Our walk-through of Sayes Court garden in spring 1658 didn’t include Evelyn’s private garden “of choice flowers and simples”, (that is, plants with medicinal use) lying along the western side of the manor house. Although called “private”, we can be sure that Evelyn would welcome us, because he loved to show people around his garden. As his friend the poet Abraham Cowley wrote:
“I know no body that possesses more private Happiness than you do in your Garden; and yet no Man who makes his Happiness more publick, by a free communication of the Art and Knowledge of it to others”
So let’s go back to 1658, to early September, and take a brief look at the delights sheltered inside the Private Garden’s ten-foot high brick wall. Here we are at the entrance-door, with steps climbing to the top of the mount-walk that overlooks the oval garden parterre behind us, and a small door to a passageway through the mount and into the nursery on our left.
As we push open the door, the rich tang of herbs and ripening fruits greets us. The near (southern) half of the garden is bathed in the afternoon sunshine. In the long rectangular beds that run down the centre of each of the four hexagonal grassed areas arranged around the central fountain there are vivid mounds of flowers, among them the dramatic dark red tails of amaranthus and vigorous violet clumps of stock gillyflowers, (the secret of their vigour is that they are sown on a hot-bed in February, and only planted out around now).
Beckoning to us from the far north-western corner is a shady arbour underneath two tall elms, which have obviously been there for a very long time, as have the others that we can see towering over the other side of the garden wall beyond them – a row of seven ancient half-hollow elms in all.
Pigeons flap to and fro from a purpose-built pigeon house on top of Evelyn’s laboratory on our left. A new building that proclaims Evelyn’s scientific curiosity (what future member of the Royal Society could be without one?), the laboratory is fronted by a twenty-foot long colonnaded portico dotted with citrus, myrtle, and other prized plants in pots and cases.
Opposite, in the area between the two main westward-facing wings of the house, and overlooked by the grand new gabled windows of the withdrawing room to the parlour, is an aviary stocked with colourful caged birds. Its parrots add the occasional exotic squawk to the cooing of the pigeons, the soft trickle of water in the fountain, and the murmur of bees coming and going from the intriguing ornamental glass apiary placed against the north wall, a prized gift from Dr Wilkins of Waddum in 1654.
The garden’s basic layout, an intimate enclosed space arranged in four geometric beds around the central fountain, with intersecting and surrounding gravel paths, owes, we
suspect, quite a bit to Evelyn’s father-in-law, Richard Browne, and to his Elizabethan and medieval predecessors.
But Evelyn himself has planted and tended it since he moved to Sayes Court in 1652. It is he, we feel sure, who has planted the six cypresses that circle the fountain area, and has lined the walls with peach trees, vines, cherries and grapes.
He has edged the beds not with box, (because of its tendency to drain the goodness from the soil and out-compete the choice flowers), but with wooden boards as well as with shrubs of lavender cotton, kept carefully clipped to about a foot high. We also spot rosemary, which he distils to make “Hungary water,” the first alcohol-based perfume to be widely-used in Europe, which was also thought to be medicinal.
As we stroll towards the elm arbour we pass a wealth of herbs, shrubs and flowers – among them thyme, sedum, tragacantha, night-scented pelargoniums, Martagon lily, marvel of Peru, snapdragons, Canterbury bells, sunflowers, nasturtium, and too many others to name.
We take a curious peek into the tool shed and fruit store at the end of the laboratory, from where potent ripening scents are emanating. Spades, shovels, mattocks we are familiar with, but there are also wooden tubs, cases, and boxes, pottery watering “cans”, scythes, woven baskets, metal, stone and wooden rollers, bundles of stakes, and many other mysterious objects. And then, our eyes light on the enticing stacks of apples, pears and plums on the shelves…
Most tantalizingly of all, there is a notebook lying on one shelf in which everything that is planted, when and where, and how it prospers, is meticulously recorded. Unfortunately, this precious document is too humble to have been preserved up to our own time. Which is where we must now think about returning – after one last moment of quiet enjoyment and reflection in the beautiful arbour of thickly-intertwining elm boughs.
Abraham Cowley’s preface-poem to Evelyn’s “Sylva” comes to mind:
“Oh! who would change these soft, yet solid Joys,
For empty Shows and senseless Noise;
And all which rank Ambition breeds,
Which seem such beauteous Flowers, and are such poisonous Weeds?”
Main sources: Evelyn’s gardening Calendar (“Calendarium hortense”) under the month of September; his “Directions for the Gardiner at Says Court” (list of fruit trees planted in the Fountaine-Garden; notes for rarer simples and exotics; notes for the coronary garden; notes for coronary flowers rarer; tools and instruments necessary for a gardiner); Evelyn’s 1653 map of Sayes Court (see earlier posts); Prudence Leith-Ross, “The Garden of John Evelyn at Deptford” (Garden History vol. 25, no.2).; Mark Laird, “Parterre, grove and flower garden” in “John Evelyn’s Elysium Britannicum and European Gardening”. Abraham Cowley’s poem can be read in full in the Project Gutenberg ebook of Sylva. The garden photos are from Groombridge Place, Ham House, and the Restoration House at Rochester.
So far, the only reference to the actual fountain I have come across in Evelyn’s writing is a warning to others to be sure to lag their water pipes in cold weather, or suffer, as he did, the expense of repairing the damage when they burst! However, my guess is the basin might have looked something like the one at Drummond Castle, shown below (the central pillar-fountain has been edited out).