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