Sayes Court was not the only garden that John Evelyn had a hand in. His advice was sought on garden design by numerous landowners, including his friend Philip Packer, who lived at Groombridge Place in Kent.
Fortunately, the gardens at Groombridge Place escaped both the ravages of the landscape movement, and the neglect that has afflicted Sayes Court. The original seventeenth century layout that Evelyn was consulted on is still visible, and although most of the actual planting has altered, there are still fascinating remnants of it here and there. This is a good place to visit to get a general feel for how Sayes Court might have been, and, feeling in need of a little inspiration, last Sunday I spent a very enjoyable afternoon there drinking in the atmosphere and taking photos.
As you approach the house, to the right of the bridge over the moat you see a soaring Scots pine, said to be the remaining one of a pair that Evelyn planted in the 1670s. Although the house itself is sadly not open to the public, the outside looks not too dissimilar to what we know from the few surviving depictions of Sayes Court – two main storeys, and classical columns in the porch. Perhaps it is a little grander, but not much – both places started off as mediaeval manor houses, after all.
The paths, walls, gateways and main divisions or rooms of the garden are still much as they were originally set out in the seventeenth century. The central axis pathway is called “The Apostle Walk”, because it is bordered on each side by twelve yews clipped into drum shapes, believed to have survived from the 1674 planting.
Another seventeenth century feature which Groombridge Place had in common with Sayes Court was a banqueting house in which the Packers and their guests would have enjoyed light refreshments, more like picnics than what we would call a banquet today, of cakes, fruit ,wine, or tea, still an exotic luxury then. This building, subsequently altered and enlarged into a cottage, leads onto a raised grass walk described in the guidebook as a bowling alley, although it seems rather narrow, and its position leads me to wonder if it might not originally have been a raised terrace perhaps for viewing a parterre below, as at Sayes Court?
The narrow canal that crosses the garden is also part of the original design, although the colourfully-planted “Knot Garden” was only laid out in 1994. I do suspect that (proper!) archaeological investigation might find very interesting evidence for the earlier planting layout in this area and in the adjacent “Draughtsman’s Lawn”, named after Peter Greenaway’s entrancing film “The Draughtsman’s Contract”, filmed here in 1982. A more recently-filmed version of “Pride and Prejudice” allows a tantalising view inside the house itself.
On the wall in the visitors’ restaurant, and rather awkwardly situated to photo (my apologies for the poor quality shot) there is a picture of a nineteenth century plan that purports to show the gardens as they would have appeared in the seventeenth century. What this is based on, I don’t know – was there an earlier painting or drawing available to the artist? If anyone reading this can enlighten me about it, I’d be very grateful.
There are three ancient apple trees in the “White rose garden” that remain from the orchard that existed there in the seventeenth century. The one in the photo still apparently produces fruit, despite its great age and the mistletoe growing on it! I wonder what variety it is?