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Posts Tagged ‘Garden restoration’

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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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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It was one day early in  2005, soon after we’d moved into our flat nearby, that we first discovered Sayes Court Park, adjacent to the currently-disused Thames-side dockyard in Deptford.  I was interested in seeing the wizened mulberry tree at its heart, supposedly planted some three hundred years ago by Czar Peter of Russia, of all people.

Old mulberry tree in Sayes Court Park

I was a bit sceptical of that particular legend even then, and am more so now that I have read the contemporary accounts of Peter’s behaviour during his visit. But I was nonetheless intrigued by the idea of a tree surviving from the greener, pre-industrial landscape in these parts. The gnarled but still vigorous and reportedly fruitful mulberry at least held out the eventual prospect of a taste you can’t buy at Tesco.

If you ask local people about the park, some will tell you that John Evelyn, a friend of Samuel Pepys, and like him a diarist,  had a famous garden there. His house, and the garden, were indeed called Sayes Court.   The question was, how much, if anything, remained from Evelyn’s day in the modern park?

Once you’ve got your eye in for it – by archaeological fieldwork, surveying, studying old maps – you develop an almost tangible sense of the past under your feet.  A sort of space-time-penetrating vision.  This feels completely natural to me, even if I don’t draw on it much these days, unfortunately. Anyway, doing my best to tune into what you might call this past-detector,  I scanned the ground eagerly, hoping to spot something – an anomalous bank, or the parch-marks of an earlier planting layout,  or a shard of seventeenth century pottery – anything to connect with what was there before.

But the park, despite bearing the name of Sayes Court, initially appeared to be just a rather run-down, reduced-to-low-maintenance relic of the nineteen-fifties.  A few ubiquitous plane trees and shrubs  and predictable rows of roses, but otherwise, sadly, not much apart from concrete paths and grass.

So, I began to feel curious to find out what had become of Evelyn’s house, and especially, his renowned garden.

What kind of garden was it?  Had it really been completely lost?

I began to delve deeper.

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