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Archive for March, 2010

Leaving the Oval Garden through its western exit, we find ourselves in a grand avenue or grassed walk, charmingly called the “Long Pourmenade” on Evelyn’s 1653 plan,  (see my previous posts).  The walk extends 526 feet,  the entire length of the garden.

The banqueting house

We could now turn left to investigate the miniature pavilion,  called the”Banquetting House”,  built against the garden perimeter to the south, or  go straight ahead across the walk into the  Great Orchard, planted with three hundred cherries, pears, apples, and other  fruits of many different (and sadly, to our modern eyes, unfamiliar) varieties.  However, as the spring afternoon is drawing to a close, let us turn right and explore a feature for which Evelyn has a particularly soft spot – his famous “Grove” or wilderness of trees, “with several walks, meanders and thickets, etc”. 

Rhamnus Alaternus - Italian Buckthorn

Entering through a gap in the codlin (cooking apple) hedge that forms its western border, we find ourselves inside a rectangular area measuring 40 by 80 yards, thickly planted inside wedge-shaped enclosures of low alaternus hedge (the alaternus being something of a recurring theme at Sayes Court) with a range of deciduous trees including oak, ash, elm, service, beech and chesnut.  In his unfinished magnum opus “Elysium Britannicum”, Evelyn recommends the “confused and irregular planting of them far before the ranging of them in lines”, and it would have been strange indeed if he had not put this into practice in his own garden.  In between the trees are thickets of birch, hazel, and hawthorn, all underplanted with evergreens, shade-loving plants like periwinkle, and herbs -an approach that in some aspects perhaps anticipates modern forest permaculture. 

Like the harsh winter from which we have just emerged, that of 1657-8  was  the severest for decades.  It was so cold, in fact, that Evelyn wrote in his diary that “the crow’s feet were frozen to their prey”.  Signs of the late arrival of Spring are visible throughout the Grove.  The young trees around us, some not grown to much more than head-height yet,  have only recently unfurled their new leaves.

Walnut

Had we come a month or two later, we might have been privileged to see, dotted about in prominent but sheltered positions, a breath-taking range of exotic evergreens in tubs and cases,  such as (to name but a few) carob, cinnamon, lime, lemon, orange,  lignum vitae, olive and oleander, date palms and “dragon trees”.   Unfortunately for us, these are still enjoying their cossetting  in Evelyn’s conservatory – Evelyn  was the first English writer to use this word, and in later years was closely involved in the development of efficient greenhouse heating systems.

Nonetheless,  the centre of the Grove, the focal point, provides a permanent evergreen heart – a mount planted with bay, and lined with laurel.  The mount area also includes two of the Grove’s total of fourteen “cabinetts of Aliternies”, circular or rectangular recessed arbours for contemplation of nature, with large walnut trees planted beside each one,  for shade and shelter.

The mount allows us to get a better idea of the intricate structure of the Grove, but if we could take to the air – what an impossibly fanciful notion! – we would get an even better view of its remarkable synthesis of artifice and nature.

The Grove, Sayes Court - reconstruction by Mark Laird

But the evening light warns us to hurry our way out once more into the long walk, and down to the northern end of the garden, past the continuing Great Orchard on our left, and another smaller orchard area on our right below the Grove, until we reach a moat surrounding a long rectangular island, accessed by a drawbridge.  Swans and ducks dot the water, and there is a flock of starlings gathering in a mulberry tree at the island’s north-eastern corner.  Neat rows of vegetables – asparagus, artichokes, cabbages, and even melons –  are visible.  A small summer-house is tucked into the south-west corner.  I don’t know about you, but I am sorely tempted to linger, and perhaps take a turn around the island in that rowing-boat moored along the bank.

But the starlings are flying off to roost, and soft candlelight is starting to spill from the manor house.  So we must tear ourselves away for now, out of the small orchard gate, down the path to the stairs on the Thames,  and home – if we can find a wherry back to the twenty-first century!

The island and moat


Many thanks to Mark Laird for use of his conjectural reconstruction painting of the Grove.
Main sources: John Evelyn’s 1653 plan of Sayes Court house and gardens; Mark Laird, “Parterre, Grove and Flower Garden: European Horticulture and Planting Design in John Evelyn’s time”; Frances Harris, “Transformations of love”; Prudence Leith-Ross, “The Garden of John Evelyn at Deptford”, in Garden History, vol.25, no. 2; Douglas Chamber, “John Evelyn and the invention of the heated greenhouse”, in Garden History, vol. 20, No. 2

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After this over-long and bitterly cold winter, let’s take a peek back at some spring colour and vigour. Yes, I did say, back! Come with me to Sayes Court on a fresh, late April day in the year 1658. Mr Evelyn is unfortunately out, but we’re so keen to see the garden that we take a quick tour in his absence, anyway – after all, Samuel Pepys got away with it, so why shouldn’t we?

We stroll across a flat expanse of ancient pasture with a perimeter of stately elm trees, towards the beckoning roof line of the Manor house and the main entrance gate, along a broad avenue with a double row of limes on either side, with their “upright Body, smooth and even Bark, ample Leaf, sweet Blossom, the delight of bees, and a goodly shade”, as Evelyn describes them in his most famous work published in his lifetime, “Sylva”.

The dissonant workaday sounds of the adjacent Kings Yard are gradually soothed away by the riffling fingers of the Thames-side breeze through the young soft leaves that invite us towards the open double gate in the ten-foot high brick wall. We step eagerly through its urn-surmounted pillars into a court with carefully-tended grass bowling greens to either side of the gravel path down which we scrunch between flanking rows of cypresses. Through the evergreen fingers we catch glimpses of the sheltering walls of this area, the Great Court, covered with trained tendrels of fruit trees – mostly different varieties of peaches, but also apricots, figs and nectarines. Peach blossom froths sumptuously over the old bricks made of local clay.

Parrot tulips

Before us lies the front of the venerable Tudor house, three-gabled, with a fashionable new stone-paved entrance porch of Doric columns, over which we have heard tell that Mary Evelyn has an intriguing “closset of collections” – natural and artificial curiosities gathered from all across the ever-expanding known world. But we’ll have to save the delights of the house for another day, because there is still so much more to see of the famous gardens.

Ranunculus

We turn left and pass through the garden door, out of the court. We are now in the oval garden. Immediately to our right a small passageway leads towards the nursery, and past the door to Evelyn’s own private garden, in which he enjoys getting hands-on, by tending to it himself. We can hear the trickle of a fountain inside, but that gate is locked to us – for now.

Apart from the gravel paths that edge it, our view of most of the garden is blocked ahead and to the left by a densely-planted evergreen thicket, so in order to get a better impression, we climb the steps to our right up onto the high terrace-walk that runs along its northern side, with a flourishing hedge of holly at its foot.

From up on the terrace, this is the view that greets us – click to view a larger image.

Sayes Court Oval garden and parterre- reconstruction by Mark Laird

An elaborate circular parterre divided into quarters by radiating paths, with each quadrant containing three flowerbeds, surrounds a central mount, with a sundial at its top. The colourful circle is contained with a similarly quartered oval of well-mown lawns, each bounded with beds containing choice flowers in pots. Cypresses planted symmetrically around the mount and the edges of the quarters draw the eye and relieve the flatness of the design. The whole garden is oblong in shape, and the areas around the oval are planted on the east (to our left as we view from the mount) with those evergreen shrubs, pierced by inset recesses or arbours, while to the west/right there are dwarf fruit trees, including cherries now in glorious flower, also pierced with recessed evergreen arbours, (known as “cabinetts”), of ivy and Rhamnus Aliternus, Italian Buckthorn, a species Evelyn is proud to have introduced from France.

Anenomes

While Evelyn is more of a woodsman than a florist (which means a flower hobbyist, not a shopkeeper, here in 1658!), he does favour flowers over the other fashionable alternative of coloured powder to fill the segments of his parterre, being determined to avoid “those painted and formal projections of our cockney gardens and plotts, which appeare like gardens of past-board and march-pane (marzipan), and which smell more of paint then (than) of flowers and verdure”.

And so we see below us the choice bulbs, some  also brought from France when Evelyn first returned after his grand tour, now blooming happily in the Oval Garden’s flowerbeds and pots – the richest tulips, anenomies, ranunculus, as well as crocuses and polyanthus.

I can’t resist – I’m just off now for a quiet sit-down in one of the enticingly-secluded cabinetts, but when I come back we can continue our exploration!


Special thanks to Mark Laird who generously allowed me to use his conjectural reconstruction painting of the oval garden. Other main sources: Mark Laird, “Parterre, grove and flower garden: European horticulture and planting design in John Evelyn’s time” in  O’Malley & Wolschke-Bulmahn, eds. ,”John Evelyn’s “Elysium Britannicum and European gardening””; John Evelyn ed. Maggie Campbell-Culver, “Directions for the Gardiner and other horticultural advice”; Frances Harris “Transformations of love”.

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Aerial view of Sayes Court area – click to enlarge.

I now had Evelyn’s own plan of Sayes Court to give me the seventeenth century layout, and photos of the modern site such as this birds-eye view, that shows roughly the same area as the plan, as well, of course, as more modern maps of the area.

Clicking or flipping from one to the other gave me a rough idea of how they related to each other, but I needed something more exact.

An overlay of the 1653 plan on a modern street map of the area seemed to be the answer. This is now available for Google Earth, and has the great advantages of being free and accessible to anyone. All you need is to have Google Earth installed on your computer, and hey, presto, you can fade out the twenty-first century into the seventeenth, and vice-versa! [see instructions below]

Using the overlay, you can see that the modern Sayes Court Street that leads to one of the entrances of the park falls just outside the western boundary of Evelyn’s Great Orchard, shown on his plan with lots of cute miniature trees (there were actually three hundred, according to the key). I recommend using the zoom to get a close-up of any of the features.

The overlay makes it clear that most of the modern park lay outside Evelyn’s garden (or at least the 1650’s version of it) in the large field then called the “Broome Field”. The part of Dacca Street that leads off Prince Street aligns with what was once the 300 foot long avenue planted on each side with a double row of limes that led to Sayes Court’s main entrance gates, (whose image forms the banner to this blog).

If Dacca Street were still a double lime avenue…

The border between Evelyn’s plan and his key, roughly parallel with Convey Way on the modern map, follows the line of what was the dockyard wall in his time. Obviously the dockyard, present-day Convoys Wharf, has encroached massively into the former area of Sayes Court. But if you look carefully, you’ll see that the warehouses have just about avoided the area where the great oval parterre was, and where the manor house and its yard and outbuildings stood. Only the long warehouse whose photo I included in my previous post appears to clip the western edge of the parterre.

The overlay certainly brings home how much has changed in the space of three hundred years. Yet even so, traces of the footprint of Sayes Court are still visible.

Just as we now know that trees are healthier when the soil they’re planted in contains mycorrhizal fungi to nourish their roots, so I think we benefit if we’re able to perceive a physical continuity with the past. Beneath the turf of the park and the concrete of Convoys Wharf, the once-rich soil of Sayes Court has been neglected for too long.

Hopefully the overlay will work as a sort of temporal mulch!


Instructions for using the Google Earth overlay.

Get the .kmz file from
bbs.keyhole.com/Plan_of_Sayes_Court_House_and_Garden.kmz
and save it on your computer. It will take a moment or two to download, then double click on it to open it in Google Earth (which must already be installed). This will open up the 1653 plan overlaid onto the modern map of the area.

Select (by clicking once on it) “Plan of Sayes Court House and Garden” from the menu on the left. By dragging the arrow on the slider below (the one that says “the slider sets the transparency of the overlay”) you can view Evelyn’s map or the modern one, and all degrees of transparency in between.

To zoom in and out, hover your mouse near the upper right-hand corner, and a slide will appear with a plus and minus for greater and less magnification.

If you don’t have Google Earth, you can download it free at earth.google.co.uk

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