Building Eden down the Docks


It’s hard to see history now, in Deptford. This is how it once used to be:

Image via Wikipedia: Joseph Faringdon

Image via Wikipedia: Joseph Faringdon

These days, it’s tricky to cross  the ancient Celtic trackway, without the aid of more than one set of traffic lights. And the Dockyard where Tsar Peter the Great studied shipbuilding? A wilderness, awaiting a £1 billion development. The  local manor house? Knocked down, long ago, replaced by a workhouse, then a place to give convicts a send-off to new lands, then a clothing factory.

Now, what you see at Deptford Docks is flat land. A great, barren expanse right next to the Thames.

But it hides the mother of all pieces of hidden history.

Imagination is required, but the layers are there, in the form of the old slipways and dock walls which began their lives as the places where Henry VIII’s ships were created. They are being excavated prior to development, and you can take a look at them, courtesy of Deptford Dame, here.

It is impossible to overstate the jewel which sits derelict on the Thames at Deptford. Henry VIII founded the first Tudor Royal Dockyard in 1513, beginning 300 glittering years in the forefront of shipbuilding and design. Francis Drake and Walter Raleigh were regulars there; Deptford’s Dockyard prepared the ships which sailed off to explore, carrying Captain Cooke, George Vancouver and William Bligh. It was only when the Napoleonic Wars arrived that its star began to fade.

And not only that. For bordering on the old dockyard land is the site of the great and intricate gardens planted by one of England’s most famous early diarists, and a seminal horticulturalist: John Evelyn. In his day – he arrived in Deptford in 1651 – the garden was internationally renowned and he himself was a co-founder of The Royal Society.

A giant amongst chroniclers, he came from the aristocracy and wrote his life, close to his friend the King and to the intellectual radicals of his time. And he wrote his garden, sketching it with infinite care so that we can see the very places where his plants once stood: Evelyn’s walled flower and herb garden, which opened out onto a terrace walk, parterre and an orchard of some 300 trees.

It would seem a no-brainer to preserve this awesome place.

But money and prospects can muddy the waters.

Developers planned, back when it was razed to the ground after News International sold it to a holding company, to build something which would not look out-of-place in Dubai. Huge, modern, towering buildings; state-of-the-art design.

But the Heritage Watchdogs have not been idle. English Heritage blocked planning application after application. Meanwhile, alternative plans have emerged from the Heritage sector, to build a replica of the Tudor warship The Lenox, and open it at Deptford. The local community wants to reclaim John Evelyn’s land and turn it into a modern horticultural centre, with a John Evelyn Community Centre.

Lewisham Council has honourably dug its heels in against the developers, Hutchinson Whampoa,  and insisted that the developers’  small gestures towards the site’s heritage did not preserve the sense of place.

And then the Mayor stepped in.

Boris Johnson, in an almost unprecedented move, listened to complaints from developers and ‘called in’ the application. That is: he took control of the application entirely out of the hands of the council.

The Deptford community is furious. The issue made Private Eye. Hutchinson Whampoa’s development is for more of the same treatment the rest of the City has seen: glittering high rises of luxury accommodation.

But Boris holds the reins. And right now, things look grim for this amazing piece of heritage.

London is watching.


To read more about this vital battle, check out:

The Build The Lenox Website here

The Telegraph here

Andy Worthington (Excellent article) here

And a great post from DeptfordIs here




29 thoughts on “Building Eden down the Docks

      1. I live in a small historic town. I’m thankful for our volunteer watchdogs that fight to preserve the integrity of the town. The by laws set in the 1700’s still Protect us today. Good luck!

  1. What a sad tale. I have always been a fan of Boris, but this move of his is dreadful. The whole sky scraper vision of London is very sad indeed and just plain greedy. It appears London needs to be a Disney Land for England to thrive. The arguments for these high rises are transparently false and leave the people most needy without homes.

  2. Oh dear, I hate hearing stories like this! It reminds me of colonialism – so-called empty spaces ripe for the picking! All power to your efforts Kate. 🙂
    PS – what was it that spelt the end of the old Tudor shipyards? Technology, tonnage?

  3. The rich get richer. Land is blighted. Hope someone is able to pull the plug on the developers before the dark deed is done.

    As an aside about old things buried in England ~ we watched a show on Smithsonian last night about the unearthing of King Richard III from the car park at the Abbey. It ran 90 minutes and included carbon dating on the bones, examination of fatal wounds to the skull, and DNA testing and match with his “next of kin” (17 generations removed). Good stuff.

  4. Chasing false gods – while the idea of a John Evelyn Centre is brilliant and modern and people centred, the Borises of this world are still in the past – thinking growth and not seeing how their value base is always money.

  5. When it comes to serving the people of London, we all know now which individuals the Mayor is thinking of: one of his own kind. It’s hard not to shout, just like Citizen Smith, “Power to the People!”

    Incidentally, so pleased to note that Sir Francis Drake had a sex change: fascinating to imagine Dame Frances as a Keira Knightley figure striding the decks!

  6. Dear Kate, it would seem that there in England, as here in the United States, willy-nilly development is pushing out the heritage that can give us a sense of who we have been and are and will be. The river town of Stillwater, MInnesota, where I lived for 36 years, fronts the St. Croix River, which separates Minnesota from Wisconsin. It is the oldest town in the state of Minnesota. It was a lumberjack town and now it is a place where many people around the state come to shop for antiques.

    I mention all this because the developers back in the 1960s started in on it and got their hands on a number of historical homes and sites. But fortunately a group of far-seeing citizens formed and stopped the developers in their tracks. I so hope this happens there in Deptford also. Peace.

      1. Forgive me for chiming in here on Dee’s comment, but, I know Stillwater, MN, with its quaint shops, coffee shops, old buildings nestled into the cliffs, and its cache of books stores, many of them antiquarian. and once dubbed the American “Hay on Wye” for all of its tomes (of which I have a few). I, too, hope that the developers are stopped in Deptford (and appreciate dear Dee for reminding me of Stillwater).

  7. The mayor is an unsavoury piece of work…..and this a fair example of his interests and his methods.
    I’d personally prefer not to have a John Evelyn Comunity Centre but I’d far rather that than the developer’s proposal.

    1. Hi Helen, I am of just the same mind: I’d love, most of all, to see the Dockyards and a garden just as Evelyn planted it. But that’s a lot of prime London land, I guess…

    1. It is! I happen to think Boris would look great in a bed of begonias, and the fertiliser would do his coiffure the world of good. Excellent suggestion. Thank you.

  8. At this point, thanks to you, London is not alone in watching, Kate. My heart began to soar as I read and thought you were going to conclude with the heritage society coming out victorious. I love, and support when I can, any and all such efforts to maintain history instead of more and more concrete structures. But these victories are so few and far between. I know how theses things often go, but I can dream along. Keep us posted?

  9. Most certainly a treasure trove of yet to be discovered artifacts. I would think developers would recognize that and at least escalate all that exists before building in prime real estate will will naturally never be encumbered with historical protection. I have read in paleontology news that a lot of stone age and Roman stuff is being found all over the place British Isles. This is happening in Miami, Florida USA were 1,000 + year old Indian settlements have been unearthed and the enterprises try to push forward in erecting the buildings. They are so stupid. Wouldn’t encasing some of the digs in first floor atria bring the buildings priceless enhancement?

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