Sayes Court set to rise again

    The forthcoming development of Convoys Wharf in Deptford encapsulates all of the typical challenges facing our growing cities in the 21st Century. The high-density, mixed-use luxury scheme (3,500 units over 40 acres) will neighbour one of the most deprived wards in the country: suffering health inequalities, lack of opportunity, over-stretched infrastructure and deficiency in open space. This poses the question, how can new developments help to alleviate these problems, and deliver positive long-term benefits to the whole community?

    Seeking to address these issues, local residents turned their attention to the small park of Sayes Court which borders the site. Neglected and under-used, its humble appearance belied a glorious history of international fame, which has formed the focus for a project which may prove to be a new model in joint-working and a positive future for big development in our cities.

    Sayes Court was the 17th Century home of John Evelyn, one of the founders of the Royal Society and the foremost horticulturist of his age. Evelyn is hailed as the father of the modern sustainability movement through his hugely successful text Sylva, which encouraged thousands of landowners to re-establish forests and woodlands all over the country, ensuring the continued propagation of timber. He laid out his garden at Sayes Court in 1652 as part of a total intellectual project, using it as his testing-ground for new design and experiments in cultivation. His proposals included an idea to purify London's air by planting trees, and a plan for the rebuilding of London after the Great Fire which saw the city as a garden.

    Long after Evelyn’s death and the garden’s decline, massive urban growth around the docks had lead to severe overcrowding. Evelyn's descendant, W J Evelyn, was so concerned at poor local health and living conditions that he decided to create a public recreation ground on the site of the famous garden and sought to dedicate it to the people of Deptford in perpetuity. As he fought unsuccessfully to overcome the legal difficulties of its long-term protection, he engaged with the wider Open Spaces Movement and in particular Octavia Hill. Through their work together Sayes Court became the inspiration for the formation of a new organisation: The National Trust.

    Today, the remaining park covers just a third of the original garden site. Requisitioned by the neighbouring dockyard during the First World War, the principal portion now lies under concrete within Convoys Wharf.

    With the approaching development came the opportunity for renewal. Two things were clear: the site of the garden must be reclaimed as open space, and its future must equal the forward-looking ambition of its remarkable past.

    A project has been devised which aims to reach new audiences, change public perceptions and bring landscape to the forefront of the political agenda. The project team seeks to use this high profile site to bring together the work of leading thinkers and organisations to investigate the challenges and opportunities of 21st Century landscape and horticulture. 

    Alongside this the project will provide real opportunities for local people through improved open space, education and training. The combination of these two strands in one place creates the full spectrum from theory to practice allowing ideas and people to flow freely between the two. Two acres of open space have now been agreed with the developer, Hutchison Whampoa, for the creation of a new garden, as well as provision for an adjoining educational and cultural facility over the exposed archaeology of the original Sayes Court Manor, and the project team will work with key partners to develop its programme of education and engagement.

    Written by Roo Angell, Director and co-founder of

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