Boris Johnson’s recent takeover (at the developer’s request) of planning power from Lewisham Council over the Convoys Wharf development caused widespread dismay at this perceived subversion of democracy. Lewisham, now relegated to a merely advisory role, have just voted to recommend rejection of the application, submitting a report that highlights Hutchison Whampoa’s negligible response to the site’s heritage among many other serious concerns. With little over a month to go before Johnson delivers his verdict, local MP Joan Ruddock yesterday spoke eloquently in a Commons adjournment debate about the importance of honouring the heritage of Sayes Court and the Royal Dockyard.
After outlining the site’s prestigious history, and the inadequacy of its current statutory protection, Joan asked Ed Vaizey, the Under-Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sport, to “activate an emergency listing and scheduling procedure based on the available archaeology”. Ed Vaizey’s reply to this was that he is expecting a report from English Heritage very soon (before the mayor’s decision, though he didn’t seem very sure on this crucial point) on whether other parts of the site should be scheduled, and that he will follow its guidance. At the moment, Sayes Court manor house and garden (and all the subterranean dockyard features except for the Tudor Storehouse), have no legal protection. Let us hope that English Heritage, previously rather grudging in their acknowledgement of the site’s importance, pull their weight at the last minute.
Joan’s speech referred to the two aspects of the present Bagley-Angell Sayes Court proposal, namely a contemporary garden and a horticultural training centre. Noting that the new buildings in the developer’s plan will “obliterate much of the original garden site and isolate the proposed centre”, she asked whether the minister agreed that the centre should respond to the archaeology and be set within an open space.
Vaizey’s reply addressed only the location of the training centre, citing the opinion of English Heritage that “the proposed orientation of the blocks does not best reflect the archaeology in respect of the relationship of Sayes Court to its garden landscape” and that this relationship should be made more legible. EH likes the concept of a centre that would incorporate and present the remains of the manor house. Vaizey himself was rather non-committal, however, commenting merely that “I believe it is important to note the views of English Heritage in that regard.”
Now, although I approve of a horticultural training centre enveloping the manor house site, and agree that it should be properly connected with the layout of Evelyn’s garden, I find the fact that Vaizey’s response made no mention of the garden itself very telling. Roo Angell and Bob Bagley have quietly dropped any talk of restoration of Evelyn’s garden in favour of their so-called “contemporary interpretation” instead. I believe this plays into the hands of the developers and severely weakens the whole proposal. Who, apart perhaps from a few landscape designers, can get excited at the prospect of a generic strip of “green space” dotted, if you’re lucky, with a few abstract conceptual tokens of the past? In contrast, the Lenox project easily captures the imagination. No-one can deny the romance of a proposal to rebuild a replica seventeenth century ship – a real, tangible, experiential link with history.
Joan Ruddock told the House that the archaeological survey has revealed traces of early walls below the 18th century workhouse building on the site of Sayes Court. I believe further excavation could and should be done to try and uncover more of the structure of Evelyn’s house. Furthermore, since nearby garden walls have been “confidently reconciled with map evidence of Evelyn’s home”, this means that the structural bones are there in situ for at least a partial restoration of the garden itself.
What about a restoration of the grove that was so close to Evelyn’s heart, or the fountain garden with his laboratory whose contents are shown in a surviving sketch, or the beautiful and unique parterre? These restored features, for which we have Evelyn’s own meticulous plans and documentation, would be far more inspiring and likely to attract funding from heritage bodies, as well as throngs of visitors eager to experience such a rare recreation of a renowned seventeenth century English garden. As an educational resource this would pack far more punch, as well as offering employment to more people, since period gardens need much more hands-on maintenance, and provide the opportunity to progress to a higher skill level.
I know that many local people and readers of this blog enthusiastically support a restoration of Sayes Court Garden. So, finally, I have to ask: why has the idea received no backing from those supposedly campaigning for Sayes Court? Why has the option not even been discussed in public, surely the duty of a self-professed “Community Interest Company”?
As Joan Ruddock noted, the Sayes Court proposal demands incorporation at this stage of the planning process. Now is when the decision will be taken on the layout and massing of the buildings. The later planning stage, of “reserved matters”, would be too late. This really is a last-ditch battle for our heritage.