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.
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.