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Posts Tagged ‘Sayes Court Park’

A little while ago, Oxford University plant scientist Barrie Juniper, author of The Tradescants’ Orchard, and co-author with his daughter Sarah of a forthcoming new commentary on Evelyn’s Acetaria, contacted me on the subject of the Sayes Court Park mulberry tree. It was this tree that drew me in to investigate the history of Sayes Court to begin with, and I’ve written about it twice already on this blog, (here and here) so you might reasonably wonder what more there could be to say about it.

Well, it turns out it’s rather a mysterious specimen from the genetic point of view. According to the usual accounts, the  mulberry was introduced to Britain under King James 1 in the early seventeenth century, in a failed attempt to establish a home-grown silk industry here. The failure occurred, apparently, because he mistakenly brought in the black mulberry, morus nigra, whereas silk-worms flourish on the white mulberry, morus alba. Now, Barrie informed me that the black mulberry is, quote: “wildly polyploidy“. What this means in practical terms is that it is sterile, and can’t reproduce from seed.

But Barrie fell into conversation one day with the Bodleian Library’s conservation and collection officer Andrew Honey, who told him that he was successfully growing some  saplings from seed he’d collected in 1997 from the berries of the Sayes Court mulberry tree.  See the photo below.

Mulberry sapling grown by Andrew Honey

Mulberry sapling grown by Andrew Honey

So, if not a morus nigra, despite its lovely large black fruits, what is the Sayes Court tree? To my excitement, Barrie offered to arrange to test its DNA to find out.  I went along to the park last autumn and carefully collected a couple of leaves, put them into a silica gel pack, and posted it off to Oxford.

After five months’ impatient wait (at least in my case), we got the results. There was a high amount of DNA present, which I’m told means that it “has to be a polyploid of some nature”. On the other hand, thanks to Andrew’s demonstration, it’s clearly fertile. Barrie speculates that, along with the standard black mulberry, some other mutants, of intermediate (chromosome) counts,  were around in the seventeenth century, some of which were partly  fertile. If so, the Sayes Court tree could be an “intermediate, high count, half-way white to black mulberry. Of which this specimen is NOT the original Evelyn ( no chance ) but a second or third  generation seedling more or less on the same site.”

Only another test to determine the exact chromosome count could settle this question for sure. Meanwhile, the last I heard, of Andrew’s two mulberry saplings, one has sadly died and the other was touch-and-go, due to flooding on the Thameside allotment where they were growing.

Mulberries from Andrew Honey's sapling

Mulberries from Andrew Honey’s sapling

However, I’m glad to report that there are still plenty of berries on the Sayes Court tree, despite the recent storms and weird weather. I (and the little boxful that will be nurtured for the next 90 days in my freezer) wish it well for its uncertain future, overshadowed by the windy canyons of Convoy’s Wharf.

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By now I expect most of you know how the mayor’s representation meeting went – just as I predicted, I’m afraid.  I sat there dutifully through the whole performance, but it left me with such a bad taste in my mouth that I’ve put off writing this until now, ten days later. What kind of democracy is this where one man can totally over-rule the views of  our locally-elected council members and MP like this?

Sadly,  it seems to me that wily Boris used a largely feigned show of interest in the two local heritage projects (Sayes Court Garden and Build the Lenox) as a smoke-screen behind which to calmly wave through the atrocious development proposals.  What’s more, despite paying lavish lip-service to them,  the two projects were in reality left with not much more than the offer of feasibility studies and negotiations, rather than any firm commitments. The serious  concerns of the local community about the height of the towers, the scale and position of the buildings, inadequate transport, social exclusion, and so on were simply brushed aside time and again, in such a facile and formulaic fashion (“the G.L.A. is of the opinion that the proposal would enhance the value of the Master Shipwright’s House; “the G.L.A. is of the opinion that the proposal would enhance the value of Deptford High St”, and so on, ad nauseam) that it led to frequent gasps and outbreaks of incredulous laughter among the audience.

As for Sayes Court Garden: Boris showed his true level of interest several times by referring to it as “Sayes Park”. He is not unique in confounding the modern park with Sayes Court Garden, but he took it a step further by raising the suggestion of incorporating part of the park into the proposed Sayes Court Garden project. Why? Because the project needs more land to be viable, at least one hectare according to the National Trust’s Mike Buffin,  but the developers have so far offered just a measly half hectare. Boris thought he’d found a solution which would mean Hutchison Whampoa didn’t have to cede any more land – i.e., grab some of the existing park (outside the boundary of the development) instead. Understandably, the Lewisham Council contingent were not impressed by this ploy.

But to put all this in perspective: Evelyn’s Sayes Court Garden extended over an area of 100 acres – that’s over forty hectares! So, how could a project confined to such a tiny area as half, or at most one hectare possibly “express the John Evelyn legacy”, as the GLA spokesman put it?

By contrast, the developers appear to have latched onto the idea of a  “John Evelyn centre” – i.e. allocating part of one of the blocks they intend building, over the site of the manor house, in which a horticultural training institute  would be based. For this they said they were earmarking over two million pounds. I have two observations to make on this.

Firstly, I’m afraid it came as no surprise to me when Boris commented that he couldn’t really “see the merit of seeing the foundations of a workhouse” and even that he thought “that chunk of territory was of negligible interest” (!)  Had I been able to respond, (and I wonder why the developer’s archaeologist didn’t say this?) I would have pointed out that the archaeology done so far has only exposed the topmost layers of remains on (only part of) the site of the manor – so what would be on view to the public is mostly the nineteenth century workhouse and emigration depot. To explore deeper would have meant extending the area of the trench and removing these late levels; something I suppose they felt went beyond the remit of an “evaluation” dig. But if the remains are to be displayed in future  as those of Sayes Court Manor House,  surely this demands further excavation work to locate as much as possible of what has survived of the manor house itself?

Secondly, it seems to me that  a disproportionate amount of emphasis – and potentially, money – is being given to the delivery of a building, and within that the setting up of an organisation, as opposed to the creation of an actual garden which would be worthy of  Evelyn’s desire to create a Deptford Elysium.

As his friend Abraham Cowley said in his poem “The Wish” : “May I a small house and large garden have”…

 

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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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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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Sayes Ct Park in the snow

Mulberry in snow, Sayes Court Park

This week’s Gardeners’ Question Time on BBC Radio 4 includes a six-minute feature on Sayes Court Garden. In it I speak to Matthew Wilson, in the rather cold and bleak setting of Sayes Court Park, about what the garden looked like in its seventeenth century heyday, and what might happen there in the future.

If you miss the programme tomorrow, it will be repeated at 14.00 on Sunday, and will be available to listen to on BBC iPlayer as well. The feature starts at 29.29 mins. into the programme.

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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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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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