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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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Boris Johnson’s recent takeover (at the developer’s request) of planning power from Lewisham Council over the Convoys Wharf  development  caused widespread dismay at this perceived subversion of democracy.  Lewisham,  now relegated to a merely advisory role, have just voted to recommend rejection of the application, submitting a report that highlights Hutchison Whampoa’s negligible response to the site’s heritage among many other serious concerns. With little over a month to go before Johnson delivers his verdict, local MP Joan Ruddock yesterday spoke eloquently in a Commons adjournment debate about the importance of honouring the heritage of Sayes Court and the Royal Dockyard

After outlining the site’s prestigious history, and the inadequacy of its current statutory protection, Joan asked Ed Vaizey, the Under-Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sport, to “activate  an emergency listing and scheduling procedure based on the available archaeology”.  Ed Vaizey’s reply to this was that he is expecting a report from English Heritage very soon (before the mayor’s decision, though he didn’t seem very sure on this crucial point) on whether other parts of the site should be scheduled, and that he will follow its guidance.  At the moment, Sayes Court manor house and garden (and all the subterranean dockyard features except for the Tudor Storehouse), have no legal protection.  Let us hope that English Heritage, previously rather grudging in their acknowledgement of the site’s importance, pull their weight at the last minute.

Joan’s speech referred to the two aspects of the present Bagley-Angell Sayes Court proposal,  namely a contemporary garden and a horticultural training centre. Noting that the new buildings in the developer’s plan will “obliterate much of the original garden site and isolate the proposed centre”, she asked whether the minister agreed that the centre should respond to the archaeology and be set within an open space.

Vaizey’s reply addressed only the location of the training centre,  citing the opinion of English Heritage that “the proposed orientation of the blocks does not best reflect the archaeology in respect of the relationship of Sayes Court to its garden landscape” and that this relationship should be made more legible. EH likes the concept of a centre that would incorporate and present the remains of the manor house. Vaizey himself was rather non-committal, however, commenting merely that “I believe it is important to note the views of English Heritage in that regard.”

Now, although I approve of a horticultural training centre enveloping the manor house site, and agree that it should be properly connected with the layout of Evelyn’s garden, I find the fact that Vaizey’s response made no mention of the garden itself  very telling.  Roo Angell and Bob Bagley have quietly dropped any talk of restoration of Evelyn’s garden in favour of their so-called “contemporary interpretation” instead. I believe this plays into the hands of the developers and severely weakens the whole proposal. Who, apart perhaps from a few landscape designers, can  get excited at the prospect of a generic  strip of “green  space” dotted, if you’re lucky, with a few abstract conceptual  tokens of the past? In contrast, the Lenox project easily  captures the imagination.  No-one can deny the romance of a proposal to rebuild a replica seventeenth century ship – a real, tangible, experiential link with history. 

Joan Ruddock told the House that the archaeological survey has revealed traces of early walls below the 18th century workhouse building on the site of Sayes Court.  I believe further excavation could and should be done to try and uncover more of the structure of Evelyn’s house. Furthermore, since nearby garden walls have been “confidently reconciled with map evidence of Evelyn’s home”, this means that the structural bones are there in situ for at least a partial restoration of the garden itself.

What about  a restoration of the grove that was so close to Evelyn’s heart, or the fountain garden with his laboratory whose contents are shown in a surviving sketch, or the beautiful and unique parterre? These restored features, for which we have Evelyn’s own meticulous plans and documentation,  would be far more inspiring and likely to attract funding from heritage bodies, as well as throngs of visitors  eager to experience such a rare recreation of a renowned seventeenth century English garden.  As an educational resource this would pack far more punch, as well as offering employment to more people, since period gardens need much more hands-on maintenance, and provide the opportunity to progress to a higher skill level.

I know that many local people and readers of this blog enthusiastically support a restoration of Sayes Court Garden. So, finally,  I have to ask:  why has the idea received no backing from those supposedly campaigning for Sayes Court?  Why has the option not even been discussed in public, surely the duty of  a self-professed “Community Interest Company”?

As Joan Ruddock noted, the Sayes Court proposal demands incorporation at this stage of the planning process.  Now is when the decision will be taken on the layout and massing of the buildings. The later planning stage, of “reserved matters”, would be too late. This really is a last-ditch battle for our heritage.

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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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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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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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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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From the 1650’s onward, the famous gardens at Sayes Court, especially during the summer, received a constant stream of visitors, from the Evelyn family friends to the court elite and royalty. Our own modest tour in my two most recent posts had to omit much detail, and did not include Evelyn’s private garden, or the house itself. There is also still much to tell, as well as some unsolved mysteries, about how the garden evolved over the decades, especially in the 1680’s when Evelyn radically altered the oval garden. How do we know about this? Thanks mostly to John Evelyn’s own writings and plans, but also to the steady trickle of interest and archival research into Sayes Court and Evelyn’s role in the development of science and society in the seventeenth century.  This trickle seems to have grown into something of a torrent since the turn of the millennium. In 2001, for example, there was a well-attended two-day conference at the British Library, “John Evelyn and his milieu”, which gathered together researchers from all over the world. Unbeknownst to me, there was definitely something in the air when I first started wondering about that old mulberry in the park!

John Evelyn by Godfrey Kneller, 1687

Ironically, at the same time as I started to learn about the historical importance of the house and gardens at Sayes Court, proposals had been drawn up to build a horrendous huddle of high rise (up to 40 storeys), high density (3,500 “residential units”)  tower blocks on the site of Convoys Wharf, which now covers Evelyn’s “Elysium” and the adjoining docks of the former King’s Yard. This so-called “development” scheme is blatantly designed to maximise profit for the present owners, Hong-Kong based company Hutchison-Whampoa. If it gets the go-ahead it will be a new low water-mark in social and historical exclusion. The docks have been linked for centuries to the general prosperity of Deptford.  It’s no secret that the area has declined since their closure.  How many local people could afford to buy an apartment  at Convoys Wharf with a starting price of nearly £300,000?  Not only does this proposal threaten to sever the site’s social links with the local community, it also looks set to destroy or bury for ever what remains of its history. Over the past three months, trenches have been excavated all over the site, as a “developer-led” archaeological investigation has been carried out.

Since the dig began in the first week in January, precious little information has been available to the public – still completely barred from the site for so-called “safety reasons”. Finally, just a few days before the end of the dig is due on 9th April, a perfunctory statement has just gone up on the developers’ website.

It seems from this statement that very little remains have been found of either Sayes Court house and gardens, or of the earlier phases of the dockyard.

This is surprising, to say the least. I can’t help wonder who is really calling the shots here.  Who decides where the trenches go, and how deep?  Who does this history really belong to –  a cabal of private interests, or the people of Deptford?



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