We spent the day in Deptford recently, taking photographs of various street names for a family project, but I also wanted to explore a little of John Evelyn’s history, and his lost garden, Sayes Court. We didn’t find the garden exactly but…
I love street names for the quirky glimpses of history they give into a place. Here’s Czar’s Street, named to commemorate a famous visit by Peter the Great to Deptford in 1698 to learn about shipbuilding. (Ps, don’t I have lovely models?!)
By all accounts it was a memorable visit. Peter the Great joined in Deptford living with verve – not least carrying out important ‘research’ into ALL the pubs. One report I read even suggested that St Petersburg was based on the layout of Deptford. Wonderful. I didn’t investigate that much further because I so don’t want it to be wrong. And then there’s this tree we stumbled on…
This is known as John Evelyn’s Mulberry because it stands on the original plot of Sayes Court and it is known that John Evelyn had mulberry trees – both black and white. So it’s not just an ordinary tree. It is also under consideration for the title of Tree of the Year. There are many rumours surrounding this tree – and some tremendous research carried out here as part of Morus Londinium (Mulberries in London).
But wouldn’t it be wonderful if this particular rumour that Peter the Great planted it for John Evelyn to make up for the damage he caused to the Sayes Court garden one night after a drunken rampage in a wheelbarrow was true?
After all, here’s a contemporary account of Peter’s stay at Sayes Court (taken from Sarah J Young’s facinating website on Russians in London) :
No part of the house escaped damage. All the floors were covered with grease and ink, and three new floors had to be provided. The tiled stoves, locks to the doors, and all the paint work had to be renewed. The curtains, quilts, and bed linen were ‘tore in pieces.’ All the chairs in the house, numbering over fifty, were broken, or had disappeared, probably used to stoke the fires. Three hundred window panes were broken and there were ‘twenty fine pictures very much tore and all frames broke.’ The garden which was Evelyn’s pride was ruined. (Grey, p. 229)
In some ways though, it doesn’t matter how it got there because this tree is one of the most beautiful reminders I’ve seen of what London would have been like when all its glorious parks and gardens were blooming. There’s something poignant about this tree still (almost) standing proud in the middle of Deptford’s industrial and housing estates. It feels so friendly and it’s clear that it’s rightly very much loved by locals.
John Evelyn’s tree is shortlisted for the award organised by the Woodlands Trust – you can read about the other notable trees here.