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Archive for the ‘Convoys Wharf development’ Category

Braving cold and squelchy weather and choppy waters on the Thames ferry, garden history enthusiasts packed the hall at the Linnaean Society and afterwards at the Master Shipwright’s house in Deptford yesterday to hear some enthralling talks on John Evelyn’s Sayes Court garden and discuss ideas for its restoration.

Eminent speakers included such experts as Gillian Darley, author of Evelyn biography “Living for ingenuity”, Frances Harris, who curated the Evelyn archive at the British Library and has written “Transformations of Love”, a fascinating account of Evelyn’s life and spiritual friendship with Margaret Godolphin; Professor Michael Hunter from Birkbeck College; Jan Woudstra from Sheffield University, Jonathan Lovie from the Garden History Society, and a recorded slide talk by Mark Laird of Harvard.

To mention just a few of the things that were discussed:  Gillian Darley introduced the day with an enjoyable overview of “Evelyn’s villa on the Thames”. Given Evelyn’s scientific interests and pioneering writings on the importance of clean air and earth, a disembodied but eloquent Mark Laird suggested that Sayes Court could be the home of an institute dedicated to exploring sustainable solutions to the social and ecological problems of modern urban life.   Jan Woudstra talked about the planting, and brought home to me just how densely Evelyn planted his grove – with five hundred odd trees there, he calculates they would only be about four or five feet apart.  Add to that the underplanting of bushes such as hazel, various fruits, and other greens, and this meant that after they grew to about three and a half metres high, they’d need to be thinned or else start to die off.  He described the garden as one primarily for horticultural experimentation rather than “showing off”.  He then raised the question of where exactly Evelyn had built the greenhouse that we know he had in later years.

Frances Harris thinks it was most probably adjoining the manor house. In my recent poring over the 1692 Gascoyne map (see my previous post) I noticed an extension at the back (north) end of the house, fronting onto the walled private/fountain garden, which we agreed in later conversation was the most likely candidate.  A greenhouse at that time was not what we mean by the term today (a glasshouse). It was more like a cross between an orangery and a gallery, somewhere to stroll in company, while admiring the exotic plants.

In her talk Frances showed some wonderful images she’s unearthed from the BL Evelyn archive, including a lovely sketch of the inside of his “elaboratorie” by Evelyn himself, as well as pages of intriguing mottoes drawn from classical literature, which once hung around the house and the garden. These seemed to be meant to help inspire a contemplative state of mind in the reader. Probably originally painted on wood, and mostly in Latin; I think something similar would be great to include a literary and artistic aspect in the potential restoration.

After milling around in the Queen’s wake for some time near the newly re-opened Cutty Sark at Greenwich, we made our slightly bedraggled way to Sayes Court Park, and then on to the Master Shipwright’s, where Tim Richardson of the GHS, garden columnist and writer, summed up the day’s talks and opened a discussion on possible directions for the restoration of the garden.

An exciting and thought-provoking day, and very well-attended thanks to the hard work of the organizers in the GHS, LPGT, and Deptford is…

When I first aired my idea of restoring Sayes Court garden three years ago, very few people seemed to be really aware of the importance of the place, and I could hardly foresee the tide of enthusiastic support that now seems to be rising in favour of the proposal.  This looks like it really might  become – to borrow a nice phrase originally describing the garden of John Beale, with whom Evelyn corresponded,  “no phantastical utopia, but a real place”.

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Evelyn's plan of an artificial echo

I  gave a little talk two weekends back about the history of Sayes Court to a group of people who had gathered to air alternative, grass-root visions for the redevelopment of Convoys Wharf, including the restoration of John Evelyn’s seventeenth century garden

In it I tried to summarize Evelyn’s influence on some other contemporary gardens – though by no means all of the ones he had a hand in.  This is something I have already begun to explore here under the category “echoes of Evelyn”, starting with Groombridge Place.  When next spring comes, I’ll hopefully get the chance to get out and visit a few of these gardens, and post about them here in more depth

For now, though, here’s a snippet to whet the appetite!


1653 view of Wotton -click to enlarge

Evelyn directly influenced the design of numerous important seventeenth century gardens, beginning with his family’s ancestral home at Wotton.

Albury Park Terrace

Today the best visible example of his work, inspired in particular by the huge terraces of Palestrina outside Rome, is Albury Park in Surrey, where from 1662 he redesigned the Italianate garden for Henry Howard, to include a Yew Walk and fine terraces a quarter of a mile long, with a tunnel through the hill under Silver Wood. 

Howard also received his advice in 1663/4 on the design of a riverside public “spring garden” in Norwich, with many walks, a bowling green, pond, and of course, a “wilderness”.

Euston Hall

Evelyn also took an active role at Euston Hall in Suffolk, where in 1671 he designed a garden with a canal, straight rides and long avenues of elms and limes, and at Groombridge Place in Kent, where the central avenue of clipped yews has survived as well as most of the basic seventeenth century layout.  He also advised many other leading garden-owners of his day.

Groombridge Place

Sayes Court was, however, his greatest horticultural achievement, where he demonstrated the benefits of tree planting as prescribed in his best-known book “Sylva”, and experimented with innovative designs, plants, and  techniques such as growing on hotbeds and in greenhouses.

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A second stage of excavation has now been underway on the site since the summer, and last week the Museum of London archaeologists acting on behalf of the developers of Convoys Wharf stated on the MOL website that they had “unearthed the remains of Sayes Court, a building with rich historical associations”, and “identified the plan of Sayes Court, as modified in the course of its history”.

Given these claims, those who attended the long-overdue site visit on Saturday hoping to actually see any evidence of Sayes Court will have been, as I was, very disappointed.  Both of the trenches have been completely backfilled. Indeed, had a group of concerned visitors not spontaneously gathered on top of the nearby spoil heap to discuss Sayes Court after the end of the official tour, it would have received not a single mention.

Why was no real opportunity given to the public to visit the site during the course of the actual excavation of the Manor House?  I say “real” opportunity, because I’ve since found out that one lucky person somehow heard of a chance to visit, and got to see the exposed building, in the company of Lewisham’s Archaeology officer.  Hardly a turn-out that reflects the level of concern and interest in the site.

Sketch of Sayes Court Manor House by John Evelyn.

Take a look at this sketch by John Evelyn of the Manor house in the seventeenth century.  This is the only known extant drawing of the original Sayes Court, and was added by him (sometime between 1698 and 1706) to a 1623 map of the dockyards and town of Deptford “Strond”. It shows the front of the Manor House, with three gables and a central entrance porch which we know from his writing Evelyn modified to include fashionable Doric columns.

Detail from 1753 plan of Deptford Dockyard.

To the right is a detail from Thomas Milton’s 1753 plan of the dockyard, which fortuitously also includes the footprint of the manor  house, proving that it must still have survived at that date, even though it was already being used as a poor house, as it was for almost a century afterwards.

Pension Office in 1869

Almshouses about 1900

Now take a look at this etching and photograph of the building that succeeded Sayes Court Manor House, used as the Pension Office, and then in 1869 (after the dockyard closed and W J Evelyn managed to buy back the site), turned into almshouses.  This is obviously quite a  different building, with a plan much altered from that of the original Manor House.  Most of the rear part of the house has vanished.   It would have been great to have seen what archaeological evidence there may have been for the last stages of the manor house, but all there is now is an almighty spoil-heap.

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Light railway formerly in use at Deptford Dockyard

Recently an archaeologist contracted by the developer to excavate the Convoys wharf site claimed that the ground level around Sayes Court was lowered by a metre and a half when light railways were constructed during the First World War. This was described as “catastrophic” for the remains of  Evelyn’s gardens, of which “not a trace” was to be found.

Recreated 16th century garden at Kenilworth

If this were true, it would of course be very disappointing. However, even if few or no archaeological traces remained of the gardens, it would still be possible to restore them with a high level of authenticity using the detailed plans and planting lists that Evelyn has left us. If you look at the case of the Elizabethan garden at Kenilworth “restored” by English Heritage in 2009, this was achieved despite an almost total lack of archaeological remains.

The Kenilworth layout is based on only a verbal description, not an accurate plan, and the garden in question, a swift if lavish makeover for the queen’s visit, only existed for a very brief time – mere months. In comparison, Sayes Court garden, which existed for over half a century, holds a much stronger potential for actual restoration, rather than just “recreation” or “representation”. It is also far more significant in terms of its influence on garden design.

Segment from 1938 War Department plan.

On the other hand, I have yet to see any evidence to support this claim that no trace survives of the garden because of ground level reduction for railway lines. Take a look at this War Department plan from 1938. (Click on it to open up a larger version). The hachures show that the ground level is actually higher in the area of the light railway lines than the remnant adjoining eastern portions of the park, given to the public  by Evelyn’s descendant W J Evelyn in 1886. What’s more, the light railway lines themselves seem to follow the line of Evelyn’s long north-south gravelled walkway, which would make sense, as it would have provided a firm, ready-made foundation for them.  They skirt the western edges of his Grove, and they barely encroach on the northern part of the parterre.  So it makes no sense, as far as I can tell, to claim that the railways obliterated all evidence of Evelyn’s garden.


The segment of the 1938 War Department plan can be downloaded from https://productforums.google.com/forum/#!msg/gec-history-illustrated/SKQRekFJGqY/3D1jZ2tOg5sJ It will take a moment or two to download, then double click on it to open it in Google Earth (which must already be installed).

By dragging the slider on the left you can view the 1938 War Department plan superimposed over the modern landscape, and all degrees of transparency in between.

If you don’t have Google Earth, you can download it free at earth.google.co.uk

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On 15th November local residents hereabouts received a letter from Lewisham Council informing us that we had barely a month in which to send in our comments on the development plans for Convoys Wharf.  Hutchison-Whampoa have also belatedly posted a mass of documentation on their PR website, including a report of the archaeological excavations carried out this spring, (on which see my earlier posts). 

Trenches 33 and 34 from the archaeology report.

The report states that two trenches (nos. 33 and 34) were aimed “to refine and fix the position of the mansion house of Sayes Court”, and yet it’s obvious even from their own overlay plans (part of one, fig.71, is shown on the left) that neither of them were positioned anywhere near the marked site of the house.  Small wonder, then, that they didn’t find it! 

As for the actual garden, the report says (p.80) that they “failed to reveal any significant evidence” for it, apart from a “possible terrace” and part of a ditch in trench 38.  Although not stated in the report, this appears to be situated over part of the Evelyn’s “grove” or thickly-wooded area, described in my second Garden Walk-through post.   There was a layer of dark soil up to two metres thick sealing these features, and just underlying the modern concrete surface.   Was this deep soil not likely to be connected with the woodland planted here? 

The scattergun siting of the trenches over the Sayes Court area bears very little apparent relation to the detailed plans of the garden and manor-house as they have come down us.  (See The key to the garden post)  How then can they accurately evaluate the potential for their survival?  Such evaluation was the stated purpose of the dig – and the outcome will be used to decide what further archaeology should be done (and supposedly taken into account in the detailed development design and construction).

Why, as I’ve asked before, was no specialist in garden archaeology involved in the excavation?  The excavators claim to have been in close liason with English Heritage, and yet when a friend called EH this week, they made it clear that their garden archaeology consultant was completely unaware of the present situation.  How shocking!

It takes interest and motivation  as well as experience  to identify garden archaeology.

Yet, out of  a total of 52 trenches excavated across the site, only five were located on the Sayes Court garden area.  If you share my concern that this is a paltry way to treat the remains of one of the most important historic gardens in the country, please write to Lewisham Council and tell them so.  And if you would support the idea of restoring part of Evelyn’s garden, please mention this in your letter.  The deadline for them to receive comments that will be taken into account in considering the planning application is 20th December, so we have to be quick!  Here’s the address to write to: Emma Talbot, Planning Service, 5th floor Laurence House, 1 Catford Rd., Catford, London SE6 4SW.  Or email planning@lewisham.gov.uk

Here, in summary, is what I think:-

1) Sayes Court is a site of national historical importance.  Its archaeology has yet to be properly investigated and recorded.

2) Informed by a thorough archaeological excavation, the development proposals should include a historically-accurate restoration of a substantial part of the garden as a valuable local amenity,  an economically-significant visitor attraction, and  a worthy memorial to John Evelyn.

Lastly, if you like the idea of an exciting garden restoration project, and especially if you have experience of the planning process,  garden history or design expertise,  please do get in touch. My email address is on the “About” page.

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Overlay of part of new plans on Evelyn’s plan

Having brushed aside the archaeology, Hutchison-Whampoa have now come up with a new “masterplan” for their proposed development of Convoys Wharf.  If you take a look at part of their plan (on the left – easier to read if you click to enlarge it) you can see that they want to build right on top of the historic seventeenth century parterre, completely obliterating at least half of whatever remains of it below ground.  In addition, the same block would cover the northern half of the manor house itself, as well as most of Evelyn’s private garden that adjoined it (which I hope to finally get around to describing here soon).  Behind the building a bland, windswept alleyway with a line of lollypop trees would cut through the heart of Evelyn’s grove.

It is clear that the proposed general layout of buildings takes no account whatsoever of the historic character of the site.  The areas marked in green between the buildings apparently bear no relation to any of the main features of the gardens.  Why could they not be sited so that they at least spare them, if not actually restoring some of them for posterity?  Why not restore Evelyn’s “private garden of choice flowers and simples”? Why not display, if necessary under cover for protection, what remains of the manor house ?

For example, the proposed new school, shown in the bottom left of the plan, has its main wing located so as to destroy the western edge of the (innovative and very influential for its time) parterre.  Surely its plan could be revised so that the main wing is moved further west, over part of the former orchard?  I can’t think of a nicer neighbour for a new school than a restored historic garden of national importance – what an educational resource and delight it could be!

There’s an exhibition and “consultation” taking place tomorrow and Saturday, (Deptford Methodist Church & Mission, 1 Creek Road, SE8 3BT – Friday 9th July, 12pm – 8pm; Saturday 10th July, 10.30am – 2pm).
So if you want to voice your opinions on these plans, please go along and let them know that there are people who DO care about Deptford’s heritage, and the quality of its future.


The  new 2010 plan for Convoys Wharf overlaid on Google Earth.

The new 2010 plan for Convoys Wharf overlaid on the modern landscape can be downloaded from https://productforums.google.com/forum/#!msg/gec-history-illustrated/SKQRekFJGqY/wqhxdMe61FgJ

It will take a moment or two to download, then double click on it to open it in Google Earth (which must already be installed). This will open up the image overlaid onto the modern aerial view of the area. Select (by clicking once on it) “New Convoys plan″ in the places panel on the left, then by dragging the slider below (the one that says “the slider sets the transparency of the overlay”) you can adjust the degree of transparency.

If you already have the Plan_of_Sayes_Court_House_and_Garden.kmz file from https://productforums.google.com/forum/#!msg/gec-history-illustrated/SKQRekFJGqY/pYJ2-vIFdS4J the location of the various buildings can be compared to John Evelyn’s 1653 plan.

Google Earth can be downloaded for free from earth.google.co.uk

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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.

View towards Deptford Strand 1620 to 1630

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.

Convoys Wharf in February 2010

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.

Architects' model of proposed Convoys Wharf development

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?

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