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Posts Tagged ‘Sayes Court’

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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On 15th November local residents hereabouts received a letter from Lewisham Council informing us that we had barely a month in which to send in our comments on the development plans for Convoys Wharf.  Hutchison-Whampoa have also belatedly posted a mass of documentation on their PR website, including a report of the archaeological excavations carried out this spring, (on which see my earlier posts). 

Trenches 33 and 34 from the archaeology report.

The report states that two trenches (nos. 33 and 34) were aimed “to refine and fix the position of the mansion house of Sayes Court”, and yet it’s obvious even from their own overlay plans (part of one, fig.71, is shown on the left) that neither of them were positioned anywhere near the marked site of the house.  Small wonder, then, that they didn’t find it! 

As for the actual garden, the report says (p.80) that they “failed to reveal any significant evidence” for it, apart from a “possible terrace” and part of a ditch in trench 38.  Although not stated in the report, this appears to be situated over part of the Evelyn’s “grove” or thickly-wooded area, described in my second Garden Walk-through post.   There was a layer of dark soil up to two metres thick sealing these features, and just underlying the modern concrete surface.   Was this deep soil not likely to be connected with the woodland planted here? 

The scattergun siting of the trenches over the Sayes Court area bears very little apparent relation to the detailed plans of the garden and manor-house as they have come down us.  (See The key to the garden post)  How then can they accurately evaluate the potential for their survival?  Such evaluation was the stated purpose of the dig – and the outcome will be used to decide what further archaeology should be done (and supposedly taken into account in the detailed development design and construction).

Why, as I’ve asked before, was no specialist in garden archaeology involved in the excavation?  The excavators claim to have been in close liason with English Heritage, and yet when a friend called EH this week, they made it clear that their garden archaeology consultant was completely unaware of the present situation.  How shocking!

It takes interest and motivation  as well as experience  to identify garden archaeology.

Yet, out of  a total of 52 trenches excavated across the site, only five were located on the Sayes Court garden area.  If you share my concern that this is a paltry way to treat the remains of one of the most important historic gardens in the country, please write to Lewisham Council and tell them so.  And if you would support the idea of restoring part of Evelyn’s garden, please mention this in your letter.  The deadline for them to receive comments that will be taken into account in considering the planning application is 20th December, so we have to be quick!  Here’s the address to write to: Emma Talbot, Planning Service, 5th floor Laurence House, 1 Catford Rd., Catford, London SE6 4SW.  Or email planning@lewisham.gov.uk

Here, in summary, is what I think:-

1) Sayes Court is a site of national historical importance.  Its archaeology has yet to be properly investigated and recorded.

2) Informed by a thorough archaeological excavation, the development proposals should include a historically-accurate restoration of a substantial part of the garden as a valuable local amenity,  an economically-significant visitor attraction, and  a worthy memorial to John Evelyn.

Lastly, if you like the idea of an exciting garden restoration project, and especially if you have experience of the planning process,  garden history or design expertise,  please do get in touch. My email address is on the “About” page.

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Our walk-through of Sayes Court garden in spring 1658 didn’t include Evelyn’s private garden “of choice flowers and simples”, (that is, plants with medicinal use) lying along the western side of the manor house. Although called “private”, we can be sure that Evelyn would welcome us, because he loved to show people around his garden. As his friend the poet Abraham Cowley wrote:

“I know no body that possesses more private Happiness than you do in your Garden; and yet no Man who makes his Happiness more publick, by a free communication of the Art and Knowledge of it to others”

Door through mount

So let’s go back to 1658, to early September, and take a brief look at the delights sheltered inside the Private Garden’s ten-foot high brick wall. Here we are at the entrance-door, with steps climbing to the top of the mount-walk that overlooks the oval garden parterre behind us, and a small door to a passageway through the mount and into the nursery on our left.

Amaranthus

As we push open the door, the rich tang of herbs and ripening fruits greets us. The near (southern) half of the garden is bathed in the afternoon sunshine. In the long rectangular beds that run down the centre of each of the four hexagonal grassed areas arranged around the central fountain there are vivid mounds of flowers, among them the dramatic dark red tails of amaranthus and vigorous violet clumps of stock gillyflowers, (the secret of their vigour is that they are sown on a hot-bed in February, and only planted out around now).

Old elm

Beckoning to us from the far north-western corner is a shady arbour underneath two tall elms, which have obviously been there for a very long time, as have the others that we can see towering over the other side of the garden wall beyond them – a row of seven ancient half-hollow elms in all.

Pigeons flap to and fro from a purpose-built pigeon house on top of Evelyn’s laboratory on our left. A new building that proclaims Evelyn’s scientific curiosity (what future member of the Royal Society could be without one?), the laboratory is fronted by a twenty-foot long colonnaded portico dotted with citrus, myrtle, and other prized plants in pots and cases.

The private or fountain garden

Opposite, in the area between the two main westward-facing wings of the house, and overlooked by the grand new gabled windows of the withdrawing room to the parlour, is an aviary stocked with colourful caged birds. Its parrots add the occasional exotic squawk to the cooing of the pigeons, the soft trickle of water in the fountain, and the murmur of bees coming and going from the intriguing ornamental glass apiary placed against the north wall, a prized gift from Dr Wilkins of Waddum in 1654.

The garden’s basic layout, an intimate enclosed space arranged in four geometric beds around the central fountain, with intersecting and surrounding gravel paths, owes, we
suspect, quite a bit to Evelyn’s father-in-law, Richard Browne, and to his Elizabethan and medieval predecessors.

Espalier fruit tree

But Evelyn himself has planted and tended it since he moved to Sayes Court in 1652. It is he, we feel sure, who has planted the six cypresses that circle the fountain area, and has lined the walls with peach trees, vines, cherries and grapes.

He has edged the beds not with box, (because of its tendency to drain the goodness from the soil and out-compete the choice flowers), but with wooden boards as well as with shrubs of lavender cotton, kept carefully clipped to about a foot high. We also spot rosemary, which he distils to make “Hungary water,” the first alcohol-based perfume to be widely-used in Europe, which was also thought to be medicinal.

Flower bed

As we stroll towards the elm arbour we pass a wealth of herbs, shrubs and flowers – among them thyme, sedum, tragacantha, night-scented pelargoniums, Martagon lily, marvel of Peru, snapdragons, Canterbury bells, sunflowers, nasturtium, and too many others to name.

Martagon lily

We take a curious peek into the tool shed and fruit store at the end of the laboratory, from where potent ripening scents are emanating. Spades, shovels, mattocks we are familiar with, but there are also wooden tubs, cases, and boxes, pottery watering “cans”, scythes, woven baskets, metal, stone and wooden rollers, bundles of stakes, and many other mysterious objects. And then, our eyes light on the enticing stacks of apples, pears and plums on the shelves…

Most tantalizingly of all, there is a notebook lying on one shelf in which everything that is planted, when and where, and how it prospers, is meticulously recorded. Unfortunately, this precious document is too humble to have been preserved up to our own time. Which is where we must now think about returning – after one last moment of quiet enjoyment and reflection in the beautiful arbour of thickly-intertwining elm boughs.

Arbour

Abraham Cowley’s preface-poem to Evelyn’s “Sylva” comes to mind:

“Oh! who would change these soft, yet solid Joys,
For empty Shows and senseless Noise;
And all which rank Ambition breeds,
Which seem such beauteous Flowers, and are such poisonous Weeds?”


 

Main sources: Evelyn’s gardening Calendar (“Calendarium hortense”) under the month of September; his “Directions for the Gardiner at Says Court” (list of fruit trees planted in the Fountaine-Garden; notes for rarer simples and exotics; notes for the coronary garden; notes for coronary flowers rarer; tools and instruments necessary for a gardiner); Evelyn’s 1653 map of Sayes Court (see earlier posts); Prudence Leith-Ross, “The Garden of John Evelyn at Deptford” (Garden History vol. 25, no.2).; Mark Laird, “Parterre, grove and flower garden” in “John Evelyn’s Elysium Britannicum and European Gardening”. Abraham Cowley’s poem can be read in full in the Project Gutenberg ebook of Sylva. The garden photos are from Groombridge Place, Ham House, and the Restoration House at Rochester.

Postscript:
So far, the only reference to the actual fountain I have come across in Evelyn’s writing is a warning to others to be sure to lag their water pipes in cold weather, or suffer, as he did,  the expense of repairing the damage when they burst!  However, my guess is the basin might have looked something like the one at Drummond Castle, shown below (the central pillar-fountain has been edited out).

Fountain base, Drummond Castle

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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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From the 1650’s onward, the famous gardens at Sayes Court, especially during the summer, received a constant stream of visitors, from the Evelyn family friends to the court elite and royalty. Our own modest tour in my two most recent posts had to omit much detail, and did not include Evelyn’s private garden, or the house itself. There is also still much to tell, as well as some unsolved mysteries, about how the garden evolved over the decades, especially in the 1680’s when Evelyn radically altered the oval garden. How do we know about this? Thanks mostly to John Evelyn’s own writings and plans, but also to the steady trickle of interest and archival research into Sayes Court and Evelyn’s role in the development of science and society in the seventeenth century.  This trickle seems to have grown into something of a torrent since the turn of the millennium. In 2001, for example, there was a well-attended two-day conference at the British Library, “John Evelyn and his milieu”, which gathered together researchers from all over the world. Unbeknownst to me, there was definitely something in the air when I first started wondering about that old mulberry in the park!

John Evelyn by Godfrey Kneller, 1687

Ironically, at the same time as I started to learn about the historical importance of the house and gardens at Sayes Court, proposals had been drawn up to build a horrendous huddle of high rise (up to 40 storeys), high density (3,500 “residential units”)  tower blocks on the site of Convoys Wharf, which now covers Evelyn’s “Elysium” and the adjoining docks of the former King’s Yard. This so-called “development” scheme is blatantly designed to maximise profit for the present owners, Hong-Kong based company Hutchison-Whampoa. If it gets the go-ahead it will be a new low water-mark in social and historical exclusion. The docks have been linked for centuries to the general prosperity of Deptford.  It’s no secret that the area has declined since their closure.  How many local people could afford to buy an apartment  at Convoys Wharf with a starting price of nearly £300,000?  Not only does this proposal threaten to sever the site’s social links with the local community, it also looks set to destroy or bury for ever what remains of its history. Over the past three months, trenches have been excavated all over the site, as a “developer-led” archaeological investigation has been carried out.

Since the dig began in the first week in January, precious little information has been available to the public – still completely barred from the site for so-called “safety reasons”. Finally, just a few days before the end of the dig is due on 9th April, a perfunctory statement has just gone up on the developers’ website.

It seems from this statement that very little remains have been found of either Sayes Court house and gardens, or of the earlier phases of the dockyard.

This is surprising, to say the least. I can’t help wonder who is really calling the shots here.  Who decides where the trenches go, and how deep?  Who does this history really belong to –  a cabal of private interests, or the people of Deptford?



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Leaving the Oval Garden through its western exit, we find ourselves in a grand avenue or grassed walk, charmingly called the “Long Pourmenade” on Evelyn’s 1653 plan,  (see my previous posts).  The walk extends 526 feet,  the entire length of the garden.

The banqueting house

We could now turn left to investigate the miniature pavilion,  called the”Banquetting House”,  built against the garden perimeter to the south, or  go straight ahead across the walk into the  Great Orchard, planted with three hundred cherries, pears, apples, and other  fruits of many different (and sadly, to our modern eyes, unfamiliar) varieties.  However, as the spring afternoon is drawing to a close, let us turn right and explore a feature for which Evelyn has a particularly soft spot – his famous “Grove” or wilderness of trees, “with several walks, meanders and thickets, etc”. 

Rhamnus Alaternus - Italian Buckthorn

Entering through a gap in the codlin (cooking apple) hedge that forms its western border, we find ourselves inside a rectangular area measuring 40 by 80 yards, thickly planted inside wedge-shaped enclosures of low alaternus hedge (the alaternus being something of a recurring theme at Sayes Court) with a range of deciduous trees including oak, ash, elm, service, beech and chesnut.  In his unfinished magnum opus “Elysium Britannicum”, Evelyn recommends the “confused and irregular planting of them far before the ranging of them in lines”, and it would have been strange indeed if he had not put this into practice in his own garden.  In between the trees are thickets of birch, hazel, and hawthorn, all underplanted with evergreens, shade-loving plants like periwinkle, and herbs -an approach that in some aspects perhaps anticipates modern forest permaculture. 

Like the harsh winter from which we have just emerged, that of 1657-8  was  the severest for decades.  It was so cold, in fact, that Evelyn wrote in his diary that “the crow’s feet were frozen to their prey”.  Signs of the late arrival of Spring are visible throughout the Grove.  The young trees around us, some not grown to much more than head-height yet,  have only recently unfurled their new leaves.

Walnut

Had we come a month or two later, we might have been privileged to see, dotted about in prominent but sheltered positions, a breath-taking range of exotic evergreens in tubs and cases,  such as (to name but a few) carob, cinnamon, lime, lemon, orange,  lignum vitae, olive and oleander, date palms and “dragon trees”.   Unfortunately for us, these are still enjoying their cossetting  in Evelyn’s conservatory – Evelyn  was the first English writer to use this word, and in later years was closely involved in the development of efficient greenhouse heating systems.

Nonetheless,  the centre of the Grove, the focal point, provides a permanent evergreen heart – a mount planted with bay, and lined with laurel.  The mount area also includes two of the Grove’s total of fourteen “cabinetts of Aliternies”, circular or rectangular recessed arbours for contemplation of nature, with large walnut trees planted beside each one,  for shade and shelter.

The mount allows us to get a better idea of the intricate structure of the Grove, but if we could take to the air – what an impossibly fanciful notion! – we would get an even better view of its remarkable synthesis of artifice and nature.

The Grove, Sayes Court - reconstruction by Mark Laird

But the evening light warns us to hurry our way out once more into the long walk, and down to the northern end of the garden, past the continuing Great Orchard on our left, and another smaller orchard area on our right below the Grove, until we reach a moat surrounding a long rectangular island, accessed by a drawbridge.  Swans and ducks dot the water, and there is a flock of starlings gathering in a mulberry tree at the island’s north-eastern corner.  Neat rows of vegetables – asparagus, artichokes, cabbages, and even melons –  are visible.  A small summer-house is tucked into the south-west corner.  I don’t know about you, but I am sorely tempted to linger, and perhaps take a turn around the island in that rowing-boat moored along the bank.

But the starlings are flying off to roost, and soft candlelight is starting to spill from the manor house.  So we must tear ourselves away for now, out of the small orchard gate, down the path to the stairs on the Thames,  and home – if we can find a wherry back to the twenty-first century!

The island and moat


Many thanks to Mark Laird for use of his conjectural reconstruction painting of the Grove.
Main sources: John Evelyn’s 1653 plan of Sayes Court house and gardens; Mark Laird, “Parterre, Grove and Flower Garden: European Horticulture and Planting Design in John Evelyn’s time”; Frances Harris, “Transformations of love”; Prudence Leith-Ross, “The Garden of John Evelyn at Deptford”, in Garden History, vol.25, no. 2; Douglas Chamber, “John Evelyn and the invention of the heated greenhouse”, in Garden History, vol. 20, No. 2

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