Saltram's landscape garden

Alison Cooper, Curator Alison Cooper Curator
The west lawn overlooking the house in Spring at Saltram, Devon

When the Parkers moved to Saltram, they set about developing their country house into a fashionable show home. Attention was paid equally to the garden and estate as it was to the house and collections.

The 18th century saw the rise in fashion of landscaped rather than formal gardens. Made to look natural, many of these gardens were in fact huge feats of workmanship as new lakes were dug and masses of soil moved. Unlike other estates, Saltram didn’t have to create a new lake or water feature. Its position on the River Plym gave a natural feature to the wider garden.

The River Plym and Blaxton meadow at Saltram
The River Plym and Blaxton meadow at Saltram
The River Plym and Blaxton meadow at Saltram

Garden buildings and follies were built for the family and visitors to explore, for outdoor shelter and to host entertainment. The painter William Tomkins was commissioned by the family to record these views, showing just how proud the Parkers were of the grounds they created.These paintings are on display in Saltram’s garden room. Looking at them more closely is a wonderful way to transport yourself back to 18th century Plymouth – comparing where features are still recognisable, and where former fields are now full with housing.

The River Plym and Saltram, Tomkins, 1771
The River Plym and Saltram, Tomkins, 1771
The River Plym and Saltram, Tomkins, 1771

Perhaps the most iconic building is the Amphitheatre. This was built in around the 1740s and sits on a semi-circle of land which juts out into the river. Those who regularly drive along the embankment or take the train in and out of Plymouth today will be familiar with the sight of the Amphitheatre from across the river.

For the Parkers and their guests, the Amphitheatre was made for entertainment. It may have originally contained a covered room for picnicking and for music. The garden was a prime location for evening activities, with fireworks and fiddlers providing amusement.

The Amphitheatre can be found along Riverside Walk
View of Saltram's folly Amphitheatre in partial ruin
The Amphitheatre can be found along Riverside Walk

For everyone else not lucky enough to be invited to such parties, the Amphitheatre signalled the edge of the Saltram estate. It was purposefully placed within a key view across the river. Anyone who rode, walked or sailed by would be in no doubt as to the wealth and taste of the Parker family.

The amphitheatre at Saltram by William Tomkins (1770).
The amphitheatre at Saltram by William Tomkins (1770)
The amphitheatre at Saltram by William Tomkins (1770).