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Plymouth: From the Tamar to the Sea

Image: Mayflower composite

Image: Sutton Harbour plaques


Plymouth Sound is one of the largest natural harbours in Britain. Two main rivers flow into it, the Tamar to the west which marks the boundary between Devon and Cornwall, and the Plym on the east, smaller in size, but the river that gave the city its name. It reaches the Sound at Sutton Pool, formed between the narrow arm of Mountbatten and the Barbican area of Plymouth.

Here is Sutton Harbour. The Anglo-Saxons made it a port for fishing and boat repairing. Its sheltered location and position along the south coast gave it advantages, especially as a stepping-off place for voyages across the Atlantic and beyond. Today it is mainly used for fishing boats and many pleasure craft which moor here in a marina. Tourists flock to the souvenir and antique shops in the Barbican, or cross the bridge at the entrance to the harbour to reach the National Aquarium recently opened. Trips to view the naval base at Devonport start from here. And there are many commemorative plaques to those who set out from the Harbour to found distant colonies, serve time in Australia’s prison colonies, fight in numerous wars or fish in the deep seas out in the English Channel. Many never came back, lost at sea, perished in foreign lands, or else staying to found new settlements in other continents.

The left-hand plaque above recalls the would-be settlers of the Roanoke Colony planned by Sir Walter Raleigh in what would become North Carolina. Between 1585 and 1587 several groups of people crossed the Atlantic from Sutton Harbour and landed on the coast of North America. They either abandoned the hoped-for colony after some time or they died there. Their fate is unknown.

The second plaque marks the link between Sutton – and Plymouth – and Australia. Sydney was founded with a prison colony at Port Jackson in 1788. Many other people left Devon through the great port of Plymouth in order swell the colonies on the southern continent, either as felons or as settlers proper. In the same way they left for every other newly-discovered land around the globe from here: explorers, soldiers and sailors, settlers and traders and tourists, the latter using the ferry terminal at Mill Bay on the Sound to cross to France and Spain.

Image: Saltram composite


Definitely not Baskerville Hall. I can’t imagine this beautifully white building being mistaken for grimly dark Baskerville Hall and the National Trust has a ‘no dogs’ policy anyway. And I don’t think the Baskerville horror pooch would qualify as a guide dog.

Saltram, as the National Trust know it, has been owned by the NT since 1957. The house was built for John Parker during the reign of George III and has some of Robert Adams’s finest work in the saloon. Parker was created 1st Baron Boringdon and notable not only as a politician but also as a collector of paintings. He was elected a Fellow of the Royal Society in 1767. The house has a very large number of fine works displayed throughout. The Saltram estate is on the edge of the Laira, a tidal stretch of the Plym estuary – in other words, Plymouth. The city used to dump waste on Chelson Meadow, part of the old estate. Now it has been closed and landscaped the area makes good open space that expands the visitor area taking in attractive walks and views.

Plymouth’s naval history both military and civilian is so dominant that it is surprising to find it had an important home to art close by. Not only did John Parker collect and act as a patron to painting. Sir Joshua Reynolds, the pre-eminent portrait painter and first president of the Royal Academy, was born and educated in Plympton where Saltram is situated. Sir Charles Lock Eastlake, the first Director of the National Gallery, was educated in the town’s grammar school, as was Benjamin Haydon who promoted the Royal College of Art.

Saltram is a friendly place. National Trust staff and volunteers usually are. Those famous room attendants, who are on hand for questions and who watch over the contents, do tend to be older folk with time to spare and an interest in history. Most say hello and then await questions. Some give brief answers, others respond at greater length. One younger star performer went a few steps better with a lovely, knowledgeable presentation about the fashion for far eastern art, with fluid body language that backed up her verbal exposition. It was an art form in itself, though what the other room attendants thought of it as an exemplar of visitor interpretation is anyone’s guess. And no, she is not the lady in the photo above.

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