Deptford is a very historic part of London – close to the River Thames and on a Celtic trackway which later became a Roman Road – Watling Street. It is named after a ford over the Ravensbourne River. I came here to visit St Paul’s Churchyard Gardens.
History of the Church
London Gardens Online tells me: ‘…The fine Baroque church of St Paul Deptford was one of 12 churches completed for the ’50 New Churches Commission’ set out in Acts of 1710 and 1711. It became a separate parish from that of St Nicholas Deptford, which had grown substantially by that time. The site selected was then in use as a market garden, and was owned by the brother of Royal Gardener, Henry Wise. The Commission required the burial ground to be walled as a measure to deter grave robbers. By now overcrowded, St Paul’s churchyard was finally closed in 1858.
In 1910 an Act of Parliament enabled the former burial ground to be converted into public gardens, and in 1912 St Paul’s was the first churchyard to do so under the Act. The Burial Board had already carried out some tree planting in the 1890s prior to conversion to a public garden; in 1912 the headstones were moved to the perimeter, walks were laid out and railed, trees were planted along the walks and it was opened as a public garden in 1913...’.
The Church was designed by the Thomas Archer and built between 1712 and 1730. It only opens for church services, and then stays open for half an hour afterwards. This is an unexpectedly grand building in this part of London, and has actually been described as one of the finest parish churches in London!
The churchyard gardens
There are two main entrances into the churchyard: from Deptford High Street via a piazza and gates designed by Alan and Sylvia Blanc in the 1970s, and through old gates on Deptford Church Street, the A2209 which is a very busy and noisy road.
LGO says ‘…The garden has not changed substantially since opening, and the path layout, with some changes, is still dominated by straight walks, which were dictated by the constrained triangular site…’. The rose bed in front of the church has many lovely ‘Peace’ roses, perhaps unsurprisingly, and seems to be a garden of remembrance as well. There are indeed straight paths on either side of the roses, leading to the church. (The path on the left side of the picture below leads straight through to the entrance on Deptford Church Street. )
The church retains its walls and a few gravestones were placed against some of the walls in 1912 when the graveyard became a public garden. There are also gravestones on the raised crypt roof surrounding the church, and some tombs scattered about the west side of the church; the writing is degraded and it is almost impossible to read many of the inscriptions.
On the eastern side of the church LGO says it is ‘…less formal with the introduction of serpentine paths…’ and there is an ossuary (now used as a storehouse), and a drinking fountain. There are also said to be shrubberies. I found the beds mainly empty and existing shrubs often crudely pruned, i.e. not left to develop their natural shapes but cut into awkward shapes. Neither could I find LGO’s ‘…gravelled area behind the church…’ and there were certainly no ferns anywhere. And though I looked for anything growing on the walls, I found nothing.
There are many trees around the church, mainly planes and limes. The churchyard feels peaceful and the trees are beautiful, especially behind the church, on the Deptford Church Road side.
The open space besides the Church
The open space opposite the church, on Diamond Way, is under development, and the open space on Deptford Church Street remains a grassy area behind the railings on the roadside and in front of the church walls. An ordnance survey map of 1916 tells me this was the site of a Chapel at that time.
St Paul’s Churchyard gardens in Deptford is unexpected – despite the traffic on busy roads on two sides of the church, when you step through the gates there is a feeling of calm and peace – quite extraordinary.