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Posts Tagged ‘Sayes court archaeology’

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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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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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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A second stage of excavation has now been underway on the site since the summer, and last week the Museum of London archaeologists acting on behalf of the developers of Convoys Wharf stated on the MOL website that they had “unearthed the remains of Sayes Court, a building with rich historical associations”, and “identified the plan of Sayes Court, as modified in the course of its history”.

Given these claims, those who attended the long-overdue site visit on Saturday hoping to actually see any evidence of Sayes Court will have been, as I was, very disappointed.  Both of the trenches have been completely backfilled. Indeed, had a group of concerned visitors not spontaneously gathered on top of the nearby spoil heap to discuss Sayes Court after the end of the official tour, it would have received not a single mention.

Why was no real opportunity given to the public to visit the site during the course of the actual excavation of the Manor House?  I say “real” opportunity, because I’ve since found out that one lucky person somehow heard of a chance to visit, and got to see the exposed building, in the company of Lewisham’s Archaeology officer.  Hardly a turn-out that reflects the level of concern and interest in the site.

Sketch of Sayes Court Manor House by John Evelyn.

Take a look at this sketch by John Evelyn of the Manor house in the seventeenth century.  This is the only known extant drawing of the original Sayes Court, and was added by him (sometime between 1698 and 1706) to a 1623 map of the dockyards and town of Deptford “Strond”. It shows the front of the Manor House, with three gables and a central entrance porch which we know from his writing Evelyn modified to include fashionable Doric columns.

Detail from 1753 plan of Deptford Dockyard.

To the right is a detail from Thomas Milton’s 1753 plan of the dockyard, which fortuitously also includes the footprint of the manor  house, proving that it must still have survived at that date, even though it was already being used as a poor house, as it was for almost a century afterwards.

Pension Office in 1869

Almshouses about 1900

Now take a look at this etching and photograph of the building that succeeded Sayes Court Manor House, used as the Pension Office, and then in 1869 (after the dockyard closed and W J Evelyn managed to buy back the site), turned into almshouses.  This is obviously quite a  different building, with a plan much altered from that of the original Manor House.  Most of the rear part of the house has vanished.   It would have been great to have seen what archaeological evidence there may have been for the last stages of the manor house, but all there is now is an almighty spoil-heap.

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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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