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.
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”.
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.
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.
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!
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