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Just a postscript, really, to the previous post. Since writing that, I’ve found a couple more pieces of information about mulberries at Sayes Court.

Firstly, there were mulberries, probably black ones, in the garden even before Evelyn took it over. Letters from Christopher Brown to his son Richard Brown (Evelyn’s future father-in -law) describe their garden at Sayes Court in March and June 1642. The easterly winds that year damaged the damask roses, as well as the walnut trees and  – the mulberries.

Secondly, there is a letter to Evelyn dated 11 April 1670, signed N. Jameson, apparently the minister of St Paul’s church in Hackney, asking if he knows how or by whom the seeds of the white mulberry can be obtained: “by all the enquiry I could hitherto make by my friends about London for some seed of the whiter kind, which your book treats of, I have not hitherto been so happy as to procure any, nor indeed to meet with those who ever heard of any such mulberry or seed.”

Finally, here is proof that Evelyn did indeed have one or more white mulberries at Sayes Court, brought to him from Languedoc. This passage is from Dendrologia, printed as part of the fourth edition of Sylva. He praises the mulberry for its useful wood, implies its fruit and leaves are undervalued, and then continues:

“But it is not here I would recommend our ordinary black fruit bearers, though that be likewise worth the propagation; but that kind which is call’d the white mulberry (which I have had sent me out of Languedoc) one of them of a broad leaf, found there and in Provence, whose seeds being procured from Paris, where they have it from Avignon, should be thus treated in the seminary.” He goes on to talk at length about how to grow the white mulberry, including the suggestion of improving it by grafting it onto black mulberry.

 

References:

Darley, G. 2006, John Evelyn, Living for Ingenuity, p. 79  and p. 319, n. 11

Bray, W., 1887, Diary and Correspondence of John Evelyn, vol. III, p. 227.

Dendrologia, p. 204, at http://www.gutenberg.org/files/20778/20778-h/20778-h.htm#II_CHAPTER_I

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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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steps to upper terrace and exedra

steps to upper terrace and exedra

Going up the steps to the upper terrace, above the subterranean “baths” that I mentioned in my last post, you face the most dramatic survival from Evelyn’s design for Albury Park – the pool, the exedra and the mysterious, beckoning tunnel beneath the hill.

exedra, tunnel, pool

exedra, tunnel, pool

Here we met the estimable Paul Verity, who has heroically cared for the place virtually single-handed (before the first world war there were something like forty gardeners!) for decades. He was most patient and helpful in answering our questions, and gave us many fascinating insights into the recent history of the garden.

pool and fountain, looking south

pool and fountain, looking south

It seems that the leaky old pool lay empty for years, and has only recently been relined to make it water-tight and the fountain brought back to life – further enhancing the sense of presence that is perhaps at its most potent here, with the ancient overhanging trees seeming to clasp the whole area in their embrace.

oak guarding the exedra

oak tree over exedra

Passing by the vacant niches  (were they once filled with statuary? ) one arrives at the dark tunnel-mouth at the centre of the semi-circle, and the focal point of the garden.

view inside the tunnel

view inside the tunnel

I had been looking forward with great anticipation to entering the tunnel, expecting it to be open, as I gather it was up until recently. But sadly, due apparently to roosting bats and crumbling structure, we were confronted by a locked grille, through which we could see just a tiny pinprick of light at the far end.

After strolling to the eastern end of the upper terrace, we turned to look back along its entire impressive length.

upper terrace looking west

upper terrace looking west

Evelyn’s plan shows steps at each end of the upper terrace descending to the lower level, where there are now ramps. It’s also noticeable how the numerous apsidal niches shown in the terrace walls on the plan are absent in reality. With no signs in the brickwork to suggest they were ever built, this is a cautionary example of how a garden as actually created can differ from the original design.

descent to lower terrace

ramp down to lower terrace looking west

We descended the ramp and walked west along the lower terrace, back towards the side door through which we’d first entered. Finally we bid a reluctant farewell to this, the best-preserved of John Evelyn’s gardens, beside a majestic cedar of Lebanon that stands sentinel just inside the gate.

Cedar of Lebanon

Cedar of Lebanon

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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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Two Sundays back, I took the rare opportunity to visit the wonderful garden that John Evelyn created at Albury Park in Surrey. Normally closed to the public,  thankfully  it opens twice a year under the National Gardens Scheme. The contrast in setting between Sayes Court and Albury Park could hardly be greater. At Albury Park, the garden is set into a south-facing hillside overlooking a richly-wooded valley through which the river Tillingbourne flows. It is sheltered, with a perfect aspect for fruit trees, and a good natural supply of water. After the pollution and clamour of Deptford it was  such a delight to breathe in the sweet, clean air at Albury, and I’m sure Evelyn must have appreciated it, too.

Albury in 1645

Albury in 1645

Even before he began to redesign the garden, he was well-acquainted with Albury Park, which lies only about five miles from his family home at Wotton. Evelyn’s early mentor in matters of artistic taste, Lord Arundel, had laid out an Italianate garden at Albury in the 1630’s, and to judge by this engraving of it in 1645 by Wenceslaus Hollar, it already included long terraces with vines growing on them, some kind of classical-looking ruin, and a broad expanse of water – all features interestingly similar to those Evelyn later claimed as his own designs. After the earl’s death in 1652, unsure where to settle, Evelyn actually tried to buy Albury Park. But the heir, Henry Howard, decided to keep it, and in 1656 Howard, with Evelyn’s guidance, began making big changes to the garden.

Albury Park in 1701

The plan on the left, redrawn by Charles Walmsley from a map of 1701, shows how the garden looked some thirty years after Evelyn’s work was completed there. The River has been channelled into a broad canal, and the garden behind it is laid out in a symmetrical design up the gently ascending slope of the hill, around a clear central axis. A narrow linear feature divides the lower half of the garden from the upper half, in which we see a row of four rectangular plots with grape vines (?) growing in them, backing onto two long terraces. In the centre of the retaining wall at the back of the lower terrace there is an entrance into a subterranean room, possibly rebuilt since Evelyn’s day, modelled on ancient Roman baths.  Set  into the upper terrace is a semi-circular recess around a large pool. An avenue of trees is shown behind the recess, following what we know to be the route of the tunnel that Evelyn had cut into the hill under Silver Wood.

We know from Evelyn’s diary that the alcoved recess (technically called an exedra) and the tunnel into which it led, were evocations of the Grotto of Posilippo, with its long tunnel through the promontory between Naples and Pozzuoli, visited by him in 1645. Tradition then held this to have been accomplished in just one night by Virgil, the famous Roman poet whom mediaeval legend had recast as something of a magician. His tomb was also believed to lie close by.

Exedra and pool

Exedra and pool

Despite the bold layout of Albury Park’s quarter-mile long terraces and canal, which could be viewed as a statement of human ability to reshape nature, at the highest point and heart of the garden was the exedra; a place to sit, converse and reflect on such melancholic themes as the relative impermanence of human life and works, in contrast perhaps to the perpetually-renewed spring that flowed from the fountain at the pool’s edge. To describe Albury simply as a “formal garden” is, in my view,  to ignore its subtle but powerful romantic undercurrent.

In my next post, I’ll present an illustrated walk-through, with some observations on how the garden changed over time.

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Main Sources:

Chambers, Douglas, 1981, “The Tomb in the landscape: John Evelyn’s Garden at Albury”, The Journal of Garden History.

Walmsley, R. Charles, 1976, The Risbridger Story,  (including a plan of the John Evelyn Gardens) (privately printed pamphlet).

Darley, Gillian, 2006, “John Evelyn, Living for Ingenuity”, Yale University Press.

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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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Anyone hoping to see substantial changes to Hutchison Whampoa’s masterplan at last week’s consultation must have been sorely disappointed.  Amid a plethora of rhetorical nods to the site’s heritage,  the only real movement  regarding Sayes Court is their proposal to display rather than simply bury the part of the manor house that was excavated last year.  Facilely dubbed the “John Evelyn Centre”,  it was shown on the developers’ model as a two storey glassed-over space in the corner of a six storey hotel.   While I welcome the idea of keeping the manor house remains open to public view,  I must point out that what we would be seeing is not exactly the home of John Evelyn. The actual seventeenth century manor house  of John Evelyn occupied a much larger area than has been excavated up to now.  ( The site deserves much more extensive archaeological investigation, but whether this will happen I doubt). The  building whose ground floor walls and floors we would see (the cellars may be earlier) was used in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries as a workhouse, a depot for deporting people to Australia, and then an army HQ.

Spring sundial, Groombridge Place

Spring sundial, Groombridge Place

As for the garden itself, there is no real progress.  The developers’ heritage spokesperson (whose name I’m afraid I didn’t get) told me that they regard restoration of any part of the garden as “infeasible”.  When asked why, he gave two reasons. The first was  that the amount of ground  required would be too great, and would lead to greater density in the buildings.  I queried this apparently paradoxical statement, and was informed that, the prime consideration being to fit in 3,500 residential units, the loss of space on the ground to gardens would be compensated for by higher or more densely-packed buildings.  In other words, they are determined to squeeze in as many flats as possible to get the maximum profit from the site, and this is apparently non-negotiable.  Therefore, they are unwilling to earmark any meaningful area of ground for Sayes Court Garden.  As far as I can see, this objection is based on nothing more than the cupidity of investors  – a certain Rupert Murdoch, let’s recall, among them.

The second reason I was given for a restoration being infeasible was based on two assertions: 1)  John Evelyn was primarily an experimenter who was always trying out new ideas. 2) His garden at Sayes Court changed through time. Therefore, claimed my informant, some sort of “contemporary interpretation” of Evelyn’s work would be a more suitable tribute.

"Sculpture" supposedly evoking Deptford's naval heritage

“Sculpture” supposedly evoking Deptford’s naval heritage

There are so many holes in this line of argument that I hardly know where to start!  To briefly answer the first point: if someone is a great experimenter, what kind of tribute is it to consign their most famous and characteristic experiment (i.e. the garden) to oblivion?  Secondly, all gardens, like everything else, change through time – but this is hardly reason not even to try to commemorate and celebrate their unique, defining moments.

A “contemporary interpretation” is just a glib cop-out.  It opens the way to generic mediocrity, too much of what we’ve been saddled with already.  I shudder to think what this approach, which seems to  devalue the whole notion of garden restoration,  could lead to – a couple of lines of saplings dwarfed on either side by towering buildings, to represent the avenues of Sayes Court Garden?  Pavement patterns to convey the organic intricacy of the Grove?  A few meagre planting-beds to flag up the parterre?

A true restoration of Sayes Court Garden wouldn’t be cheap. It wouldn’t be the easiest, one-size-fits-all option.  But it is what the spirit of this place demands.  And it is feasible.

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