John Evelyn’s motto was “Explore everything; keep the best”. (Omnia explorate, meliora retinete) This says so much about the man and his epoch – the excitement of the seventeenth century’s expanding intellectual horizons, along with the confidence that the totality of knowledge could still be encompassed and meaningfully evaluated by an educated person. Such an attitude, in our age of exponential change and information overload, might seem at best infeasible, and at worst dangerously naive. While honestly acknowledging our limitations, however, it seems to me that we owe it to ourselves not to simply give up on the quest for the best – otherwise there’s a risk of just allowing our intelligence to gradually atrophy and our judgement to wither away under the blight of relativity and indecision.
Now, personally, I feel sure that since Evelyn’s time, Sayes Court has gone into a steep downward spiral, and that the current plans to build high-density housing over it are the absolute nadir for the site.
However, to those whose baseline for evaluation is the present appearance and condition of the place, or even its state in any recent decade back to about the 1950s, it might seem that any development would be preferable to the closed-off, creeping dereliction of what I suspect developers and planners alike both regard as a mere “brownfield”, with some awkward scraps of archaeology that have been given a token treatment (on which, see my earlier posts) to meet legal requirements.
But I, and I hope the regular readers of this blog, now realise how different – how much more vital, diverse, stimulating and beautiful – this place has been in the past. How much better than what we see today, and what is threatening to happen to it in the future. Our baseline doesn’t have to be the sterile and semi- derelict present – we can see how it looked in Evelyn’s time, and even get an idea of what baseline he himself encountered, as shown in landscape paintings such as the above, and as I intend to post more about soon.
Shifting baseline syndrome, en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Shifting_baseline where significant changes to a system are measured only against recent baselines (rather than against earlier or original baseline states) allows standards and expectations to progressively fall. For example, recent studies have shown that local people can lose all knowledge and memory of the wealth of species that once inhabited their neighbourhood ecosystems surprisingly fast, once they have gone. Similarly, once visible remains of an earlier landscape have totally gone, the public memory of what it was like can quickly fade, and the new status quo comes to seem normal.
Such an unconscious loss of perspective can also help to explain why low-grade proposals for so-called “development”, such as those for Convoys Wharf, can be submitted without the kind of adverse reaction and protest that would have met them had they been measured against earlier baselines. I’m not arguing for no-change, or for “turning back the clock”, by the way, but for development that really responds to the unique spirit of place here and creates something in sympathy with it.
If we have the courage to try to apply Evelyn’s motto to our choices for the future, I’m convinced we can envision something far more enriching. In particular, I am not alone in wishing to see a historically-accurate restoration of at least part of Sayes Court gardens. As a recreational and educational amenity to residents and local people, a haven for wildlife and plants, not to mention a sure-fire magnet for tourists, it would bring back real character and significance to this place.
But can we persuade the planners and those who hold the purse-strings to back such an exciting restoration project?