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Archive for February, 2010

For many years after his death in 1706, John Evelyn’s mountain of manuscripts, letters, and other papers were kept at his family house in Wotton, Surrey, but now they are in the care of the British Library. Among them, as I soon found to my great delight, is an incredibly detailed plan and description of the garden, drawn in 1653, when he was first planning and laying out the grounds of Sayes Court.

Evelyn was a gifted draughtsman, and his plan is meticulously drawn to scale.

Evelyn's 1653 plan of Sayes Court. Click to view a larger version

As I pored over this incredible plan, (copyright the British Library) it almost felt like Evelyn had somehow foreseen that his garden would one day vanish, and done his best to ensure that an accurate record of it, at least, would survive. Of course, that isn’t the ostensible reason that he drew it – it was to show his father-in-law Richard Browne, a keen horticulturalist who was then on diplomatic posting in Paris, how Evelyn was transforming the estate that he took over when he married into the family.In the key to the left of the plan, (copyright the British Library) a full one hundred and twenty six items shown on the plan are listed, including every room in the house and its outbuildings, every feature of the gardens with dimensions and planting information, and even aspects of the land prior to Evelyn’s alterations, of a kind to gladden the heart of any archaeologist. (Take for example, item 48. “That tract of pricks shew where formerlie the row of great elms grew towards the Pingle, which I feld filling the hollow to accommodate the orchard”.)

Warehouse to the east of Sayes Court Park

One of the first conclusions I came to from examining it is that the modern park is very much smaller than the original garden. So, has the dockyard that borders the park to the east, currently covered with the huge shed-like modern warehouses of Convoys Wharf, encroached over time onto the former area of Sayes Court?

In my next post, I’ll reveal how Evelyn’s map really does work like a marvellous key that lets us enter the seventeenth century landscape.

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It was one day early in  2005, soon after we’d moved into our flat nearby, that we first discovered Sayes Court Park, adjacent to the currently-disused Thames-side dockyard in Deptford.  I was interested in seeing the wizened mulberry tree at its heart, supposedly planted some three hundred years ago by Czar Peter of Russia, of all people.

Old mulberry tree in Sayes Court Park

I was a bit sceptical of that particular legend even then, and am more so now that I have read the contemporary accounts of Peter’s behaviour during his visit. But I was nonetheless intrigued by the idea of a tree surviving from the greener, pre-industrial landscape in these parts. The gnarled but still vigorous and reportedly fruitful mulberry at least held out the eventual prospect of a taste you can’t buy at Tesco.

If you ask local people about the park, some will tell you that John Evelyn, a friend of Samuel Pepys, and like him a diarist,  had a famous garden there. His house, and the garden, were indeed called Sayes Court.   The question was, how much, if anything, remained from Evelyn’s day in the modern park?

Once you’ve got your eye in for it – by archaeological fieldwork, surveying, studying old maps – you develop an almost tangible sense of the past under your feet.  A sort of space-time-penetrating vision.  This feels completely natural to me, even if I don’t draw on it much these days, unfortunately. Anyway, doing my best to tune into what you might call this past-detector,  I scanned the ground eagerly, hoping to spot something – an anomalous bank, or the parch-marks of an earlier planting layout,  or a shard of seventeenth century pottery – anything to connect with what was there before.

But the park, despite bearing the name of Sayes Court, initially appeared to be just a rather run-down, reduced-to-low-maintenance relic of the nineteen-fifties.  A few ubiquitous plane trees and shrubs  and predictable rows of roses, but otherwise, sadly, not much apart from concrete paths and grass.

So, I began to feel curious to find out what had become of Evelyn’s house, and especially, his renowned garden.

What kind of garden was it?  Had it really been completely lost?

I began to delve deeper.

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