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Damaged mulberry, Sayes Ct. Park

Damaged mulberry, Sayes Ct. Park

I have been meaning for a while to post more about the ancient mulberry that first drew my attention to Sayes Court Park. Now it has sadly suffered some major damage, losing a bough that appears to have been rotting for some time. Reporting the loss, the South London Press calls it “Peter the Great’s tree”, predictably trotting out the persistent legend that it was planted by the Russian czar. As I’ve said before, I think this is extremely unlikely, because Peter showed little interest in anything other than wrecking the garden during his brief stay at Sayes Court. In my opinion, the legend probably conflates the lingering memory of Peter’s visit with the tree that had become emblematic of the lost garden.

The dubious association with Peter goes back at least to the mid-nineteenth century. Peter Cunningham’s 1850 Handbook of London refers to “a tree said to have been planted by Peter the Great when working in this country as a shipwright”. On the other hand, Nathan Dews’s History of Deptford, published in 1883, quotes an unnamed 1833 piece or book by one Alfred Davis that described (presumably the same?) tree as follows: ” A forlornly looking, ragged mulberry tree, standing at the bottom of Czar Street, was the last survivor of the thousands of arborets planted by “sylva” Evelyn in the gardens and grounds surrounding his residence at Deptford.” Planted by Evelyn, not by Peter the great, note! Of course, the present mulberry tree is not at the bottom of Czar Street, but of Sayes Court St., but perhaps we shouldn’t expect too much geographical exactness – it surely is the same tree that we see today?

Charlton House Mulberry planted 1608

Charlton House Mulberry planted 1608

Could the mulberry really have been part of Evelyn’s planting? There are two angles we can approach this question from: the age of the tree, and whether its siting matches what we know of the garden’s layout in the seventeenth century. If the tree’s annual growth rings could be counted, we’d know its exact age – but that would mean drilling into it, which I wouldn’t advocate! But if you compare its girth and general gnarled state with the mulberry at nearby Charlton House, known to date from 1608, it does seem to be of similar character.

As for its siting, it’s difficult to be certain, but It is most probably in the area known then as the Broomefield, a long plot of land that was only incorporated into the garden a few decades after Evelyn first laid it out.  (On the plans from the 1690’s it is divided into squares edged with unspecified trees).  Still, it is quite close to the part of the garden that formed the Great Orchard, which Evelyn says in the key to his 1653 plan he planted with “300 fruit trees of the best sorts mingled”. There could have been a mulberry among them, although I think they were then still not common. The only mulberry Evelyn specifically records is the one he notes as “the mulberry”, on the island in the lake, some distance away at the northern edge of the garden. So it is doubtful whether there were any others, at least at that time. Of course, the garden changed over the decades, and as I have already described, part of the Great Orchard by 1692 had become another grove, interlaced with geometric walks. However, if in this new grove Evelyn kept some or all of the by-then mature and thickly-planted fruit trees of the earlier orchard and merely inserted paths between them, it is possible our mulberry survives from then. My own view, for what it’s worth, is that the mulberry was either in Evelyn’s garden, or is a direct descendant of one that was. Without a detailed planting record, though, the question must remain open.

New Coal Exchange floor design

New Coal Exchange floor design

Once the rest of the garden had gone, a single surviving tree would inevitably become a potent reminder of what had been lost, gradually accruing greater poignancy as the site around it became more and more ravaged by development. Dews mentions that in his time a fragment of the mulberry was in the custody of Hastings Hicks, the Evelyns’ agent at their estate office on Evelyn St. Were people helping themselves to bits of the old tree as souvenirs, or had parts of it started to rot and drop off even back then?

The scavenging went on even at the highest level: Dews and Cunningham both noted that a piece of the tree was taken and used as part of the design of the main floor of the New Coal Exchange, constructed between 1847 to 1849 in Lower Thames Street. It formed the blade of the dagger in the city of London’s shield. Unfortunately, there is no record of what happened to it when the New Coal Exchange, despite being Grade II listed, was demolished in 1962 in order to widen the road.

New Coal Exchange under demolition

New Coal Exchange under demolition

In order to put this tree-reverence business in perspective, a short digression is hopefully excusable here. Imbuing trees with special significance as embodying the spirit of a place, a powerful person such as a king, or even a whole tribe, goes back a long way in our traditions. In neighbouring Celtic Gaul they called such a sacred tree a bile. A grove of them was termed a nemeton in both countries. Oak trees in particular were objects of veneration, and when a peoples’ sacred oak died or was destroyed, their strength was believed to go with it. “Merlin’s Oak” in Carmarthen is a good example of this. I also think the upended and fenced-in oak tree discovered at Seahenge might once have represented a group of people who those who constructed it had defeated, or wished to control.

Dead mulberry sapling, Sayes Ct. Park

So, regardless of who actually planted it, the mulberry tree has become a fitting symbol of Sayes Court Garden and John Evelyn. Several older readers of this blog have commented on their fond childhood memories of tasting fruit from the tree, and there is clearly a strong affection for it among those who live or have lived in Deptford. If the Deptford High St anchor symbolizes the area’s dockland and maritime past, you could argue that the Sayes Court mulberry tree is an icon of its land-based history. Despite the press headline declaring that the mulberry “faces the chop” and can’t be saved, with some well-deserved tlc, it surely can. Even so, with an eye to the future, and since it is easy to propagate mulberries, Lewisham Council really should see to that this autumn. Oh, and let’s hope they look after any cuttings better than the one planted in the adjoining border that died of neglect recently…

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Because we still have John Evelyn’s notes of the inscriptions or mottoes that he put up around Sayes Court, (see previous post) it is as if we can still hear him suggesting to us how to “read” his garden. Given the disappearance of the garden itself, and the long-deceased status of its maker, I find this wonderful, if slightly eerie! But, to continue…

Dendrologia frontispiece

5. “Neque is qui rigat, neque is qui plantat est aliquid, sed deus qui dat incrementum.” “Neither he who waters nor he who plants is anything, but [only] god who gives growth.” Who really creates the glory of a garden? How absurd is the egotistical designer’s notion that the credit is all theirs, when the reality of birth and development is far more complex, interdependent, and mysterious?

This quote from the New Testament (1 Corinthians,3) features in the frontispiece illustration to “Dendrologia, Dodona’s Grove or the Vocall Forrest” by the Anglo-Welsh writer James Howell, published in 1640.

Hydra

6. “Saepe etiam [etenim] occuluit picta sese Hydra sub herba.” “Often has the serpent [=hydra] lain hid beneath the coloured grass.” Originally from one of Horace’s epistles (15?), this is quoted in Robert Burton’s (1638) “The Anatomy of Melancholy”, in a passage on jealousy and deceit. Similar to the snake in the grass (see previous post), does it perhaps hint that Evelyn had learnt, the hard way, to look deeper than fair appearances in choosing who to trust?

7. “Quis non Epicurum suspicit, exigui laetum plantaribus horti?” “Who does not admire Epicurus, happy with the young saplings of his tiny garden?” Juvenal (13, 123). Epicurus bought a piece of land on the outskirts of Athens where he created a renowned garden in which for many years he contemplated and discussed philosophy. Evelyn quotes this line in his “Directions for the Gardener” (1686), and it’s also found in a piece (sermon xv) by Jeremy Taylor, Evelyn’s spiritual mentor. My guess is this motto relates to the Grove, which seems to have been very densely-planted for such a modest area.

Garden of Loreius Tiburtinus, Pompeii

8. “Redimitur floribus annus.” “The year is encircled with flowers.” This motto is seen in the title-page illustration to G.B. Ferrari’s De florum cultura libri iv, published c. 1633, that depicts Flora and maidens garlanding and crowning a herm with flowers.

Flora

9. “Hic ver assiduum, meliusquam carmina, flores/ inscribant oculis tu lege, non manibus.” “Here the busy spring inscribes her flowers, better than songs – read them with your eyes, not your hands!” “The Compleat Florist”, an English translation of the seventeenth century book “Le Jardinier Solitaire” by Louis Liger d’Auxerre, p. 145, says that the gardener should courteously satisfy the curiosity of those who wish to see his flowers, but advises that he ought to have these two verses engraved over his garden door, in order to discourage visitors from roughly handling or even stealing his plants. Interesting to know that Evelyn felt this advice was apt. Perhaps it was sited near the parterre, which would have been full of expensive blooms, especially in spring? In any case, I think it is much nicer than peremptory modern “Keep off” or “Do not touch” signs.

10. “Cui hortus renidet floribus dotatus, animumque nullis dotibus/Excultum squalere tenet (?), praepostere facit.” “He acts preposterously, who has a splendid garden endowed with flowers but whose mind neglects to cultivate any gifts.” This echoes a passage of Erasmus (in his Colloques) that was paraphrased in verse as: ” whose garden is all grac’d with flowers sweet, His soul meanwhile being impolite, is far from doing what is meet.” This I view as a kind of “note-to-self” that was perhaps also meant to impress devout Anglican visitors such as Jeremy Taylor. It hints at Evelyn’s niggling sense of unease at putting so much of his energy into his garden instead of more conventional Christian self-improvement. Subtly solicited though they may have been, I think his guests’ responses to this motto would have been heart-felt and genuine. Here, Evelyn invites his thinking visitor into a dialogue. Is time spent working or walking in gardens, less useful than study? Is there any psychological or spiritual benefit in gardening?

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snowy manor garden

Over at Deptford is… right now you can read a seasonal post about the frost fairs held on the Thames during the “little ice age” of the seventeenth century.  Given what we now understand about the severity of the weather  he was up against, Evelyn’s achievements in his garden at Sayes Court are even more remarkable.

Sayes Court park in the snow

But even the hardiest gardener needs a break, and I can’t think of a better way to give you the flavor of Christmas at Sayes Court at the height of its glory than this wonderful passage from a letter written by Evelyn’s wife Mary to her cousin the playwright Samuel Tuke in the depths of winter 1670:

“You will not expect an account in this season of the yeare, how the flowers and greens prosper in the garden, since they are candying in the snow to be preserved for the spring and our delights, confined to the little wooden Roome.”

The room in question was their snug little wooden-panelled parlour.  If we could look in, over the shoulder of her cousin, we would see by the fire there “a philosopher, a woman, and a child, heapes of books our food and entertainment, silence our law, soe strictly observed that neither Dog nor Cat dares transgresse it. The crackling of the Ice and whistling winds are our Musica, which if continued long in the same quarter may possibly freese our witts as well as our penns, though Apollo were himself amongst us.”

Mary felt, she said, like a hibernating tortoise.

But in what a hibernaculum!  And with what delightful prospects of the spring!

Happy Christmas everyone.

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