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Archive for the ‘Garden history’ Category

Just a postscript, really, to the previous post. Since writing that, I’ve found a couple more pieces of information about mulberries at Sayes Court.

Firstly, there were mulberries, probably black ones, in the garden even before Evelyn took it over. Letters from Christopher Brown to his son Richard Brown (Evelyn’s future father-in -law) describe their garden at Sayes Court in March and June 1642. The easterly winds that year damaged the damask roses, as well as the walnut trees and  – the mulberries.

Secondly, there is a letter to Evelyn dated 11 April 1670, signed N. Jameson, apparently the minister of St Paul’s church in Hackney, asking if he knows how or by whom the seeds of the white mulberry can be obtained: “by all the enquiry I could hitherto make by my friends about London for some seed of the whiter kind, which your book treats of, I have not hitherto been so happy as to procure any, nor indeed to meet with those who ever heard of any such mulberry or seed.”

Finally, here is proof that Evelyn did indeed have one or more white mulberries at Sayes Court, brought to him from Languedoc. This passage is from Dendrologia, printed as part of the fourth edition of Sylva. He praises the mulberry for its useful wood, implies its fruit and leaves are undervalued, and then continues:

“But it is not here I would recommend our ordinary black fruit bearers, though that be likewise worth the propagation; but that kind which is call’d the white mulberry (which I have had sent me out of Languedoc) one of them of a broad leaf, found there and in Provence, whose seeds being procured from Paris, where they have it from Avignon, should be thus treated in the seminary.” He goes on to talk at length about how to grow the white mulberry, including the suggestion of improving it by grafting it onto black mulberry.

 

References:

Darley, G. 2006, John Evelyn, Living for Ingenuity, p. 79  and p. 319, n. 11

Bray, W., 1887, Diary and Correspondence of John Evelyn, vol. III, p. 227.

Dendrologia, p. 204, at http://www.gutenberg.org/files/20778/20778-h/20778-h.htm#II_CHAPTER_I

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A little while ago, Oxford University plant scientist Barrie Juniper, author of The Tradescants’ Orchard, and co-author with his daughter Sarah of a forthcoming new commentary on Evelyn’s Acetaria, contacted me on the subject of the Sayes Court Park mulberry tree. It was this tree that drew me in to investigate the history of Sayes Court to begin with, and I’ve written about it twice already on this blog, (here and here) so you might reasonably wonder what more there could be to say about it.

Well, it turns out it’s rather a mysterious specimen from the genetic point of view. According to the usual accounts, the  mulberry was introduced to Britain under King James 1 in the early seventeenth century, in a failed attempt to establish a home-grown silk industry here. The failure occurred, apparently, because he mistakenly brought in the black mulberry, morus nigra, whereas silk-worms flourish on the white mulberry, morus alba. Now, Barrie informed me that the black mulberry is, quote: “wildly polyploidy“. What this means in practical terms is that it is sterile, and can’t reproduce from seed.

But Barrie fell into conversation one day with the Bodleian Library’s conservation and collection officer Andrew Honey, who told him that he was successfully growing some  saplings from seed he’d collected in 1997 from the berries of the Sayes Court mulberry tree.  See the photo below.

Mulberry sapling grown by Andrew Honey

Mulberry sapling grown by Andrew Honey

So, if not a morus nigra, despite its lovely large black fruits, what is the Sayes Court tree? To my excitement, Barrie offered to arrange to test its DNA to find out.  I went along to the park last autumn and carefully collected a couple of leaves, put them into a silica gel pack, and posted it off to Oxford.

After five months’ impatient wait (at least in my case), we got the results. There was a high amount of DNA present, which I’m told means that it “has to be a polyploid of some nature”. On the other hand, thanks to Andrew’s demonstration, it’s clearly fertile. Barrie speculates that, along with the standard black mulberry, some other mutants, of intermediate (chromosome) counts,  were around in the seventeenth century, some of which were partly  fertile. If so, the Sayes Court tree could be an “intermediate, high count, half-way white to black mulberry. Of which this specimen is NOT the original Evelyn ( no chance ) but a second or third  generation seedling more or less on the same site.”

Only another test to determine the exact chromosome count could settle this question for sure. Meanwhile, the last I heard, of Andrew’s two mulberry saplings, one has sadly died and the other was touch-and-go, due to flooding on the Thameside allotment where they were growing.

Mulberries from Andrew Honey's sapling

Mulberries from Andrew Honey’s sapling

However, I’m glad to report that there are still plenty of berries on the Sayes Court tree, despite the recent storms and weird weather. I (and the little boxful that will be nurtured for the next 90 days in my freezer) wish it well for its uncertain future, overshadowed by the windy canyons of Convoy’s Wharf.

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On 31st March the mayor of London will decide the fate of Sayes Court and Deptford Dockyard, at a public hearing at City Hall (at 16.00, in the Chamber). Anyone can attend, but they’ll only allow you to speak if you wrote to express your views on the application to Lewisham Council or the Mayor before 30 October 2013. This is what they call public “representation”!

To be honest, I fear Boris Johnson’s already reached an understanding with the developers. If you look at his track-record, he’s granted planning permission in every single instance where he’s taken the decision into his own hands and away from local authorities.  Of course, there will be plenty of fine words about respecting the site’s heritage, but with the absolute minimum of actual alteration to the abominable masterplan. No expansion of the area assigned to Sayes Court Garden, no realignment so that the footprint is more faithful to Evelyn’s original layout. And rather than a restoration, which would be a real acknowledgment of the garden’s historical importance, we are instead facing, at best, the uninspiring prospect of some generic sliver of contemporary “green space”, connecting the proposed centre for horticultural training (a building that will cover the exposed footings of the manor house) with the existing Sayes Court Park.

Now, I don’t want to under-rate the amenity value of any park, but this one, frankly, is a low-maintenance shadow of its former self in the mid twentieth century and back to its creation in the nineteenth, when it was much more intensively managed, planted, and full of features such as paddling pool, bandstand, colorful floral borders, etc. Nowadays its only really distinctive feature is the ancient mulberry. (Of which, as it happens, I have some interesting news, in a forthcoming post.)  So, assuming the horticultural training centre comes about and succeeds in attracting trainees, wouldn’t it make more sense for it to be part of a restored world-class historic garden, rather than merely a run-of-the-mill municipal park attached to a token strip of modern landscaping?

Even if you can’t speak at the representation hearing on 31st March, there’s still a few days left to at least make your views known in writing to the mayor. If you would like to see an actual restoration (rather than a “reinterpretation” or some such vapidity) of John Evelyn’s seventeenth century masterpiece, Sayes Court Garden, please email graham.clements@london.gov.uk before 20 March 2014. Quote the application reference DC/13/83358 and include your name and address. 

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Finally,  here is my vision of things to come if the developers get their way. In response to  Cicely Fox Smith’s poem “Ghosts in Deptford”, I posted this a few weeks ago on Old Deptford History

Future Ghosts in Deptford: a warning

If ghosts should walk in Deptford they’d find it very hard
In all the yuppie towers that cover the King’s Yard
To even find their bearings, to drop their anchors well,
Or feel they’re not forgotten in some foreign concrete hell.

And sighing in their sadness, they’d gather to lament
The gated, cold “communities” that smother in cement
The green and lovely acres of John Evelyn’s Sayes Court,
The buried docks and slipways of Deptford’s once-great port.

The riverside apartment blocks stare vacant at the shore
Accumulating value with their backs turned to the poor,
Whose ancestors would shuffle, stretching out their hands
For token recognition in an unfamiliar land.

And all the skilful shipwrights and all the weathered crew
Would stand on the street corners not knowing what to do
But turn up their coat collars and huddle in the wind
If ghosts should walk in Deptford, whose history was binned.

(To be sung, to the shanty or other tune of your choice)

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steps to upper terrace and exedra

steps to upper terrace and exedra

Going up the steps to the upper terrace, above the subterranean “baths” that I mentioned in my last post, you face the most dramatic survival from Evelyn’s design for Albury Park – the pool, the exedra and the mysterious, beckoning tunnel beneath the hill.

exedra, tunnel, pool

exedra, tunnel, pool

Here we met the estimable Paul Verity, who has heroically cared for the place virtually single-handed (before the first world war there were something like forty gardeners!) for decades. He was most patient and helpful in answering our questions, and gave us many fascinating insights into the recent history of the garden.

pool and fountain, looking south

pool and fountain, looking south

It seems that the leaky old pool lay empty for years, and has only recently been relined to make it water-tight and the fountain brought back to life – further enhancing the sense of presence that is perhaps at its most potent here, with the ancient overhanging trees seeming to clasp the whole area in their embrace.

oak guarding the exedra

oak tree over exedra

Passing by the vacant niches  (were they once filled with statuary? ) one arrives at the dark tunnel-mouth at the centre of the semi-circle, and the focal point of the garden.

view inside the tunnel

view inside the tunnel

I had been looking forward with great anticipation to entering the tunnel, expecting it to be open, as I gather it was up until recently. But sadly, due apparently to roosting bats and crumbling structure, we were confronted by a locked grille, through which we could see just a tiny pinprick of light at the far end.

After strolling to the eastern end of the upper terrace, we turned to look back along its entire impressive length.

upper terrace looking west

upper terrace looking west

Evelyn’s plan shows steps at each end of the upper terrace descending to the lower level, where there are now ramps. It’s also noticeable how the numerous apsidal niches shown in the terrace walls on the plan are absent in reality. With no signs in the brickwork to suggest they were ever built, this is a cautionary example of how a garden as actually created can differ from the original design.

descent to lower terrace

ramp down to lower terrace looking west

We descended the ramp and walked west along the lower terrace, back towards the side door through which we’d first entered. Finally we bid a reluctant farewell to this, the best-preserved of John Evelyn’s gardens, beside a majestic cedar of Lebanon that stands sentinel just inside the gate.

Cedar of Lebanon

Cedar of Lebanon

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Albury terraces looking east

Albury terraces looking east

Continuing from my last post, this is the view along the lower terrace at Albury Park that meets the modern visitor entering the garden from a door in the west wall. The first impression is of the great length of the terraces, with clipped hedges lining the retaining wall of the upper one to the left, and a towering row of yew trees flanking the edge of the lower one.

These yews though impressive are decidedly overgrown, casting the walk into shadow. They must be centuries old – could they actually date back to John Evelyn’s design? A row of yew-shaped trees is certainly shown in this position on his sketch plan, which has miraculously survived, although its numbered key to the different features is now missing. In order to try to get an idea of how the garden was approached in the seventeenth century, we headed down towards the river at this point rather than continuing along the terrace.

Ditch dividing upper and lower garden

Ditch dividing upper and lower garden

We passed on our left a  long water-filled ditch that now divides the upper and lower halves of the garden. On Evelyn’s design (see above) there is a wall apparently in its place, but who knows whether it was actually built? Perhaps a ditch was thought sufficient. The river itself is charming, with beautifully clear water. In Evelyn’s design its flow was  straightened into a wide canal, of which there seems to be little remaining sign. The original route entering the garden across the river from Albury Park mansion is unfortunately closed, since the house is now separately owned.

the river

the river

Overlooking the river towards the eastern end of the garden is an avenue of lime trees, again very overgrown – the two rows planted so close to each other that they  have created a cool tunnel beneath them.

avenue, evening

avenue, evening

Walking back towards the central axis of the garden, the lime avenue is lovely in the evening light. Looking on Evelyn’s plan, he has a large oval area with a round basin/pool in the middle of the lower garden. It must have been built, because it features on the early eighteenth century map.

view towards the house

view south towards the house

Nothing  is visible today, as this photo looking towards the river and house shows – but archaeology might reveal something.

Albury apples

Albury apples

Apple trees are now growing along the strip of ground between the ditch and the lower terrace, where Evelyn’s plan shows a layout of similar densely-planted small trees. Did he also plant fruit trees here? If only we still had the key to his plan! In the centre of the lower terrace is an odd feature sometimes described as a Roman bath, but which may have been rebuilt and altered since Evelyn’s time. His design looks like he may have intended to adapt the classically-inspired feature that was already there in the 1640’s. Nowadays it is empty apart from niches in the brick walls, but perhaps it once had running water inside?

Entrance to bath house

“Roman Baths” entrance

Next time I’ll conclude my account of Albury with the fountain pool, the exedra and tunnel, and a stroll along the impressive terraces, the features of the garden that have changed least since Evelyn’s day.

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Two Sundays back, I took the rare opportunity to visit the wonderful garden that John Evelyn created at Albury Park in Surrey. Normally closed to the public,  thankfully  it opens twice a year under the National Gardens Scheme. The contrast in setting between Sayes Court and Albury Park could hardly be greater. At Albury Park, the garden is set into a south-facing hillside overlooking a richly-wooded valley through which the river Tillingbourne flows. It is sheltered, with a perfect aspect for fruit trees, and a good natural supply of water. After the pollution and clamour of Deptford it was  such a delight to breathe in the sweet, clean air at Albury, and I’m sure Evelyn must have appreciated it, too.

Albury in 1645

Albury in 1645

Even before he began to redesign the garden, he was well-acquainted with Albury Park, which lies only about five miles from his family home at Wotton. Evelyn’s early mentor in matters of artistic taste, Lord Arundel, had laid out an Italianate garden at Albury in the 1630’s, and to judge by this engraving of it in 1645 by Wenceslaus Hollar, it already included long terraces with vines growing on them, some kind of classical-looking ruin, and a broad expanse of water – all features interestingly similar to those Evelyn later claimed as his own designs. After the earl’s death in 1652, unsure where to settle, Evelyn actually tried to buy Albury Park. But the heir, Henry Howard, decided to keep it, and in 1656 Howard, with Evelyn’s guidance, began making big changes to the garden.

Albury Park in 1701

The plan on the left, redrawn by Charles Walmsley from a map of 1701, shows how the garden looked some thirty years after Evelyn’s work was completed there. The River has been channelled into a broad canal, and the garden behind it is laid out in a symmetrical design up the gently ascending slope of the hill, around a clear central axis. A narrow linear feature divides the lower half of the garden from the upper half, in which we see a row of four rectangular plots with grape vines (?) growing in them, backing onto two long terraces. In the centre of the retaining wall at the back of the lower terrace there is an entrance into a subterranean room, possibly rebuilt since Evelyn’s day, modelled on ancient Roman baths.  Set  into the upper terrace is a semi-circular recess around a large pool. An avenue of trees is shown behind the recess, following what we know to be the route of the tunnel that Evelyn had cut into the hill under Silver Wood.

We know from Evelyn’s diary that the alcoved recess (technically called an exedra) and the tunnel into which it led, were evocations of the Grotto of Posilippo, with its long tunnel through the promontory between Naples and Pozzuoli, visited by him in 1645. Tradition then held this to have been accomplished in just one night by Virgil, the famous Roman poet whom mediaeval legend had recast as something of a magician. His tomb was also believed to lie close by.

Exedra and pool

Exedra and pool

Despite the bold layout of Albury Park’s quarter-mile long terraces and canal, which could be viewed as a statement of human ability to reshape nature, at the highest point and heart of the garden was the exedra; a place to sit, converse and reflect on such melancholic themes as the relative impermanence of human life and works, in contrast perhaps to the perpetually-renewed spring that flowed from the fountain at the pool’s edge. To describe Albury simply as a “formal garden” is, in my view,  to ignore its subtle but powerful romantic undercurrent.

In my next post, I’ll present an illustrated walk-through, with some observations on how the garden changed over time.

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Main Sources:

Chambers, Douglas, 1981, “The Tomb in the landscape: John Evelyn’s Garden at Albury”, The Journal of Garden History.

Walmsley, R. Charles, 1976, The Risbridger Story,  (including a plan of the John Evelyn Gardens) (privately printed pamphlet).

Darley, Gillian, 2006, “John Evelyn, Living for Ingenuity”, Yale University Press.

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Some good news, for a change! There is widespread excitement, reflected in the press and local blogs, that the World Monuments Fund, spurred on by the Council for British Archaeology , have included Sayes Court Garden (and Deptford dockyard) in their list of culturally-important sites that need to be protected for the future. It’s great that this international heritage watchdog has picked up on the significance of Sayes Court Garden. This adds even more weight to the gathering campaign for radical changes to Hutchison-Whampoa’s truly dreadful development plans.

Developer’s model of Convoys Wharf

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