Sayes Court Park in Lewisham

Deptford Park and Folkestone Gardens have a strong connection with John Evelyn and so it seemed sensible to visit Sayes Court Park next, as this was the site and name of his home and garden (perhaps ‘estate’ would be a better word) in Deptford, which is part of Lewisham district.

London Gardens Online (2011) tells me that Sayes Court Park…From the mid-C17th [it] was the home of the diarist John Evelyn who laid out fine gardens here. After he moved to Surrey, Evelyn let Sayes Court, including for a short time to Peter the Great of Russia in 1698, who was studying ship building at the Royal Dockyard nearby. The mansion was demolished in 1729 and a workhouse built on the site, later converted as almshouses by a descendent of Evelyn….After [WWII} the remnant of the public park, which consisted of under 2 acres, was part of the post-war redevelopment by the LCC. A new recreation ground was laid out with children’s playground, paddling pool, heated playroom with a park attendant’s room and offices, public conveniences and a shelter facing a formal garden with a pond at one end. The park was opened on 29 May 1951… The park contains some large London plane trees possibly dating from 1878, and one railed, ancient mulberry. A new playground and formal gardens were laid out as part of a deal with a housing developer…’. This description is coupled with a rather bleak photograph of the mulberry tree.

 

Poor John Evelyn would not recognise his garden in today’s Sayes Court Park. He wrote of…an inner private space, with an arbour, a walled flower and herb garden, and glass beehives. Beyond this, a larger garden with a terrace walk overlooking a parterre, a 300-tree orchard, an ornamental lake and an avenue of trees…’ .The park, set amongst dense housing, could be a haven for the inhabitants but it looks and feels as though it needs Friends, rather like those at Luxmore Gardens. Apparently there are ambitious plans underway to increase the size of the park into the site of Convoys Wharf and build the John Evelyn Centre for education and research. Just over £38,000 has been raised by local people towards this project, but first let’s look at today’s park.

On a bright and sunny day I entered the park through the railings and gate on Grove Street, and there is another entrance off Sayes Court Street.

The entrance into the park from Sayes Court Street

Is this wall part of the original walled garden? Or perhaps part of the wall surrounding the workhouse/almshouses – photographs can be found here, and here.

There are some beautiful old London Plane Trees in the garden.

Plane tree in Sayes Court Park

Plane tree in Sayes Court Park

Plane tree in Sayes Court Park

And the mulberry mentioned in LGO is still in place, carefully protected by railings. A notice says the tree was believed to have been planted by Peter the Great in 1696.

Peter the Great at the mouth of the Ravensbourne River

I couldn’t identify many of the other beautiful trees in the Park, but i did notice Robinias, Corkscrew Hazel, eucalyptus, and sycamore trees.

Robinia Pseudoacacia ‘Frisia’?

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The Evelyn 200 scheme was a plan to plant 200 trees in the Evelyn electoral ward in Lewisham, in celebration of the publication of John Evelyn’s diaries, and to help redress the poor air quality of the area. John Evelyn spoke of his mulberries, and walnut trees, and one of the new trees is indeed a Turkish Walnut. Evelyn was also a cook – well, he had to be considering all the food he was growing – and I own a copy of his recipe book!

Turkish Walnut planted as part of the Evelyn 200 scheme

John Evelyn spoke with pride about his holly hedge: the hedging today is pyracantha, and the only holly I saw were some badly shaped bushes. And LGO talks of ‘formal gardens’ – could the neglected rose beds and construction (fountain?) filled with weeds be the formal garden?

Other neglected corners are rather sad to see.

There is a children’s rather bleak playground which I can only indicate – I couldn’t photograph because of the children playing there. The paddling pool and heated playroom which were in place when the Park opened in 1951 no longer exist.

Since 2011 when LGO posted on Sayes Court Park a great deal has happened. Sayes Court (the park) is registered as a Community Interest Company and has secured the Park from being absorbed into the building development in the adjoining Convoys Wharf where there are plans for the development of 3,500 new homes and community, cultural and leisure facilities. The site is on the World Monuments Watch, but little seems to have been added in the last few years and it is not clear when anything is going to happen. When I read about the international interests behind Convoys Wharf I can’t help wondering why local people have to fight so hard to preserve their history.

Sources & further information
Update from the London Parks & Gardens Trust
History of the area, including the park
London’s lost garden – white and black mulberries
Sayes Court – the future of the garden

New developments at Sayes Court
John Evelyn’s garden at Sayes Court
Blog post
British History Online
Feedback deadline for Convoys Wharf Development
Monitoring as part of structural development

 

 

 

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