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Posts Tagged ‘Historical Maps’

Albury terraces looking east

Albury terraces looking east

Continuing from my last post, this is the view along the lower terrace at Albury Park that meets the modern visitor entering the garden from a door in the west wall. The first impression is of the great length of the terraces, with clipped hedges lining the retaining wall of the upper one to the left, and a towering row of yew trees flanking the edge of the lower one.

These yews though impressive are decidedly overgrown, casting the walk into shadow. They must be centuries old – could they actually date back to John Evelyn’s design? A row of yew-shaped trees is certainly shown in this position on his sketch plan, which has miraculously survived, although its numbered key to the different features is now missing. In order to try to get an idea of how the garden was approached in the seventeenth century, we headed down towards the river at this point rather than continuing along the terrace.

Ditch dividing upper and lower garden

Ditch dividing upper and lower garden

We passed on our left a  long water-filled ditch that now divides the upper and lower halves of the garden. On Evelyn’s design (see above) there is a wall apparently in its place, but who knows whether it was actually built? Perhaps a ditch was thought sufficient. The river itself is charming, with beautifully clear water. In Evelyn’s design its flow was  straightened into a wide canal, of which there seems to be little remaining sign. The original route entering the garden across the river from Albury Park mansion is unfortunately closed, since the house is now separately owned.

the river

the river

Overlooking the river towards the eastern end of the garden is an avenue of lime trees, again very overgrown – the two rows planted so close to each other that they  have created a cool tunnel beneath them.

avenue, evening

avenue, evening

Walking back towards the central axis of the garden, the lime avenue is lovely in the evening light. Looking on Evelyn’s plan, he has a large oval area with a round basin/pool in the middle of the lower garden. It must have been built, because it features on the early eighteenth century map.

view towards the house

view south towards the house

Nothing  is visible today, as this photo looking towards the river and house shows – but archaeology might reveal something.

Albury apples

Albury apples

Apple trees are now growing along the strip of ground between the ditch and the lower terrace, where Evelyn’s plan shows a layout of similar densely-planted small trees. Did he also plant fruit trees here? If only we still had the key to his plan! In the centre of the lower terrace is an odd feature sometimes described as a Roman bath, but which may have been rebuilt and altered since Evelyn’s time. His design looks like he may have intended to adapt the classically-inspired feature that was already there in the 1640’s. Nowadays it is empty apart from niches in the brick walls, but perhaps it once had running water inside?

Entrance to bath house

“Roman Baths” entrance

Next time I’ll conclude my account of Albury with the fountain pool, the exedra and tunnel, and a stroll along the impressive terraces, the features of the garden that have changed least since Evelyn’s day.

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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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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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For many years after his death in 1706, John Evelyn’s mountain of manuscripts, letters, and other papers were kept at his family house in Wotton, Surrey, but now they are in the care of the British Library. Among them, as I soon found to my great delight, is an incredibly detailed plan and description of the garden, drawn in 1653, when he was first planning and laying out the grounds of Sayes Court.

Evelyn was a gifted draughtsman, and his plan is meticulously drawn to scale.

Evelyn's 1653 plan of Sayes Court. Click to view a larger version

As I pored over this incredible plan, (copyright the British Library) it almost felt like Evelyn had somehow foreseen that his garden would one day vanish, and done his best to ensure that an accurate record of it, at least, would survive. Of course, that isn’t the ostensible reason that he drew it – it was to show his father-in-law Richard Browne, a keen horticulturalist who was then on diplomatic posting in Paris, how Evelyn was transforming the estate that he took over when he married into the family.In the key to the left of the plan, (copyright the British Library) a full one hundred and twenty six items shown on the plan are listed, including every room in the house and its outbuildings, every feature of the gardens with dimensions and planting information, and even aspects of the land prior to Evelyn’s alterations, of a kind to gladden the heart of any archaeologist. (Take for example, item 48. “That tract of pricks shew where formerlie the row of great elms grew towards the Pingle, which I feld filling the hollow to accommodate the orchard”.)

Warehouse to the east of Sayes Court Park

One of the first conclusions I came to from examining it is that the modern park is very much smaller than the original garden. So, has the dockyard that borders the park to the east, currently covered with the huge shed-like modern warehouses of Convoys Wharf, encroached over time onto the former area of Sayes Court?

In my next post, I’ll reveal how Evelyn’s map really does work like a marvellous key that lets us enter the seventeenth century landscape.

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