John Evelyn FRS
- Original design
- John Evelyn FRS, 1653
- Landscape design
- Ernest Henry Milner, 1881
- Landscape design
- London County Council, 1951
This modest park in South East London has an extraordinary history; ideas which originated here in the 17th and 19th Centuries are still having a profound impact around the world today – ideas such as planting trees to clean the air, establishing sustainable resources, access to nature and cultural heritage. Why then is this place so special, and how did it come to be so important?
The manor of Sayes Court dates back to William the Conqueror, but it is with the arrival of John Evelyn in 1652 that the story really begins. Evelyn, along with his close friend Samuel Pepys, is one of the leading diarists of the revolutionary 17th Century – recording the Civil War, Commonwealth and Restoration as well as the seismic events of the Great Fire and Plague.
Evelyn is also a key figure in the other revolution of the 17th Century: the birth of modern science. Travelling in Europe to escape troubles at home, he witnessed the latest innovations in scientific investigation which looked at everything afresh – including gardens.
Whilst on his travels Evelyn also met and married Mary Browne in Paris, receiving Sayes Court as part of the marriage settlement. Returning from Europe, he immediately set to on the gardens interpreting many of the new ideas he had seen abroad.
To appreciate the significance of Evelyn's design we need to understand a much deeper concept of what a garden is. Far more than a pleasant pastime, it was a tool for thought, a living laboratory and an act of creation, with the new evergreens which Evelyn introduced representing an eternal spring.
'His Gardens, which are for variety of evergreens, and hedge of holly, the finest things I ever saw in my life." Samuel Pepys
In 1660 Evelyn became one of the founding members of the Royal Society, with his garden at Sayes Court an exciting source of inspiration. Through the lens of public health he wrote a pamphlet suggesting planting trees to clean the air, a book on vegetarianism and a plan to rebuild London after the Great Fire which saw the whole city as a garden.
After the ravages of the Civil War essential timber was in short supply, so Evelyn was commissioned to write a propaganda handbook on practical forestry. His Sylva went far beyond this, so universally appealing that its influence still shapes our woods and forests – and how we look at them – today.
"The publication of Sylvia in 1664, marked the beginning of a discourse that produced a blueprint for our modern concept of sustainability." Ulrich Grober, for the Royal Society
After Evelyn had retired to his family home in Surrey in 1696, he leased Sayes Court to a young Peter the Great – visiting the Royal Dockyard to learn the secrets of a successful Navy. The Russian Czar got so drunk that he trashed the house and gardens, worst of all by riding through Evelyn's prize holly hedge in a wheelbarrow!
170 years after Evelyn's death and his famous garden's disappearance, his descendant was living in a very different Deptford. Alarmed at overcrowding and poor health, in 1876 he decided to create a public park at Sayes Court.
When W J Evelyn tried to secure the future of the park, he ran into difficulties: the local authority couldn't take it on. He gained the attention of leading open space campaigners Octavia Hill and Robert Hunter; it was the predicament of Sayes Court which inspired them to create the National Trust. Unfortunately too late to protect it: over half the park was lost in World War One, but the opportunity for renewal has come round again.
This is the story of Sayes Court so far: twice glorious, twice lost, and – now – twice saved; what will be next for this remarkable place? The garden's intrinsic values are more important than ever, and now as it embarks on its third age we have the opportunity to make it more innovative, inspiring and world-changing than ever before.
"It would be hard to conceive of a property which encompassed so many of the future purposes of the National Trust. The garden was of exceptional importance, the historical associations fascinating, and it was a valuable open space in the heart of London Docks."
Merlin Waterson, National Trust