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In my last post I mentioned how the dig that has just finished claimed that little remains of Sayes Court Manor House. What about their similar claim about the gardens?

First, a few words about garden archaeology in general. For a
long time, it was believed that the later developments of the
Landscape Movement had forever erased all traces of seventeenth century and
earlier garden layouts, hence Roy Strong’s poignant dedication in his “The
Renaissance Garden in England”, published in 1979: “In memory of all those
gardens destroyed by Capability Brown and his successors.”

Hampton Court parterre under excavation

Then, over the past couple of decades, along came the development of garden archaeology, thanks to which recovery and restoration were shown to be possible in many cases. Planting beds, pathways, garden buildings, tools and plant-pots, and even seeds and pollen can be found. Soil analysis can show what kind of plants were likely to have been grown in particular areas. Old parterres can survive just centimetres below the modern surface. Hampton
Court is an obvious example of such survival. Another is Castle Bromwich
Hall in the West Midlands, whose layout was remarkably well-preserved,
despite having been “double-dug” not long before, because it had been laid
down into a hard bed of compacted gravel. According to the Council for
British Archaeology’s Handbook on Garden Archaeology, this was “a common
technique in the construction of 17th and early eighteenth century parterres”.

Hampton Court Parterre after restoration

All of which would seem to imply that careful excavation that truly set out, as the briefing note for the excavation declared, to “establish the precise location and condition” of the features should have revealed at least SOME evidence of the gardens at Sayes Court. But, along with a lingering attitude that gardens are not “proper” archaeology, specialists in this sub-discipline are few and far between. It requires a different methodology to ordinary excavation. Most importantly, machines are only supposed to be used to remove topsoil and overburden, with hand-digging of the actual features themselves. But, as Chris Currie notes in his Council for British Archaeology-published guide to good practice, “what is usually considered “overburden” on many garden sites can often be significant garden horizons”. Put bluntly, unless supervised by experts in garden archaeology, garden features can easily end up being sliced through and removed in the buckets of JCBs.

What real reassurance do we have that this isn’t, in fact, what has been happening at Sayes Court? I wrote to English Heritage, who told me that as part of the planning for the work, they had recommended that a person with an expertise in garden archaeology should be made available by Museum of London Archaeology, who conducted the work under the consultancy of CgMS Consulting Ltd for the developer. However, the Museum of London failed to reply when I asked them to confirm whether they had actually followed this advice and involved a garden archaeology expert.

The PR firm for Hutchison Whampoa (Hardhat Communications) sent me a classic piece of condescending flim-flam in response to a similar specific enquiry as to whether a garden archaeology expert had actually been engaged: “the archaeological consultant, project manager and site supervisor have between them over 65 years of professional experience”. So, I take it that’s a “no”, then.


References: Roy Strong, 1979 “The Renaissance Garden in England”, Thames & Hudson.
Chris Currie, 2005, “Garden Archaeology, a handbook”, CBA Practical Handbooks in Archaeology no.17, Council for British Archaeology.

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From the 1650’s onward, the famous gardens at Sayes Court, especially during the summer, received a constant stream of visitors, from the Evelyn family friends to the court elite and royalty. Our own modest tour in my two most recent posts had to omit much detail, and did not include Evelyn’s private garden, or the house itself. There is also still much to tell, as well as some unsolved mysteries, about how the garden evolved over the decades, especially in the 1680’s when Evelyn radically altered the oval garden. How do we know about this? Thanks mostly to John Evelyn’s own writings and plans, but also to the steady trickle of interest and archival research into Sayes Court and Evelyn’s role in the development of science and society in the seventeenth century.  This trickle seems to have grown into something of a torrent since the turn of the millennium. In 2001, for example, there was a well-attended two-day conference at the British Library, “John Evelyn and his milieu”, which gathered together researchers from all over the world. Unbeknownst to me, there was definitely something in the air when I first started wondering about that old mulberry in the park!

John Evelyn by Godfrey Kneller, 1687

Ironically, at the same time as I started to learn about the historical importance of the house and gardens at Sayes Court, proposals had been drawn up to build a horrendous huddle of high rise (up to 40 storeys), high density (3,500 “residential units”)  tower blocks on the site of Convoys Wharf, which now covers Evelyn’s “Elysium” and the adjoining docks of the former King’s Yard. This so-called “development” scheme is blatantly designed to maximise profit for the present owners, Hong-Kong based company Hutchison-Whampoa. If it gets the go-ahead it will be a new low water-mark in social and historical exclusion. The docks have been linked for centuries to the general prosperity of Deptford.  It’s no secret that the area has declined since their closure.  How many local people could afford to buy an apartment  at Convoys Wharf with a starting price of nearly £300,000?  Not only does this proposal threaten to sever the site’s social links with the local community, it also looks set to destroy or bury for ever what remains of its history. Over the past three months, trenches have been excavated all over the site, as a “developer-led” archaeological investigation has been carried out.

Since the dig began in the first week in January, precious little information has been available to the public – still completely barred from the site for so-called “safety reasons”. Finally, just a few days before the end of the dig is due on 9th April, a perfunctory statement has just gone up on the developers’ website.

It seems from this statement that very little remains have been found of either Sayes Court house and gardens, or of the earlier phases of the dockyard.

This is surprising, to say the least. I can’t help wonder who is really calling the shots here.  Who decides where the trenches go, and how deep?  Who does this history really belong to –  a cabal of private interests, or the people of Deptford?



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