Landscaping of the Tamar Valley

by Mavis Batey

‘Nature hath shouldered out Cornwall into the farthest part of the realm and so besieged it with the ocean that it forms a demi-island in an island’, wrote Richard Carew of Antony in his Survey of Cornwall in 1602. The Tamar, which completes the county’s insularity, was for a time the great divide between Saxon England and Celtic Kernow, leaving Cornwall largely inaccessible except by ferry and seldom visited by the world of fashion.  There were some hunting parks but generally estates were small and let out to farmers; gardens were walled with orchards and a bowling green overlooking a riverside view.  The bones of Elizabethan gardens can still be found in some manor houses, for, as Polwhele said in 1803, until his day fashionable ideas had passed Cornwall by.  No Bridgeman, Kent, nor Brown had been invited across the Tamar and, with the major exception of Mount Edgcumbe, landscaping only began when Humphry Repton appeared on the scene in the 1790s.

Repton’s introduction to the county was through politics when he met his client William Pitt’s Cornish supporters, Pole Carew of Antony, Glanville of Catchfrench, Gregor of Trewarthenick and Lord Eliot, who controlled six Cornish seats and whose heir was married to Pitt’s sister. Reginald Pole Carew, MP for Lostwithiel, himself a man of taste in landscaping, took charge of Repton and gave him a rundown on the county, recommending him to his friends and giving him information about intermarrying and impending deaths and changes of fortune which would make his overtures desirable; this led to commissions at Caerhays, Haines Hill, Tregothnan and Pentillie2.

Pole Carew was particularly anxious to see the Tamar scenery improved as a whole, which would also enhance Repton’s reputation. He urged him to bring together old and new plantations and coppiced woods, and to make plans for the Tudor Gothic Pentillie Castle which would include banking up the river to control the tidal fluxes and allow reflections. The castle, which he considered to be a most striking ornament of the Tamar, was unfortunately demolished in 1968.

The whole region bordering the Tamar and Lyner rivers was naturally picturesque.  At Port Eliot and Antony, where Repton introduced extensive tree planting, still much in evidence today, he was able to make good use of the materials of landscape available to landowners in the Tamar Valley.  Antony had been a Carew property since the 15th century and was in an important position commanding a much used ferry across the Lynher at Antony passage looking over to Trematon, one of the most extensive castles in Cornwall with strategic views over the Tamar estuary.

Port Eliot was originally a tidal bay on the Lynher or St Germans estuary.  The present house, which had 500 acres landscaped by Repton, incorporates the site of an old priory.  A spectacular addition to the Port Eliot landscape in the 1850s was Brunel’s railway viaduct with its thirteen arches over the river Tiddy.

Further upstream and even without the advantage of the estuary scenery, Repton had, at Endsleigh, the opportunity to create one of his most picturesque landscapes3.  Although the 1st Earl of Bedford had held the land, which had been the Abbot of Tavistock’s deer park, since the Dissolution, the Bedfords did not have a seat in the area until the 6th Duke called in Repton to provide him with a picturesque lodge for pheasant shooting and salmon fishing by the Tamar.  Out of respect to the past, a statue of the last Abbot of Tavistock was erected on one of the gables and one of Repton’s plantations was called Edgcumbe to recall that it was the Edgcumbes of Cotehele who had originally donated the land to the abbey.

Repton’s ideas for accommodating the Duke and Duchess, their children and servants in a series of detached picturesque buildings linked by arcades were not carried out, but the large lodge, later built by Wyatville, with irregular elevations achieved the same picturesque effect.  Repton’s proposals in his Red Book for the landscaping of Endsleigh were, however, mainly adopted; these included extensive plantations and walks, a weir on the Tamar, a flower-festooned verandah, a sailing pond for the children, a pool in Dairy Dell and a long terrace walk with a conservatory banked with flowers on a pebbled retaining wall.

A fire was to be lit in the distant woodman’s cottage, even in his absence, so that the blue curling smoke would enliven the park scenery; this was said to have been kept up until the last War.  Repton also suggested for Endsleigh a ‘grotto like receptacle for fossils and ore from the district’ which was by nature of being prophetic for the Bedfords’ fortunes were soon to change through extensive new mineral exploitation of their land. The industrialisation of the Tamar valley did not take place until after the Napoleonic Wars, so that unlike West Cornwall, it could be combined with picturesque sensitivity when undertaken by the two major landowners, the Bedfords and the Edgcumbes. Cotehele quay is an example of the new development following the discovery of copper and arsenic in the area. When copper was found on the Endsleigh estate in the 1840s, the Duke resolutely refused to contemplate gangs of miners disturbing his pheasants in Repton’s picturesque game preserve. His son the 7th Duke, reached a compromise with the mineral workings well concealed in the landscaped woods where he said the marvellous copper hauls shone like gold ‘a gorgeous metallic wealth and sylvan beauty the like of which will never be seen again’. The mines declined in the 1860s but the adapted game preserve walks can still be seen in Blanchdown Wood, which has a disused chimney in the centre.
Cotehele, the ancestral home of the Edgcumbes on the Tamar, which had come to the family when William Edgcumbe married Hilaria de Cotehele in 1353, is a rare example of an unchanged mediaeval manor house with dovecote and fishponds intact; it was kept up, but not fashionably improved, when Mount Edgcumbe became the family seat in the 16th century. The headland overlooking the Tamar estuary to the east and the ocean to the south, had been a licensed deer park, where hunting took from both land and sea. In 1547 Sir Richard Edgcumbe decided to build a house in his deer park on a rising hill and to call it Mount Edgcumbe. Its towers and turrets made it mediaeval in appearance but its design was not for defensive purposes but to allow ‘a large and diversified prospect of land and sea’. Its outward looking chambers were an innovation at a time when houses, like their own Cotehele, looked inwards to courtyards.
Mount Edgcumbe, from its earliest days celebrated for the magnificence of its situation, was a landmark for adventurers, emigrants and explorers leaving England from Plymouth to remember and recall in faraway lands (there is a Mount Edgcumbe in Alaska named by Captain Cook) and a sight to rejoice the eyes of those returning home. The Edgcumbes were in a strong position when the cult of landscape gardening became fashionable. In the late 17th century they began the planting of their barren headland and by 1698 Celia Fiennes found ‘a hill all bedeck’d with woods which are divided into several rows of trees in walks4’, but this was soon to be landscaped in the natural style with the assistance of Peter Collinson and the head gardener, Thomas Hull5.

Mt Edgcumbe, Badeslade 1737
The family had always been connected with the royal household and government and in the 18th century spent much of the year in the Twickenham area on intimate terms with Lyttelton, Thomson, Garrick and Horace Walpole6.  Sparry marble was sent up from Mount Edgcumbe cliffs to ornament Pope’s grotto. The enjoyment of ‘animated prospect’, nurtured in the Vale of Thames, was Mount Edgcumbe’s reason for being; however picturesque the Thames might look laden with barges, nothing could rival the sight of warships in the Sound framed in vistas from Mount Edgcumbe’s terrace. ‘You have no idea what an amazing sight it is’, wrote Lady Edgcumbe, ‘thirty sail of the line now lying under a terrace of shrubs, as if only to ornament our park7’.

Unfortunately, that picturesque gathering of the fleet in the Tamar was the prelude to a second Armada scare which was to have a drastic effect on her landscaped park.  When the first Armada was off Plymouth Sound in 1588, it was reported that the Duke of Medina Sidonia, having previously been entertained by the Edgcumbes, said that when he conquered Britain he could think of no better place to live than at Mount Edgcumbe.  In 1779 the alarm was once more given on Maker church tower of enemy fleets off the Lizard, this time both French and Spanish, and Lord Edgcumbe received notice to fell all his trees which might provide cover for raiders to attack Plymouth. ‘The finest beeches, the loveliest old oaks that Sir Francis Drake and Sir Walter Raleigh had seen perhaps’, lamented Mrs Delany8. Fortunately, the second armada, like that of 1588, scattered; the trees were replanted and Lord Edgcumbe was made a Viscount for the patriotic sacrifice of his woods.

The headland is planted to give ‘hide and discover’ views of the harbour, the Tamar and the ocean, presenting a great variety of changing scenes from dry levelled walks on an extensive circuit, a higher route giving panoramic and the lower picturesque viewpoints. Foreigners gave ‘a preference to Mount Edgcumbe for its great variety to anything the Continent produces9’, according to James Forbes and, indeed, the widely–travelled Professor Hirschfeld of Kiel went so far as to say that there was ‘nothing like it in the world10’. For the picturesque Devonian, John Swete, its appeal was that ‘within the sweet recesses of this delicious spot one might retire from the world and yet to be a Spectator to all its bustle … and in a fairy mirror behold an epitome of the world11’.

Varying moods are provided in the landscape by a ruin, a hermitage, and a spectacular amphitheatre rising up steeply from a small estuary bay, where an inscription in Milton’s temple recalls the wall of Paradise ‘a woody theatre of stateliest view’.  After open views of the busy Tamar the prospect is blocked by planting until the moment comes to turn the spectator to the sublimity of the ocean. Richard Warner, Gilpin’s picturesque curate, describes the romantic experience where ‘the great Terrace now receives the traveller, wrapping him in gloom, with the fine accompaniment of the ocean roaring at a great depth beneath him12’, and James Forbes records the emotion when ‘you hear the murmuring of the waves against the rocks far below, without seeing anything of the sea’. It is not to be wondered at that 18th-century visitors waxed lyrical about Mount Edgcumbe; however strongly they commended Stowe, Stourhead or Painshill their Genius of the Place looked meagre beside the bounty of a sea-girt landscaped garden.

Repton visited Mount Edgcumbe while working in Cornwall and found it ‘altogether the most magnificent, the most beautiful, the most romantic’ landscape: a rare survival of Regency character gardens, English, French and Italian, insulated by ornamental shrubberies, can be seen at Mount Edgcumbe, which Repton may have been responsible for suggesting on the lines of his specialised gardens at Bulstrode, which he first mentions in Observations in 180315.

It is greatly to the credit of Plymouth City and Cornwall County Council that they purchased Mount Edgcumbe jointly in 1971 to create a Country Park, with grant aid from the Countryside Commission and, with limited resources available, are dedicatingly restoring one of the greatest landscape parks. In 1983 the Joint Committee for the Park was made aware of the historic importance of the Mount Edgcumbe’s landscaped park following extensive research carried out by the Garden History Society and the restoration of the historic landscape is the main guiding force for the management of the park. Many wartime structures had to be removed as in the Second World War the tree cover, which had caused such problems in the 18th-century armada scare, was of strategic value for concealing coastal batteries and encampments. Concrete roads were laid in the lower park to accommodate the transfer of American tanks to France on D-Day.

It was left to the 19th century to take full advantage of Cornwall’s mild climate which favoured plantsmen’s gardens. There is no area where a greater variety of plants can be grown when woodland shelter is provided in frost free valleys; magnolias, camellias, rhododendrons, mimosa, azaleas, palms, tree ferns and many other exotic species. Many landowners were keen to support the early plant hunters and extend their woodlands to nurture their introductions. At Antony, there is a happy combination of picturesque landscaping and plantsmanship in the Wild Woodland garden, which was extensively replanted by Sir John Carew Pole in 1938.

In 1976 the International Camellia Society presented Mount Edgcumbe with 200 camellias and it has since become the site for the National Collection under the auspices of the National Council for the Conservation of Plants and Gardens and many thousands of varieties of camellias can now be seen, mostly in the Upper Amphitheatre. To commemorate the American D-Day embarking from Barn Pool, an American garden has been made within the Reptonian specialised garden area, which contains peat-loving plants such as Kalmia, Andromeda and hybrid azaleas, with borders of evening primroses, Gaillardia, Black-eyed Susan and other wild flowers, grown here as garden plants, from North Carolina, where there is an Edgcombe county, named after the 1st Lord Edgcumbe in the 1740s. Dogwood, the North Carolina emblem also flourishes.

Modern contributions have also enhanced the Tamar valley, noticeably that at Ince Castle in its superbly romantic and remote situation on the north shore of the river Lynher. The castle was ‘Georgianised’ and after years of neglect was restored by Viscount and Viscountess Boyd in the 1960s.  How Lady Boyd
transformed the windswept landscape into a beautiful garden is described by Rosemary Verey in her Englishwoman’s Garden.

A view of Ince Castle

The Italian Garden, Mt Edgcumbe, Condy 1849

1.  Polwhele, Richard, The History of Cornwall, 1803-1808
2. For an account of Repton’s relationship with Pole Carew see Edward Malins’s introduction to The Red Books of Humphry Repton, Basilisk Press, 1976
3. See article by Richard Stone, ‘The Creation of Endsleigh; A Regency Picturesque Masterpiece’ in Devon Gardens, ed S Pugsley, 1994. See also entry on Endsleigh in Todd Gray’s The Garden History of Devon, 1995
4. The Journeys of Celia Fiennes, ed. C Morris, 1947, p.254-5. Thomas Hull was clearly capable of laying out the terrace walks. He subscribed to Switzer’s book Practical Husbandman and Planter and was related to other Hulls, notable gardeners to Baron Edgcumbe’s father-in-law at Waldeshawe in Kent and at Thomas Pitt’s house at Okehampton. In his will Thomas Hull left instruments including a theodolite. Information from John Harvey
6. For the Twickenham set see Arcadian Thames, by Mavis Batey, Henrietta Buttery, David Lambert & Kim Wilkie, 1994.
7. The Harcourt Papers, ed. EW Harcourt. 12vols, 1876-1905, Vol. VIII, p.277
8. The Autobiography and Correspondence of Mary Granville, Mrs Delany, ed. Lady LLanover, 6 vols, 1861, vol V, p.459
9. James Forbes, Tour into Cornwall in 1794 (MS deposited at The Royal Institution of Cornwall, Truro Museum) p.153
10. Hirschfeld, CCL Theorie der Gartenkunst, 5 vols 1779, Vol. IV, p. 117
11. John Swete, MS Journals deposited at the Devon County Record Office, f.141. For an account of these journals see article Peter Hunt, ‘John Swete and the Picturesque’ in Devon Gardens, ed S Pugsley, 1994
12. Richard Warner, A Tour through Cornwall in the autumn of 1808, 1809, p.74
13.  Forbes, op. cit., p.154
14.  Red Book for Mulgrave, 1793
15. For an account of Repton’s specialised gardens see M Batey, Regency Gardens, 1995, p54

Mavis Batey MBE, FSA, VMM  Hon. Sec. The Garden History Society 1971-85, President 1985-2000 and now a Vice-President.  A pioneer in garden conservation, she has been a member of a number of landscape advisory committees including the English Heritage Gardens Committee.  In 1983 she wrote the Mount Edgcumbe historic landscape report for the Joint Committee.  As a historian of landscape and literature, her books include:  Oxford Gardens (1982), Historic Gardens of Oxford and Cambridge (1989), The English Garden Tour with David Lambert (1990), Arcadian Thames (1994), Regency Gardens (1995), Jane Austen and the English Landscape (1996), Alexander Pope, the Poet and Landscape (1999).