telling effect, says Penny, and theres also a really good network of hard paths, so its very easy to get around, mostly on the level.

Many of the trees are venerable, like a gnarled chestnut and a vast and gracious London plane near the Orangery and, up near the Castle Folly, a 700-year-old oak that grows on its own little mound, on which masses of Cyclamen coum flower in February. This tree, held together with hawsers, was used for the treehouse in Ang Lees 1995 production of Jane Austens Sense and Sensibility, where Saltram doubled as the fictional Dashwoods home, Norland Park.

Beyond the house, horticulturally unadorned apart from a line of yews on its western flank, is the Chapel Gallery, dominated by a blue Atlas cedar, Cedrus altantica Glauca. Adjacent to the gallery (which hosts art/craft exhibitions throughout the year and is a great source of classy Christmas presents) is the gardens main flower border, designed in 1964 by Graham Stuart Thomas, the National Trusts first garden consultant. This was very much of its time, a mixed border of shrubs, small trees, roses and herbaceous plants, but has evolved over the years as fashions changed. There are some decidedly un-English plants here a pomegranate; a Japanese bitter orange (Poncirus trifoliata), which has lethal spines and would be an excellent burglar deterrent; a flamboyant Amicia, which bears yellow pea flowers; and, at the end, a host of tropical-feeling plants like bananas, ginger lilies and the rice-paper plant Tetrapanax. Oddly enough, this area contains the only garden wall in the entire estate. There was once a fine walled kitchen garden, like many other grand houses such as Knightshayes and Arlington Court, situated some distance from the house. Unfortunately the land was compulsorily purchased for the building of the Plymouth bypass in the 1970s, which bisected the estate. So the kitchen garden is now a 70s housing estate, even though the walls are still there, says Penny.

One of Pennys jobs for this winter is reinstating the eastern border to the original Stuart Thomas plan.

He died in 2003, and many of his designs no longer exist, so we thought it appropriate to restore it to its original state as a tribute.

The Orange Grove, complete with circular formal pond, is an area behind the Chapel Gallery that also boasts plants that convey warmth and sunshine. Its named thus because its where eight of the citrus trees from the Orangery are parked for their summer quarters. The others occupy the curved apron outside the Orangery itself, surrounding the Magic Urn, a water feature sculpture given by the present 6th Earl, Lord Morley, in honour of his brother, Brigadier Robin Parker, who was the last member of the family to live in the house until his death in 1999. In winter the citrus trees are all moved inside the Orangery where, as they begin flowering in early spring, they suffuse the building with scent. The trees a mix of lemons, grapefruit, Spanish blood oranges and Sevilles are some 50 years old, and have grown so much that juggling them into position is quite a task. Saltram hosts a marmalade-making day in the restaurant at the end of January using the fruit produced.

Visit on a fine day in winter and Saltram will show off some of its other qualities. There is plenty planted for scent Christmas box, Mahonia, a grove of witchhazel, shrubby honeysuckles and trees with beautiful sunlight-catching bark. Penny pats the peely trunk of a fine Chinese birch (Betula albosinensis Septentrionalis) by the path to the Castle Folly. I found it in a plastic bag when I first came here, thoroughly neglected. It must now be around 7m tall.

In December, the first camellia will likely be coming into bloom; there is a camellia walk behind the Orange Grove and camellias figure prominently elsewhere in the garden. The Serpentine Walk, which flanks part of the southern border of the estate, is designed principally with winter in mind, with dark-leaved plants grown against the pale, variegated foliage of Rhamnus and shrubs included for their attractive winter qualities, like red- and green-stemmed Cornus and the ghostly silvery Rubus thibetanus. Come January and the first bulbs will be coming into flower. In many places, isolated trees are planted with circles of snowdrops or cyclamen, and the holm oaks that run parallel to the lime avenue (which is also dense with Cyclamen hederafolium in the autumn months) grow amongst a sea of snowdrops. Saltram is as beautiful in winter as it is the rest of the year.

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