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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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Spring is here, and with the first vivid green returning to the trees, there
are the first, tentative signs of a possible renaissance for Sayes Court! On the 25th of April the Garden History Society and London Parks and Gardens Trust are holding a Study Day on John Evelyn and Sayes Court, underlining the national importance of the site.  An exciting programme of talks is lined up.  For booking info, see the Garden History Society website. There will be a gathering for refreshments afterwards at the Master Shipwright’s house.

Sadly I’m afraid the planned site tour will only be able to view as much of Sayes Court as I have up to now, i.e. a great mound of spoil on top of the back-filled trench.  However, the MOL have at last put up a page on their website explaining how they went about locating the manor house. My SO, who did the Google Earth overlays for my earlier posts, has now double-checked this through a careful map regression using ArcGIS Explorer, and has confirmed that the nineteenth-century almshouse and pension office building did overlie the earlier manor house.

I’ll have more to say on the manor house, what we can discover from the documentary evidence about its interiors, and the alterations it saw while Evelyn lived there, in a later post.

Map of Sayes Court Garden in 1692

But what about changes to the garden?  Like all gardens, of course, it evolved over time.  The harsh winters and dry summers between 1683-5 took their toll of damage, and Evelyn, now in his sixties, commented to Pepys “’tis late for me to begin new paradises”, but nevertheless, he rose to the challenge. By 1692 when the above detailed colour map of the estate (copyright the British Library) was drawn up from Joel Gascoyne’s survey, Sayes Court was quite different from the way it had looked in the 1650’s, when Evelyn first laid it out.

The biggest change was the seemingly fourfold expansion of area given over to groves.  Across the Long Promenade opposite his first, originally highly intricately designed grove, another has taken the place of part of the Great Orchard.  The map shows the northern parts of the orchard that bordered the ornamental lake just as greened areas, with no indication of planting, so it is possible there were  just flat lawns of grass adjoining the lake, and no trees there, with the exception of a small, intriguing feature facing the northern axial entrance to his first grove.  There, trees are sketched in around what looks like a bower with an apsidal niche, which we can speculate might have housed a seat, a statue, or perhaps some instrument of scientific curiosity such as a “thermoscope” or weather-glass, as illustrated below in Evelyn’s  “Elysium Britannicum”.

The northern part of the Great Broomfield that previously lay outside the garden (beyond the orchard), has been incorporated into it, roughly partitioned into four square plots planted with trees, and quartered by paths.

As well as the greatly increased area of the groves, we can see that their internal layout has also drastically altered.  The first grove’s elaborate geometrical network of walks and “cabinets” has gone, replaced by a much simpler layout, with a simple circular opening at its heart.  Apart from the main central axis, the paths are mostly now curving and sinuous.  The next grove, overlying the Great Orchard, is also very much simpler in plan than the 1653 one had been, although still firmly geometrical.

Four new groves overlie the former Stallyard end of the Broomfield and the area described on the 1653 plan as an “extravagant area mangled by digging for gravel”. The simplification has gone even further in the eastern two. A single straight path leads to a large circular area in the centre of each grove. Marking the climax of the process of simplification are the two westernmost groves, perhaps the latest parts of the garden to be laid out.

Comparison of a detail from Evelyn's 1653 plan with a contemporary depiction of a mine entrance. From Subterranean Greenwich and Kent blog.

The southern one is an unbroken block of trees. The northern one incorporates the former gravel pit (and possible mine tunnels) in a very ingenious way, turning the old watering pond that had formed in the man-made depression into an extension of the 1650’s ornamental lake, approached by what looks like a steep descent of steps through the centre of the grove. Thus, it appears that Evelyn was one of the first people to turn an ex-industrial area into a pleasing garden feature! Further research, including archaeological excavation,  could potentially shed some light on Evelyn’s approach in this interesting area, although unfortunately, the houses of Barnes Terrace seem to have been built on the site of this western grove.

The south side of the garden also now extends into the former Great Broomfield, which has here  apparently been turned into grass lawns (known then as “plats”) and long avenues of trees. (But some caution is needed here – see final paragraph below).

Finally, the exquisite parterre has gone, replaced by a semicircular bowling green twice its width, straddling the former south end of the Long Promenade.  The diminutive banqueting house seems to have vanished, too. Instead, an exit accesses an avenue of trees that runs along the entire southern garden edge.

1683-4 planting scheme for the former parterre

We know that the Gascoyne survey map omits details of planting, such as the many fruit trees and bushes planted in the beds and on the walls surrounding the bowling-green, shown above in Evelyn’s own annotated sketch-plan of 1683-4. The Gascoyne map may also have omitted other details for which we don’t have any documentation, so I think it wise to avoid drawing too-firm conclusions, concerning how much Evelyn was either following or helping to form new garden fashions, based just on the evidence of this map. Even so, it gives us a tantalizing peek into Sayes Court garden in its later form, just a couple of years before Evelyn and his wife Mary packed up and moved to Wotton, the Evelyns’ family home in Surrey…where he carried on gardening!

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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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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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