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.
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.
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.
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.
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”.