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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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Evelyn's plan of an artificial echo

I  gave a little talk two weekends back about the history of Sayes Court to a group of people who had gathered to air alternative, grass-root visions for the redevelopment of Convoys Wharf, including the restoration of John Evelyn’s seventeenth century garden

In it I tried to summarize Evelyn’s influence on some other contemporary gardens – though by no means all of the ones he had a hand in.  This is something I have already begun to explore here under the category “echoes of Evelyn”, starting with Groombridge Place.  When next spring comes, I’ll hopefully get the chance to get out and visit a few of these gardens, and post about them here in more depth

For now, though, here’s a snippet to whet the appetite!


1653 view of Wotton -click to enlarge

Evelyn directly influenced the design of numerous important seventeenth century gardens, beginning with his family’s ancestral home at Wotton.

Albury Park Terrace

Today the best visible example of his work, inspired in particular by the huge terraces of Palestrina outside Rome, is Albury Park in Surrey, where from 1662 he redesigned the Italianate garden for Henry Howard, to include a Yew Walk and fine terraces a quarter of a mile long, with a tunnel through the hill under Silver Wood. 

Howard also received his advice in 1663/4 on the design of a riverside public “spring garden” in Norwich, with many walks, a bowling green, pond, and of course, a “wilderness”.

Euston Hall

Evelyn also took an active role at Euston Hall in Suffolk, where in 1671 he designed a garden with a canal, straight rides and long avenues of elms and limes, and at Groombridge Place in Kent, where the central avenue of clipped yews has survived as well as most of the basic seventeenth century layout.  He also advised many other leading garden-owners of his day.

Groombridge Place

Sayes Court was, however, his greatest horticultural achievement, where he demonstrated the benefits of tree planting as prescribed in his best-known book “Sylva”, and experimented with innovative designs, plants, and  techniques such as growing on hotbeds and in greenhouses.

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Our walk-through of Sayes Court garden in spring 1658 didn’t include Evelyn’s private garden “of choice flowers and simples”, (that is, plants with medicinal use) lying along the western side of the manor house. Although called “private”, we can be sure that Evelyn would welcome us, because he loved to show people around his garden. As his friend the poet Abraham Cowley wrote:

“I know no body that possesses more private Happiness than you do in your Garden; and yet no Man who makes his Happiness more publick, by a free communication of the Art and Knowledge of it to others”

Door through mount

So let’s go back to 1658, to early September, and take a brief look at the delights sheltered inside the Private Garden’s ten-foot high brick wall. Here we are at the entrance-door, with steps climbing to the top of the mount-walk that overlooks the oval garden parterre behind us, and a small door to a passageway through the mount and into the nursery on our left.

Amaranthus

As we push open the door, the rich tang of herbs and ripening fruits greets us. The near (southern) half of the garden is bathed in the afternoon sunshine. In the long rectangular beds that run down the centre of each of the four hexagonal grassed areas arranged around the central fountain there are vivid mounds of flowers, among them the dramatic dark red tails of amaranthus and vigorous violet clumps of stock gillyflowers, (the secret of their vigour is that they are sown on a hot-bed in February, and only planted out around now).

Old elm

Beckoning to us from the far north-western corner is a shady arbour underneath two tall elms, which have obviously been there for a very long time, as have the others that we can see towering over the other side of the garden wall beyond them – a row of seven ancient half-hollow elms in all.

Pigeons flap to and fro from a purpose-built pigeon house on top of Evelyn’s laboratory on our left. A new building that proclaims Evelyn’s scientific curiosity (what future member of the Royal Society could be without one?), the laboratory is fronted by a twenty-foot long colonnaded portico dotted with citrus, myrtle, and other prized plants in pots and cases.

The private or fountain garden

Opposite, in the area between the two main westward-facing wings of the house, and overlooked by the grand new gabled windows of the withdrawing room to the parlour, is an aviary stocked with colourful caged birds. Its parrots add the occasional exotic squawk to the cooing of the pigeons, the soft trickle of water in the fountain, and the murmur of bees coming and going from the intriguing ornamental glass apiary placed against the north wall, a prized gift from Dr Wilkins of Waddum in 1654.

The garden’s basic layout, an intimate enclosed space arranged in four geometric beds around the central fountain, with intersecting and surrounding gravel paths, owes, we
suspect, quite a bit to Evelyn’s father-in-law, Richard Browne, and to his Elizabethan and medieval predecessors.

Espalier fruit tree

But Evelyn himself has planted and tended it since he moved to Sayes Court in 1652. It is he, we feel sure, who has planted the six cypresses that circle the fountain area, and has lined the walls with peach trees, vines, cherries and grapes.

He has edged the beds not with box, (because of its tendency to drain the goodness from the soil and out-compete the choice flowers), but with wooden boards as well as with shrubs of lavender cotton, kept carefully clipped to about a foot high. We also spot rosemary, which he distils to make “Hungary water,” the first alcohol-based perfume to be widely-used in Europe, which was also thought to be medicinal.

Flower bed

As we stroll towards the elm arbour we pass a wealth of herbs, shrubs and flowers – among them thyme, sedum, tragacantha, night-scented pelargoniums, Martagon lily, marvel of Peru, snapdragons, Canterbury bells, sunflowers, nasturtium, and too many others to name.

Martagon lily

We take a curious peek into the tool shed and fruit store at the end of the laboratory, from where potent ripening scents are emanating. Spades, shovels, mattocks we are familiar with, but there are also wooden tubs, cases, and boxes, pottery watering “cans”, scythes, woven baskets, metal, stone and wooden rollers, bundles of stakes, and many other mysterious objects. And then, our eyes light on the enticing stacks of apples, pears and plums on the shelves…

Most tantalizingly of all, there is a notebook lying on one shelf in which everything that is planted, when and where, and how it prospers, is meticulously recorded. Unfortunately, this precious document is too humble to have been preserved up to our own time. Which is where we must now think about returning – after one last moment of quiet enjoyment and reflection in the beautiful arbour of thickly-intertwining elm boughs.

Arbour

Abraham Cowley’s preface-poem to Evelyn’s “Sylva” comes to mind:

“Oh! who would change these soft, yet solid Joys,
For empty Shows and senseless Noise;
And all which rank Ambition breeds,
Which seem such beauteous Flowers, and are such poisonous Weeds?”


 

Main sources: Evelyn’s gardening Calendar (“Calendarium hortense”) under the month of September; his “Directions for the Gardiner at Says Court” (list of fruit trees planted in the Fountaine-Garden; notes for rarer simples and exotics; notes for the coronary garden; notes for coronary flowers rarer; tools and instruments necessary for a gardiner); Evelyn’s 1653 map of Sayes Court (see earlier posts); Prudence Leith-Ross, “The Garden of John Evelyn at Deptford” (Garden History vol. 25, no.2).; Mark Laird, “Parterre, grove and flower garden” in “John Evelyn’s Elysium Britannicum and European Gardening”. Abraham Cowley’s poem can be read in full in the Project Gutenberg ebook of Sylva. The garden photos are from Groombridge Place, Ham House, and the Restoration House at Rochester.

Postscript:
So far, the only reference to the actual fountain I have come across in Evelyn’s writing is a warning to others to be sure to lag their water pipes in cold weather, or suffer, as he did,  the expense of repairing the damage when they burst!  However, my guess is the basin might have looked something like the one at Drummond Castle, shown below (the central pillar-fountain has been edited out).

Fountain base, Drummond Castle

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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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Plaque mentioning Evelyn

Scots pine reputed to have been planted by Evelyn

Sayes Court was not the only garden that John Evelyn had a hand in. His advice was sought on garden design by numerous landowners, including his friend Philip Packer, who lived at Groombridge Place in Kent.

Fortunately, the gardens at Groombridge Place escaped both the ravages of the landscape movement, and the neglect that has afflicted Sayes Court. The original seventeenth century layout that Evelyn was consulted on is still visible, and although most of the actual planting has altered, there are still fascinating remnants of it here and there. This is a good place to visit to get a general feel for how Sayes Court might have been, and, feeling in need of a little inspiration, last Sunday I spent a very enjoyable afternoon there drinking in the atmosphere and taking photos.

House and gateway, Groombridge

As you approach the house, to the right of the bridge over the moat you see a soaring Scots pine, said to be the remaining one of a pair that Evelyn planted in the 1670s. Although the house itself is sadly not open to the public, the outside looks not too dissimilar to what we know from the few surviving depictions of Sayes Court – two main storeys, and classical columns in the porch. Perhaps it is a little grander, but not much – both places started off as mediaeval manor houses, after all.

Main axis looking south, Groombridge

The paths, walls, gateways and main divisions or rooms of the garden are still much as they were originally set out in the seventeenth century. The central axis pathway is called “The Apostle Walk”, because it is bordered on each side by twelve yews clipped into drum shapes, believed to have survived from the 1674 planting.

"Twelve Apostles" yew tree avenue

Another seventeenth century feature which Groombridge Place had in common with Sayes Court was a banqueting house in which the Packers and their guests would have enjoyed light refreshments, more like picnics than what we would call a banquet today, of cakes, fruit ,wine, or tea, still an exotic luxury then. This building, subsequently altered and enlarged into a cottage, leads onto a raised grass walk described in the guidebook as a bowling alley, although it seems rather narrow, and its position leads me to wonder if it might not originally have been a raised terrace perhaps for viewing a parterre below, as at Sayes Court?

The narrow canal that crosses the garden is also part of the original design, although the colourfully-planted “Knot Garden” was only laid out in 1994. I do suspect that (proper!) archaeological investigation might find very interesting evidence for the earlier planting layout in this area and in the adjacent “Draughtsman’s Lawn”, named after Peter Greenaway’s entrancing film “The Draughtsman’s Contract”, filmed here in 1982. A more recently-filmed version of “Pride and Prejudice” allows a tantalising view inside the house itself.

19th century plan of 17th century Groombridge Place

On the wall in the visitors’ restaurant, and rather awkwardly situated to photo (my apologies for the poor quality shot) there is a picture of a nineteenth century plan that purports to show the gardens as they would have appeared in the seventeenth century. What this is based on, I don’t know – was there an earlier painting or drawing available to the artist? If anyone reading this can enlighten me about it, I’d be very grateful.

300 year old apple tree, Groombridge Place

There are three ancient apple trees in the “White rose garden” that remain from the orchard that existed there in the seventeenth century. The one in the photo still apparently produces fruit, despite its great age and the mistletoe growing on it! I wonder what variety it is?

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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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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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Leaving the Oval Garden through its western exit, we find ourselves in a grand avenue or grassed walk, charmingly called the “Long Pourmenade” on Evelyn’s 1653 plan,  (see my previous posts).  The walk extends 526 feet,  the entire length of the garden.

The banqueting house

We could now turn left to investigate the miniature pavilion,  called the”Banquetting House”,  built against the garden perimeter to the south, or  go straight ahead across the walk into the  Great Orchard, planted with three hundred cherries, pears, apples, and other  fruits of many different (and sadly, to our modern eyes, unfamiliar) varieties.  However, as the spring afternoon is drawing to a close, let us turn right and explore a feature for which Evelyn has a particularly soft spot – his famous “Grove” or wilderness of trees, “with several walks, meanders and thickets, etc”. 

Rhamnus Alaternus - Italian Buckthorn

Entering through a gap in the codlin (cooking apple) hedge that forms its western border, we find ourselves inside a rectangular area measuring 40 by 80 yards, thickly planted inside wedge-shaped enclosures of low alaternus hedge (the alaternus being something of a recurring theme at Sayes Court) with a range of deciduous trees including oak, ash, elm, service, beech and chesnut.  In his unfinished magnum opus “Elysium Britannicum”, Evelyn recommends the “confused and irregular planting of them far before the ranging of them in lines”, and it would have been strange indeed if he had not put this into practice in his own garden.  In between the trees are thickets of birch, hazel, and hawthorn, all underplanted with evergreens, shade-loving plants like periwinkle, and herbs -an approach that in some aspects perhaps anticipates modern forest permaculture. 

Like the harsh winter from which we have just emerged, that of 1657-8  was  the severest for decades.  It was so cold, in fact, that Evelyn wrote in his diary that “the crow’s feet were frozen to their prey”.  Signs of the late arrival of Spring are visible throughout the Grove.  The young trees around us, some not grown to much more than head-height yet,  have only recently unfurled their new leaves.

Walnut

Had we come a month or two later, we might have been privileged to see, dotted about in prominent but sheltered positions, a breath-taking range of exotic evergreens in tubs and cases,  such as (to name but a few) carob, cinnamon, lime, lemon, orange,  lignum vitae, olive and oleander, date palms and “dragon trees”.   Unfortunately for us, these are still enjoying their cossetting  in Evelyn’s conservatory – Evelyn  was the first English writer to use this word, and in later years was closely involved in the development of efficient greenhouse heating systems.

Nonetheless,  the centre of the Grove, the focal point, provides a permanent evergreen heart – a mount planted with bay, and lined with laurel.  The mount area also includes two of the Grove’s total of fourteen “cabinetts of Aliternies”, circular or rectangular recessed arbours for contemplation of nature, with large walnut trees planted beside each one,  for shade and shelter.

The mount allows us to get a better idea of the intricate structure of the Grove, but if we could take to the air – what an impossibly fanciful notion! – we would get an even better view of its remarkable synthesis of artifice and nature.

The Grove, Sayes Court - reconstruction by Mark Laird

But the evening light warns us to hurry our way out once more into the long walk, and down to the northern end of the garden, past the continuing Great Orchard on our left, and another smaller orchard area on our right below the Grove, until we reach a moat surrounding a long rectangular island, accessed by a drawbridge.  Swans and ducks dot the water, and there is a flock of starlings gathering in a mulberry tree at the island’s north-eastern corner.  Neat rows of vegetables – asparagus, artichokes, cabbages, and even melons –  are visible.  A small summer-house is tucked into the south-west corner.  I don’t know about you, but I am sorely tempted to linger, and perhaps take a turn around the island in that rowing-boat moored along the bank.

But the starlings are flying off to roost, and soft candlelight is starting to spill from the manor house.  So we must tear ourselves away for now, out of the small orchard gate, down the path to the stairs on the Thames,  and home – if we can find a wherry back to the twenty-first century!

The island and moat


Many thanks to Mark Laird for use of his conjectural reconstruction painting of the Grove.
Main sources: John Evelyn’s 1653 plan of Sayes Court house and gardens; Mark Laird, “Parterre, Grove and Flower Garden: European Horticulture and Planting Design in John Evelyn’s time”; Frances Harris, “Transformations of love”; Prudence Leith-Ross, “The Garden of John Evelyn at Deptford”, in Garden History, vol.25, no. 2; Douglas Chamber, “John Evelyn and the invention of the heated greenhouse”, in Garden History, vol. 20, No. 2

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After this over-long and bitterly cold winter, let’s take a peek back at some spring colour and vigour. Yes, I did say, back! Come with me to Sayes Court on a fresh, late April day in the year 1658. Mr Evelyn is unfortunately out, but we’re so keen to see the garden that we take a quick tour in his absence, anyway – after all, Samuel Pepys got away with it, so why shouldn’t we?

We stroll across a flat expanse of ancient pasture with a perimeter of stately elm trees, towards the beckoning roof line of the Manor house and the main entrance gate, along a broad avenue with a double row of limes on either side, with their “upright Body, smooth and even Bark, ample Leaf, sweet Blossom, the delight of bees, and a goodly shade”, as Evelyn describes them in his most famous work published in his lifetime, “Sylva”.

The dissonant workaday sounds of the adjacent Kings Yard are gradually soothed away by the riffling fingers of the Thames-side breeze through the young soft leaves that invite us towards the open double gate in the ten-foot high brick wall. We step eagerly through its urn-surmounted pillars into a court with carefully-tended grass bowling greens to either side of the gravel path down which we scrunch between flanking rows of cypresses. Through the evergreen fingers we catch glimpses of the sheltering walls of this area, the Great Court, covered with trained tendrels of fruit trees – mostly different varieties of peaches, but also apricots, figs and nectarines. Peach blossom froths sumptuously over the old bricks made of local clay.

Parrot tulips

Before us lies the front of the venerable Tudor house, three-gabled, with a fashionable new stone-paved entrance porch of Doric columns, over which we have heard tell that Mary Evelyn has an intriguing “closset of collections” – natural and artificial curiosities gathered from all across the ever-expanding known world. But we’ll have to save the delights of the house for another day, because there is still so much more to see of the famous gardens.

Ranunculus

We turn left and pass through the garden door, out of the court. We are now in the oval garden. Immediately to our right a small passageway leads towards the nursery, and past the door to Evelyn’s own private garden, in which he enjoys getting hands-on, by tending to it himself. We can hear the trickle of a fountain inside, but that gate is locked to us – for now.

Apart from the gravel paths that edge it, our view of most of the garden is blocked ahead and to the left by a densely-planted evergreen thicket, so in order to get a better impression, we climb the steps to our right up onto the high terrace-walk that runs along its northern side, with a flourishing hedge of holly at its foot.

From up on the terrace, this is the view that greets us – click to view a larger image.

Sayes Court Oval garden and parterre- reconstruction by Mark Laird

An elaborate circular parterre divided into quarters by radiating paths, with each quadrant containing three flowerbeds, surrounds a central mount, with a sundial at its top. The colourful circle is contained with a similarly quartered oval of well-mown lawns, each bounded with beds containing choice flowers in pots. Cypresses planted symmetrically around the mount and the edges of the quarters draw the eye and relieve the flatness of the design. The whole garden is oblong in shape, and the areas around the oval are planted on the east (to our left as we view from the mount) with those evergreen shrubs, pierced by inset recesses or arbours, while to the west/right there are dwarf fruit trees, including cherries now in glorious flower, also pierced with recessed evergreen arbours, (known as “cabinetts”), of ivy and Rhamnus Aliternus, Italian Buckthorn, a species Evelyn is proud to have introduced from France.

Anenomes

While Evelyn is more of a woodsman than a florist (which means a flower hobbyist, not a shopkeeper, here in 1658!), he does favour flowers over the other fashionable alternative of coloured powder to fill the segments of his parterre, being determined to avoid “those painted and formal projections of our cockney gardens and plotts, which appeare like gardens of past-board and march-pane (marzipan), and which smell more of paint then (than) of flowers and verdure”.

And so we see below us the choice bulbs, some  also brought from France when Evelyn first returned after his grand tour, now blooming happily in the Oval Garden’s flowerbeds and pots – the richest tulips, anenomies, ranunculus, as well as crocuses and polyanthus.

I can’t resist – I’m just off now for a quiet sit-down in one of the enticingly-secluded cabinetts, but when I come back we can continue our exploration!


Special thanks to Mark Laird who generously allowed me to use his conjectural reconstruction painting of the oval garden. Other main sources: Mark Laird, “Parterre, grove and flower garden: European horticulture and planting design in John Evelyn’s time” in  O’Malley & Wolschke-Bulmahn, eds. ,”John Evelyn’s “Elysium Britannicum and European gardening””; John Evelyn ed. Maggie Campbell-Culver, “Directions for the Gardiner and other horticultural advice”; Frances Harris “Transformations of love”.

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Aerial view of Sayes Court area – click to enlarge.

I now had Evelyn’s own plan of Sayes Court to give me the seventeenth century layout, and photos of the modern site such as this birds-eye view, that shows roughly the same area as the plan, as well, of course, as more modern maps of the area.

Clicking or flipping from one to the other gave me a rough idea of how they related to each other, but I needed something more exact.

An overlay of the 1653 plan on a modern street map of the area seemed to be the answer. This is now available for Google Earth, and has the great advantages of being free and accessible to anyone. All you need is to have Google Earth installed on your computer, and hey, presto, you can fade out the twenty-first century into the seventeenth, and vice-versa! [see instructions below]

Using the overlay, you can see that the modern Sayes Court Street that leads to one of the entrances of the park falls just outside the western boundary of Evelyn’s Great Orchard, shown on his plan with lots of cute miniature trees (there were actually three hundred, according to the key). I recommend using the zoom to get a close-up of any of the features.

The overlay makes it clear that most of the modern park lay outside Evelyn’s garden (or at least the 1650’s version of it) in the large field then called the “Broome Field”. The part of Dacca Street that leads off Prince Street aligns with what was once the 300 foot long avenue planted on each side with a double row of limes that led to Sayes Court’s main entrance gates, (whose image forms the banner to this blog).

If Dacca Street were still a double lime avenue…

The border between Evelyn’s plan and his key, roughly parallel with Convey Way on the modern map, follows the line of what was the dockyard wall in his time. Obviously the dockyard, present-day Convoys Wharf, has encroached massively into the former area of Sayes Court. But if you look carefully, you’ll see that the warehouses have just about avoided the area where the great oval parterre was, and where the manor house and its yard and outbuildings stood. Only the long warehouse whose photo I included in my previous post appears to clip the western edge of the parterre.

The overlay certainly brings home how much has changed in the space of three hundred years. Yet even so, traces of the footprint of Sayes Court are still visible.

Just as we now know that trees are healthier when the soil they’re planted in contains mycorrhizal fungi to nourish their roots, so I think we benefit if we’re able to perceive a physical continuity with the past. Beneath the turf of the park and the concrete of Convoys Wharf, the once-rich soil of Sayes Court has been neglected for too long.

Hopefully the overlay will work as a sort of temporal mulch!


Instructions for using the Google Earth overlay.

Get the .kmz file from
bbs.keyhole.com/Plan_of_Sayes_Court_House_and_Garden.kmz
and save it on your computer. 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 1653 plan overlaid onto the modern map of the area.

Select (by clicking once on it) “Plan of Sayes Court House and Garden” from the menu on the left. By dragging the arrow on the slider below (the one that says “the slider sets the transparency of the overlay”) you can view Evelyn’s map or the modern one, and all degrees of transparency in between.

To zoom in and out, hover your mouse near the upper right-hand corner, and a slide will appear with a plus and minus for greater and less magnification.

If you don’t have Google Earth, you can download it free at earth.google.co.uk

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