Behind a puzzle of streets and housing estates near Deptford Creek, a vast concrete wasteland stretches to the banks of the Thames. It’s hard to grasp the size of Convoys Wharf – about 20 football pitches – without getting into a helicopter, and even harder to imagine the horticultural treasures that once flourished here.
Peeking through the railings today, the cracked concrete is dotted with a few forlorn weeds. But digging into the past of this little-known patch of south-eastLondon unearths rich layers of history and pioneering ideas that still have a profound impact across the globe today.
In the 17th century, this sprawling site was the home of visionary maverick and polymath John Evelyn: diarist, horticulturist, member of the Royal Society, mate of Samuel Pepys and very early father of the sustainability movement. Around his grand manor house here, he planted a thriving 100-acre garden, cultivating a kaleidoscope of flowers and medicinal herbs, an orchard of 300 fruit trees, holly hedges and evergreens, glass beehives and a lake complete with miniature island.
As pleasing as it must have been on the eye, his leafy oasis was less an ornamental garden than wild intellectual experiment; a living laboratory where Evelyn could test out the trailblazing botanical ideas he had gleaned from his research and travels on the continent.
One small but defiantly alive artefact remains from Evelyn’s time, in tiny Sayes Court Park to the west of what was once his estate: a venerable, knotty Mulberry tree dating back centuries. Standing beside it sampling a couple of its berries are landscape architect Roo Angell and architectural designer Bob Bagley, the indefatigable pair behind the Sayes Court Garden initiative, who share their vision in the film above.
In the face of a £1bn plan by developers to build 3,500 new homes – including three vertiginous towers – on the site of Evelyn’s former garden, they have mounted a David-and-Goliath challenge to preserve a part of this beguiling slice of history. In 2014, their spirited campaign succeeded in saving a portion of ground (no mean feat considering the value of London land, let alone with riverside views) that will not only pay homage to Evelyn’s progressive horticultural ideas, but look to the future in their spirit.
“John Evelyn proposed planting trees to clean the air during the great smogsof his time, long before anyone understood the carbon cycle. After the Great Fire in 1666, he proposed a new plan for London that envisioned the whole city as a garden,” says Bob. “He captured people’s imaginations with his book Sylva,” adds Roo, “which called for preserving woodlands as places with romantic history, culture and heritage.”
An archaeological dig at Convoys Wharf has uncovered the basement rooms of Evelyn’s former home, which will now be incorporated into a space where past and present can interweave – and perhaps encourage a bit of imaginative Evelyn-style thinking: “There’s going to be a new centre for horticulture and urban landscape above the archaeological site,” explains Bob. “So you have this line going from the past into the future. Because the concerns of the 17th century and John Evelyn’s responses to them completely marry up to what we’re dealing with today – with pollution, climate change, population growth and all the rest.”
As the duo points out, they aren’t the first to champion the garden’s history: in the 19th century, Evelyn’s descendent, W.J. Evelyn, attempted to create a public park at Sayes Court for the overcrowded citizens of Deptford. He didn’t succeed, but his efforts planted the seeds that grew into the foundation of another giant legacy: The National Trust.
Like Evelyn, Roo and Bob want the resurrection of a garden here to be grounded in these Deptford streets and the local community, helping people of all ages connect with nature and the heritage beneath their feet. “We say, ‘we’re not building a park, we're growing a garden,’” says Bob of their bold plan. “A garden is somewhere that develops with the seasons and with the people that are in it.”
They believe a breathing space amid London’s relentless real estate is more vital than ever: “We live in these frenetic cities, but we have an instinctive connection with nature,” says Roo. “Gardening, tilling the soil, picking up worms… that's something that connects us, and makes us feel more human.”
For more information visit www.sayescourt.org.uk
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