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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…

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.

Spring sundial, Groombridge Place

Spring sundial, Groombridge Place

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.

"Sculpture" supposedly evoking Deptford's naval heritage

“Sculpture” supposedly evoking Deptford’s naval heritage

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.

Sayes Ct Park in the snow

Mulberry in snow, Sayes Court Park

This week’s Gardeners’ Question Time on BBC Radio 4 includes a six-minute feature on Sayes Court Garden. In it I speak to Matthew Wilson, in the rather cold and bleak setting of Sayes Court Park, about what the garden looked like in its seventeenth century heyday, and what might happen there in the future.

If you miss the programme tomorrow, it will be repeated at 14.00 on Sunday, and will be available to listen to on BBC iPlayer as well. The feature starts at 29.29 mins. into the programme.

The Vocal Garden

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?

“Lads! Run away ! There’s a snake in the grass!”

An alarming welcome to a garden, you might think!  But so translates the Latin quotation that heads John Evelyn’s handwritten list of  classical mottoes displayed around Sayes Court Garden: “O pueri fugite hinc, latet anguis in herba.”  I can only speculate why he chose to use this particular line.  Was it a serious warning about the darker side of nature?  Or was it perhaps meant as a joke,  and the snake a harmless painted or sculpted one, a bit like this lovely one I spotted recently at Hampton Court Palace Flower show?

Anguis in herba

The quote is a line from Virgil’s Eclogues (3.93), uttered in an enigmatic singing match between two shepherds.  In the seventeenth century, anyone with a good education would have known where most of Evelyn’s quotations came from, and been able to appreciate their aptness for the situation in which he had placed them.  A walk around Sayes Court garden would therefore have been not just a horticultural experience but also a carefully thought-through literary, philosophical, and even spiritual one.

Alas!  There’s no sign of any such depth in the  latest tweaks to the masterplan for Convoys Wharf.  I listened with dismay to the smooth talk on their website about a “contemporary interpretation” of Sayes Court garden, which seems to translate as – wait for it – a couple of lines of trees leading out of the present park, and a few  lines in the pavement.  All this so-called “consultation,” but no-one among the developers actually listens.  So I’ll spell it out in simple terms. We want  an authentic SEVENTEENTH CENTURY RESTORATION of  Sayes Court Garden, not a minimalist 21st century “interpretation”  for goodness’ sake – there are plenty of those around already!

If, against the odds, my dream of a restoration were actually to happen, Evelyn’s mottoes would be part of it – with English translations to hand, perhaps on the backs.  The original mottoes would probably have been painted on wood, and I imagine them hanging from branches or perhaps mounted on walls or fences.  Their reincarnations could be combined with statues, particular planting, and so on.  Plenty of scope for ingenuity and art…

Here, in the order Evelyn wrote them, are some of the rest of the garden mottoes, with their references as I’ve managed to trace them, translations, and a few comments of my own in square brackets.

Perpetual spring

2. Hic ver perpetuum, varios hic flumina

circumfundit humus flores

(Virgil, Eclogue IX)

“Here is shining spring,

Here amid streams blow many-coloured flowers.”

[Now, this is more the sort of message one would expect to read!

This eclogue continues: "Here poplars hoary-tressed droop o'er the cave,

And lo! the limber vine plaits leafy bowers.

Hither! and let mad billows beat the strand."

The mad billows of the nearby Deptford Strand?]

Spring by her flowers he knows

3.  Ver sibi flore notat

(Claudian, carmina minora 20)

“Spring by flowers he knows.”

This poem is about an old man who stayed close to home throughout his life.  Evelyn’s friend Abraham Cowley translated it and included it in his essay, “The dangers of an honest man in much company.”  The meaning of the line is that the wise person marks the passage of time by the changes in nature, not by man-made events (or contraptions, for that matter). The poem continues:

“He measures time by landmarks, and has found

For the whole day the dial of his ground.”

Since “dial” could mean a sundial, my bet is that this motto was on or near a sundial in the garden. We know there was one at the centre of the parterre.

17th c. Garden Party

4. Inter gestantium complexus, inter adorantium oscula, inter plausus admirantium: hic [?] vis quidem, at [?] gloriosa vita! – Nosegay.

(Claudius Batholomaeus Morisotus: Peruviana, published 1645)

“Among the embraces of  joyful people, among the kisses of the adoring, among the applause of admirers – this is violence indeed, but a famous life!”

The above translation is my own.  It’s provisional,  especially where I’m not sure of his handwriting. Evelyn has apparently adapted a passage from p. 319 of the above book, a Latin novel nominally set in Peru but actually, it seems, referring to political figures in France.  The second half of the motto recalls the last words of Julius Caesar as his assassins plunged at him: “Ista quidem vis est” “This is violence!”

“Nosegay”, written right after the motto, probably means that this motto was in his private garden, part of whose function was to provide flowers for making nosegays or posies.  If I read this right, it offers us an interesting insight into how he saw his own and his garden’s celebrity.

More garden mottoes next time.

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Many thanks to Frances Harris for kindly sending me photocopies of Evelyn’s motto lists.

Anyone who knows any more about 17th c. house and garden mottoes, or knows of any surviving examples or images of them, I’d love to hear from you.  Also from those whose Latin is less rusty than mine.

Wotton

Wotton was the first on my list of Evelyn-related places to visit this year, and last weekend I spent my birthday there.  The house is now a hotel and conference centre owned by the Principal Hayley group.

ImageIn Evelyn’s time the house was timber-framed, with a main block flanked by two wings projecting to the north enclosing a u-shaped court. The garden lay to the south, and this is where John Evelyn first experimented with Italian-style design from the 1640′s onwards. There he created a parterre with a central fountain and viewing terraces to either side.

Portico, grotto and mound

To the rear the natural hillside was terraced and fronted by a classical portico and grotto. The grotto was adorned with statues, of which only the Venus now remains.

Interior of grotto

The walls of the niches were encrusted with corals and shells that glittered behind gushing fountain-jets.  All of this was achieved thanks to a system of ingenious conduits that diverted the flow of the natural streams that run through the grounds.

The mound was planted with beech trees which have since vanished, along with apparently all other vestiges of the seventeenth century planting.

Winter

There is some uncertainty about the date of the statues of the four seasons that flank the central access stairway. They would certainly fit in with Evelyn’s theme here, derived from Epicurean philosophy, of the powers of nature (represented principally by Venus).  At any rate, all four seasons apart from Winter are now headless, which is rather sad.

I have to say that the evidence of these and other broken statues, fountains and benches and the detritus of wedding revels leave one feeling that this rare survival of seventeenth century garden design is not being properly cherished by the current owners.

Careful archaeological investigation might be able to recover the plan of the parterre. That area as well as the former orchard and kitchen garden to the east of the house are now just grassed over. If the neglected water features were  repaired, and the garden replanted in period style, the result would be truly stunning.  It would also, of course, attract many visitors.

Doorway to room where John Evelyn was probably born

The house itself has been much altered since the seventeenth century. Refaced in brick and extended in Victorian Gothic style, when it passed out of the family’s hands all its original furnishings and fittings went too.There remain a few beautiful Jacobean and Elizabethan doors, and interesting nooks and crannies.   However, all the old heart of the house is reserved for corporate training and conference events, as well as  wedding parties. Hotel guests stay in a modern accommodation wing, where the rooms are, frankly, bland and overpriced. It was next to impossible even to get to see any of the older rooms, as they were nearly all declared to be either in use or off-limits. Here, nevertheless, is a glimpse of the room where John Evelyn may have been born –  or could it be the one next to it?!

Room where John Evelyn may have been born

The best part of my brief time at Wotton was the midsummer dawn chorus, the like of which I’ve honestly never heard before in my life. Thanks no doubt to the lush woods behind the mound and the many trees and streams in the garden, the  variety, volume and sheer virtuosity of the birdsong was breath-taking. Looking out then from the first floor window onto the mound in the half-light, it seemed like one of those numinous fairy-hills in which legends tell that Arthur sleeps – except in this case, it must surely be the local equivalent of Venus…

The mound from the west

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All photos by the author except for the Evelyn sketch scanned by Jacqueline Banerjee, from http://www.victorianweb.org/art/architecture/homes/33c.html For more information on the garden, see Small A. & Small C., John Evelyn and the Garden of Epicurus, Journal of the Warburg and Courtauld Institutes, vol. 60 (1997) pp. 194-214. For the basic historical facts on the house, see here http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Wotton_House,_Surrey and for details of the architectural features, see here http://list.english-heritage.org.uk/resultsingle.aspx?uid=1189814.

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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