An Imaginary Voyage Through Deptford 2020
Since we had passed the statue, Jack was convinced he was as tall as Peter the Great, until we got to Twinkle Park and he could no longer see us above the bulrushes. Besides, now Jack was dwarfed by the giant Red Lion. The lion had recently been repainted. I quite liked the graffiti and hoped it would stay but since the lion commemorates the pub that stood on the site of the park it apparently has to be red. It’s been here a long time. The Red Lion was one of the first in a series of sculptures that commemorate the pub names that surrounded the dockyard. There used to be dozens of such pubs. There was also the Red Cow. Along Prince Street near the Dog and Bell there was the Lord Nelson, the Navy Arms that used to be the Rose and Crown, then the Griffin directly opposite, The Peter the Great Tavern was in the dockyard itself, well that’s re-opened so it doesn’t have a sculpture, the Globe that features in Pepys diary is still there on Evelyn Street ….. On Watergate Street, the Bull and Butcher, there was a lot of fuss at first because everyone thought the sculpture of the butcher shouldn’t be a woman, until they learned about the Gut Girls in the Foreign Cattle Market. Anyway the sculptures have added a lot of colour to the area and there were all made by artists that had worked at the Faircharm state when it was largely studios. Then there was the Mansion House and the Three Jolly Sailors right by the Upper Watergate. I can’t remember them all.
The children started to sing “Twinkle twinkle….” They were singing and laughing as they skipped ahead through the old dockyard gate, I discreetly turned one last time to catch a glimpse of the serene Chinese woman we’d been watching, deeply absorbed in her Tai Chi. Her presence seemed to draw together all the elements of the little park, the trees, the rocks and water. The blackness of the moorhens scattering across the pond seemed suddenly more intense amongst the bright yellow iris. I felt hypnotized as the woman moved her arms and hands in meticulous slow motion…….
“Twinkle twinkle little star…..” they shouted at the tops of their voices as they ran into the Clerk of the Cheque’s garden chasing each other around the neat squares of box hedging and around the ‘witches hat’ bay trees and the ‘ice-cream’ twirled yew trees. They were immediately stopped in their tracks and went completely silent as they laid eyes on the brightly coloured Nicki de Saint Phalle moving sculptures in the Head Dock. I knew the children would love them but didn’t say anything to them as I wanted to see their reaction. The brightly coloured sculptures were on loan from the Centre Pompidou in Paris and did look wonderful swirling and dipping close to the water. We stood watching for a while on the bridge that crosses the gates of the head dock. As I looked down at the monumental stone blocks that make up the dock my mind drifted to the now absent noise of the hammering, sawing, calling of the shipwright’s over maybe more than five centuries of labour in this dock. I had almost forgotten that Jane was joining us today because she wanted to see the newly opened dockyard Officer’s gardens that had been restored according to details shown on some early plans. Apparently, Jane said, there was a direct correspondence with the plans and the traces of fountains and pathways that were found during archaeology. In the case of the dockyard gardens Deptford was following the hugely successful restoration of the Officers’ Gardens in the dockyard at Chatham. We had been to see those so Jane was especially interested to see how Deptford’s would compare.
I knew that Jane would be meticulous about her visit, she had been looking forward to the opening of the gardens and every time she had come to view the progress of the restoration and the contemporary re-interpretation of John Evelyn’s Sayes Court Garden, she would try to get a peek through the fence to check the progress of the gardens of the Officer’s Terrace, and of course to check that the designs were accurate. Jane had managed to get a copy of an original print of the dockyard from 1753 that showed the officers’ gardens in detail. It was Jane who had told me about Deptford dockyard’s links to Kew Gardens. Every time she visits she always brings Strelizia, bird of paradise flowers and as she puts them in the vase, it’s as if she’s never uttered the words before, she begins to tell the story of Princess Charlotte of Mecklenburg-Strelitz being fetched from the Elbe in the Royal Charlotte Yacht to marry George III. She had managed to find a copy of the Scots magazine on Ebay that contained a contemporary account of the events, how the Royal Charlotte yacht was prepared for the voyage in the basin at Deptford. I said it must be copy but she’s convinced it’s an original from 1761. As she arranges the flowers she describes how the crew “were dressed at his majesties private expense in a red uniform with gold laced hats, light grey stockings with buckles and pumps,” Jane can go on forever about the number of nationally significant voyages started in the dockyard at Deptford, Raleigh, Drake, Frobisher, Cook……..Somehow it doesn’t matter what we’re discussing, eventually it all comes back to Deptford, one way or another, the origin of the Bank of England with the East India Company, the origin of the National Trust with Sayes Court, the discovery of Australia, the founding of the first British colonies in America. Just about everything, the first salaried and pensioned workers, I’ve usually stopped paying attention at this stage, and also something to do with dockyard labourers from Deptford erecting the palm house at Kew, and something to do with an entire garden being sent from Kew to the dockyard to be shipped to Catherine the Great and Potemkin who were crazy for English gardens. Everything either started in Deptford or comes back to Deptford, oh including the Golden Hinde that of course did both! I’m not sure where she gets this stuff from but she must be talking some sense.
Jane has now been asked to be a trustee for the Sayes Court Young Peoples’ Program but that’s based on her years of youth work all over London rather than her encyclopaedic knowledge of the history of Deptford. It’s an incredible opportunity for her to be able to bring together her two areas of expertise but she doesn’t see it that way at all, she absolutely believes in the power of planting and gardening, to transform these kids lives. Well at least it gives them a good qualification with real experience and practice behind it and the opportunity of getting a good job. She’s already been involved in the project as a volunteer and even got her sister’s boy a place on the apprenticeship scheme. He’d never done well at school, was always in trouble with the police and on one occasion it was quite serious. Anyway she got him a place on the youth training scheme and he loved it. He’s now working full time in the garden at Great Dixter. They’re one of the partners in the Sayes Court Garden Restoration along with Kew. Of course Jane reminds me she’s only following in the tradition of the McMillan sisters who caused an absolute uproar when they encouraged kids to plant vegetables in St. Nicholas churchyard. Apparently, Jane’s managed to persuade the guys who are constructing the Lenox replica ship that when it eventually launches she is going to strew the slipways with flowers from the Sayes Court gardens.
I know that Jane will want some peace for her visit to the garden, she can sit and walk for hours in Sayes Court, she never tires of it, so I take the children to see the foreshore finds at the Landing Place and Lookout. It’s great, part of the restored Look out building is a little café and you can look through the windows at the other section of the pavilion at a collection of fore-shore finds. It wasn’t difficult to replicate the little pavilion. They had been painted from various angles in several different John Cleveley paintings in the eighteenth century. Funny, he couldn’t possibly have known then what a resource he was leaving behind. But he was clearly a man who loved the dockyard. He must have painted it more than half a dozen times, each time finding some new detail, or new perspective. Jane did tell me either he was born in Deptford or was a shipwright in Deptford or maybe both. I once went to see one of his Deptford paintings up for sale in a gallery on Bond Street, you could get right up close and see the breath in the brushstroke. Someone once told me that an oil painting never fully dries out. Imagine, that moment of applying the paint, still present in the liquid surface. Now all the Cleveley paintings are back here in Deptford. I suppose since he lived here they must have all been painted here. Not all are the originals, the Maritime Museum have permanently loaned theirs and the Science Museum still had one which they gave to the Deptford Lenox Trust which gave them some capital enabling them to raise further funds. The Paul Mellon Foundation loaned theirs from Yale for the exhibition that they sponsored called ‘Mapping Deptford: drawings, paintings and plans from five hundred years 1513-2013’ and after the exhibition they allowed their Cleveley to remain permanently in Deptford. Oh, and one is a copy of one painting still in private hands. So that’s all the John Cleveley Seniors and there are a few John Cleveley Junior’s on display with the 1774 scale model and a number of ships models actually displayed in the model making rooms where they were made. No, actually, that can’t be right because I remember last time we went to the Master Shipwright’s Offices, Jane had told me that the Master Shipwright’s Repository, the Model Making and Drawing Rooms were only added in 1805 and some of the models are much earlier than that. I think I fell asleep when she was telling me about how Brigadier General Sir Samuel Bentham, who had added the top floor range to the Office, had been obscured by his more renowned brother Jeremy Betham, but was in fact the great-unsung hero of the Industrial Revolution. That’s why she sent me several links to websites and articles about him, again, something to do with building a navy for Potemkin and Catherine the Great. Anyway thanks to John Cleveley the Landing Place and Look pavilions could be accurately reconstructed with measurements taken from other plans of the yard. It was a cool idea to use the pavilion for a café and for the permanent finds exhibition. Most of the finds came from the foreshore in front of the dockyard, Lots of the finds have been donated by people who had been collecting pieces for years and wanted them to be where they would be understood and appreciated the most. There is even one piece from the Viking times found in the area of the early mast pond, which even though its tiny, the kids love it and its an easy name for them to remember. It’s called Viking snap and it was a kind of currency worn as jewelry. This is my favourite part of the dockyard because there is a story attached to each find on display and every now and then new finds are displayed so it’s a constantly evolving exhibition that everyone can participate in. One of my favourite pieces is the buckle from a rifle belt that came from a soldier on a ship that was on its way to fight on the royalist side in the American War of Independence, its quite faint but you can make out the writing on it that says, Loyal County Wicklow Rangers. Jack thinks its from a football team, but what actually happened was that the ship had left Ireland with loyalists to fight on behalf of the Crown and as the ship was crossing the Atlantic its mast broke and it had to return to Deptford to be repaired. It must have been dropped by a soldier here and remained on the foreshore all that time. Jane managed to find that out, don’t ask me how. My other favourite piece is a little brass Estee Lauder lipstick from the World War II. It had never been used. I wonder whether it was a marine or a Deptford lass that threw the lipstick in the river? Still it lasted for over fifty years in the Thames! I’m not sure what that says about the lipstick. Attached to this item is the story that 11 U.S. Marines were killed at the quayside of the dockyard when a V2 rocket hit their LSTs moored up here after the Sicily landings. I hadn’t realized, till Jane pointed it out, that the two great steel girders rising up above the tide from the foreshore depict the number eleven at the exact spot where they died. The names of the marines that were killed that day are soldered onto the steel girders above the tide-line. The people behind the memorial had tried to get the then president Barack Obama to open the memorial but his wife came instead.
Its incredible really that there is all this stuff, going back to the Vikings and even WWII and yet most of it is really small stuff but they also hold the keys to such huge stories that are significant moments in history. Georgia is always sure she’s going to find something from the Viking period. She never gives up, even though she mostly only finds clay pipes. She’s got quite a collection already and is so proud that one of her pipes is on display in the Landing Place Pavilion. Apparently it’s a very early pipe from about 1620. So she knows all about Sir Walter Raleigh and tobacco and why Virginia is called Virginia, not the tobacco but the state. She chose to write about it for a school project. It’s a good thing that the finds are displayed because it also helps people to know what to look for and its right by the landing steps that lead right down onto the foreshore so people can check things with the attendant when they come back after their mud-larking. What amazes me is the quality of the causeway leading from the Landing steps onto the foreshore. It was built in 1720 in front of the new storehouse and its still there, not a stone out of place. Keith was making us laugh the other day about the paving on the High Street that hasn’t lasted even ten years and this has been there for nearly three hundred years and how many tides? Two tides a day for 300 years. That’s something like well over 100,000 tides. Anyway, were not going down onto the foreshore today because today is a particularly special day as we’ve managed to get tickets to see the inside of the Lenox. Its so exciting and Jack can’t wait to get inside. We’ve been many times before, we got the residents reduced rate pass for multiple visits. So we’ve been plenty of times and it changes every time. The last time we came we spent time watching the canvas sewing. I thought it might be a bit boring but you got the chance to have a go and when Jack and Georgina realized that they could write their name on the sail, and this would then be sewn over they got really excited. In the end, Jack wrote his grandpa’s name. He used to love to come with us too, even though he knew he wouldn’t live long enough to see the ship afloat. He’d worked in naval dockyards himself where asbestos was rife, nobody thought a thing of it. Mesothelioma. The kids used to have a competition to see who could spell it correctly.
On board the Lenox the officers’ cabins are looking fantastic. Who would have believed that when the keel was laid and the timbers were up, even when the planking was finished, there were still some people who said it would never be finished? At least not even get this far? It’s remarkable how the officers’ cabins resemble the lovely paneled rooms in the Lenox Project house in Albury Street. It was such a stroke of luck for the Lenox project to get that house to use as offices for the duration of the project. It all adds to the overall connection of maritime Deptford, with St. Nicholas Church, The Victualling yard buildings and their ‘Deptford In WWI &WWII’ exhibition of the Supply Reserve Depot and then there’s the musical The Female Shipwright still playing at the Albany after its successful West-End run. Its been amazing to see the transformation of the dockyard after the return of Henry VIII’s foundation stone from 1513 and then the 1720 Clocktower and bell coming back, the opening up of the bright expanse of water in front of the Olympia sheds made complete sense and the number of people who stay to watch the caisson gate go up or down is incredible. It took me a while to see that the giant steel globe in the centre of the basin reflects the image of the Golden Hind, but in miniature. It’s really clever, because as the globe turns, you see this tiny reflection of the Golden Hind, circumventing the globe. As the visitor numbers grew to see the Lenox, the owners of the Golden Hind thought that it would be a good idea to bring the replica from St. Mary Ovary to Deptford where she really belongs. This encouraged the people who run the Endeavour to choose the basin at Deptford for her home in the western hemisphere. When the Lenox is finished she’ll also ride in the basin. It’s all happened quite naturally, it just snowballed. Now Deptford is the home to three replica ships and the Lenox Project are talking to the Maritime Museum about the return of the royal barges apparently the Guild of Shipwrights and some other City guilds that had links to Trinity House of Deptford Stronde are keen on funding this part of the project. Jane was telling me about Trinity Monday when all the great and the good took to their barges in the City of London to come to Deptford to come to elect a new master of the Bretheren of Trinity House of Deptford Stronde and to hear a sermon at St. Nicholas then there was a big knees-up in the Trinity Alms Houses. Of course the City of London has strong links to the dockyard, through Bridge House Estates and also the Corporation of London owned the site for the Foreign Cattle Market until it was requisitioned by the War Office to supply the troops in the field for WWI and WWII. The famous Cadbury’s chocolate bar tins were shipped from Deptford to battlefronts all over the world in 1912. Imagine a single site in London of this size still in one piece even after five hundred years, with so much history,
and yet it could have so easily been completely overlooked and become just another bland property speculation along the river.
Last time we were here, we got talking to a group from the Netherlands who had come straight here on the new ferry from Rotterdam and docked in Deptford just to see the Seven Bridges that cross the openings of the dock, slipways, basin and mast ponds along the waterfront. They had read about the Seven Bridges Project in an article in the Architectural Journal celebrating Deptford’s second Stirling Prize (the first was Laban) but were just as impressed with the environmental and ecological re-use of the mast ponds as a place for bird life on the Thames to nest and feed. I think Jane gave them a link to the eco-project website. Incredible really, one day is not long enough to visit all the sites, the temporary sculpture exhibition in the dry dock, the reconstruction of the Lenox, the gardens of the Officers’ Terrace and the Sayes Court Youth Project, the foreshore finds and the all the maps, plans, paintings and models of the yard no wonder people are ready for a sit down when they get to the Albany for ‘Female Shipwright’, the musical. Its quite incredible how the English language is so full of naval phrases, there’s lots of them in the musical, of course Jack’s favourite is “freezing the balls off a brass monkey” even though he now knows what it really means. The show has been such a success, a few weeks ago we couldn’t even get a table at our favourite Vietnamese restaurant in the High Street, Georgia loves their summer rolls.
Having a royal dockyard so close to London, that attracts so many hundreds of thousands of visitors has, apparently, what with all the publicity around the Lenox, what did the press call it? “a major national heritage enterprise”, ended up increasing the visits to Portsmouth, Chatham, Sheerness, Plymouth and even Pembroke. So now you can get a pass that allows access to all the yards, and it’s partly funded by Network Rail. It has something to do with Deptford being the first urban railway station in London, so Jane said.
The success of the Lenox project has really captured the imagination of the funders and there have been lots of spin off social projects. Now that Deptford has been twinned with all the former dockyard towns of the colonies there’s now an incredible School’s Exchange Program coming up where the youngsters can choose whether they go to Bermuda, Chennai, Malta, Simon’s Town or one of the many former overseas dockyard towns .You see, Deptford was the dockyard responsible for supplying all the overseas yards, so there have been links for centuries, according to Jane, everything from paper and ink to whatever was needed to build or repair a ship. There was even an entire flat-pack building sent to Bermuda in the 1800’s. But unlike the infamous furniture, this building lasted for years and still exists. It’s now pride of place in their dockyard. Anyway, for this school’s exchange, Georgia wants to go to Malta, where apparently the door-cases on the houses in Valetta are even more impressive than the ones in Albury Street. Georgia’s a keen artist and spent days drawing the door-cases on Albury Street. Her favorites were the little naked babies. Jack has plumbed for Simon’s Town in South Africa, he thinks he’ll see tigers and elephants there, not just penguins. Jane and I are off to Bermuda…Just kidding, but I have promised to go with her to see her sister in Yorkshire. I secretly want to go to the Yorkshire Sculpture Park. Ever since the Henry Moore Foundation decided to be the principal funder for Summer Sculpture on the Jetty it’s got me really interested in sculpture again. That project has recently expanded and now it now includes installations in the gardens at Laban and Jane said there’s talk of a exhibition coming from the Antoine Bourdelle Museum in Paris. I much prefer his work to Rodin. I hope the centaur gets to come along and the archer, they are both remarkable.
Who would have thought that all this potential, what does Jane call it, ‘historic cultural capital’, not the place, the stuff, the stories, was lying buried beneath just a few inches of concrete for a hundred years. Jack says it’s just like Sleeping Beauty, put to sleep by the wicked witch. I remember when someone asked me why do you still live in Deptford, and I remember saying it was the Cape Canaveral of its day that I didn’t know anywhere else in London that had so much history, so much latent potential and yet so little to show for it. It’s compelling. Now there’s all this. The replica of the Lenox is almost complete. Sayes Court garden receives more visitors each year as people come back again and again. Training on the Lenox Youth Project and Sayes Court Garden Project has given young people opportunities they would never had had. The international links that Deptford has re-made with other dockyard towns has broadened the horizons and raised the aspirations of many school pupils. Deptford is now a place where people come to stay in hotels, eat in the restaurants, see major international standard exhibitions of sculpture.
Who would have believed it a few years ago?
As we left the dockyard we passed through Twinkle Park, the Tai Chi woman was sitting by the rock under the birch tree and the Red Lion was now once again emblazoned with a striking black graffiti tag. It looked much better than before.