Deptford Park has a strong connection with John Evelyn and so it seemed sensible to visit Sayes Court Park in Deptford next. This was the site and name of his home and garden (perhaps ‘estate’ would be a better word) in Deptford, which is in the Borough of Lewisham.
History of Sayes Court
…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….London Gardens Online, September 2011
John Evelyn’s garden plans show a 300-tree orchard, a formal oval garden with a bank of holly hedge and another of Berberis; a grove planted with trees including oak, ash, beech, service, and chestnut; and a herb and kitchen garden. There was also an avenue, island and moat! Evelyn was particularly proud of his holly hedge which was 400 feet long by 1706.
Peter the Great planted a mulberry tree in 1696 and this is still in the park, protected by railings. Perhaps this was a small gift to compensate for the damage which he did to the holly hedges!
Sayes Court becomes a park
In 1856 what remained of Sayes Court was sold to the Admiralty, but in 1869 W E Evelyn bought back much of the site from the Government and created a recreation ground for local people. He wanted to make this public property and consulted Octavia Hill about this. In 1886 he dedicated 1.5 acres in perpetuity to the public and the Kyrle Society (with which Octavia Hill was associated) laid out a playground, park, and grandstand.
The two World Wars destroyed the park, and after WWII the LCC redeveloped the site. The park opened on 29 May 1951 with a playground, paddling pool, heated playroom, a formal garden and pond, and an attendant’s room and offices.
Sayes Court Park today
Poor John Evelyn would not recognise his garden in today’s Sayes Court Park. His garden plans show a 300-tree orchard, a formal oval garden with a bank of holly hedge and another of Berberis; a grove planted with trees including oak, ash, beech, service, and chestnut; and a walled herb and kitchen garden. Evelyn was particularly proud of his holly hedge which was 400 feet long by 1706. 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.
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.
Trees in Sayes Court Park
There are some beautiful old London Plane Trees in the garden.
I couldn’t identify many of the other beautiful trees in the Park, but I did notice Robinias, Corkscrew Hazel, eucalyptus, and sycamore trees.
The Evelyn 200 Scheme
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!
Hedges and shrubs
John Evelyn spoke with pride about his holly hedge, but the hedging today is pyracantha, and the only holly I saw were some badly shaped bushes. Redevelopment after the war created ‘formal gardens’ in the park – could the neglected rose beds and construction (fountain?) filled with weeds be the formal gardens?
Other neglected corners are rather sad to see.
Children’s play area
When the Park opened in 1951 there was a paddling pool and heated playroom but these no longer exist. Today there is a rather bleak children’s playground.
The future of the park
Sayes Court (the park) is registered as a Community Interest Company and the site is also on the World Monuments Watch.. Local people have stopped 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.
When I read about the international interests behind Convoys Wharf I understand why local people have to fight so hard to preserve their history.
(First published May 2019)
- Sources & further information
- 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
- An analysis of John Evelyn’s Garden at Sayes Court
- Blog post
- British History Online
- Monitoring as part of structural development