Anyone hoping to see substantial changes to Hutchison Whampoa’s masterplan at last week’s consultation must have been sorely disappointed. Amid a plethora of rhetorical nods to the site’s heritage, the only real movement regarding Sayes Court is their proposal to display rather than simply bury the part of the manor house that was excavated last year. Facilely dubbed the “John Evelyn Centre”, it was shown on the developers’ model as a two storey glassed-over space in the corner of a six storey hotel. While I welcome the idea of keeping the manor house remains open to public view, I must point out that what we would be seeing is not exactly the home of John Evelyn. The actual seventeenth century manor house of John Evelyn occupied a much larger area than has been excavated up to now. ( The site deserves much more extensive archaeological investigation, but whether this will happen I doubt). The building whose ground floor walls and floors we would see (the cellars may be earlier) was used in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries as a workhouse, a depot for deporting people to Australia, and then an army HQ.
As for the garden itself, there is no real progress. The developers’ heritage spokesperson (whose name I’m afraid I didn’t get) told me that they regard restoration of any part of the garden as “infeasible”. When asked why, he gave two reasons. The first was that the amount of ground required would be too great, and would lead to greater density in the buildings. I queried this apparently paradoxical statement, and was informed that, the prime consideration being to fit in 3,500 residential units, the loss of space on the ground to gardens would be compensated for by higher or more densely-packed buildings. In other words, they are determined to squeeze in as many flats as possible to get the maximum profit from the site, and this is apparently non-negotiable. Therefore, they are unwilling to earmark any meaningful area of ground for Sayes Court Garden. As far as I can see, this objection is based on nothing more than the cupidity of investors – a certain Rupert Murdoch, let’s recall, among them.
The second reason I was given for a restoration being infeasible was based on two assertions: 1) John Evelyn was primarily an experimenter who was always trying out new ideas. 2) His garden at Sayes Court changed through time. Therefore, claimed my informant, some sort of “contemporary interpretation” of Evelyn’s work would be a more suitable tribute.
There are so many holes in this line of argument that I hardly know where to start! To briefly answer the first point: if someone is a great experimenter, what kind of tribute is it to consign their most famous and characteristic experiment (i.e. the garden) to oblivion? Secondly, all gardens, like everything else, change through time – but this is hardly reason not even to try to commemorate and celebrate their unique, defining moments.
A “contemporary interpretation” is just a glib cop-out. It opens the way to generic mediocrity, too much of what we’ve been saddled with already. I shudder to think what this approach, which seems to devalue the whole notion of garden restoration, could lead to – a couple of lines of saplings dwarfed on either side by towering buildings, to represent the avenues of Sayes Court Garden? Pavement patterns to convey the organic intricacy of the Grove? A few meagre planting-beds to flag up the parterre?
A true restoration of Sayes Court Garden wouldn’t be cheap. It wouldn’t be the easiest, one-size-fits-all option. But it is what the spirit of this place demands. And it is feasible.