‘Surrey is the Country of my Birth and my delight,’ John Evelyn told John Aubrey; and like Surrey, Evelyn has had more than his fair share of bad press over the years. Yet to picture him as simply the pious sermoniser the Victorians eulogised is as misleading as to write off Surrey as wall-to-wall Weybridge. The gouged-out lanes which thread through and over the thickly wooded Surrey hills around his birthplace, Wotton, are really just tarmac versions of the tracks on which generation after generation of Evelyns travelled around their land, from Wotton itself to Abinger, Friday Street and on. Beside them, the beech trees, whose massive root balls bind the banks together like nature’s gabions, still wear identity tags around their trunks proclaiming ‘Evelyn Estate’.

The broad valleys and steep hills around Wotton are well-watered, tree-covered and beautiful. But don’t be misled. From the early 17th century onwards, swift water courses like the Tillingbourne at Wotton powered what were in effect industrial complexes, mills manufacturing gunpowder, wire, iron and paper. Some survived into the 20th century. For a short time, the Evelyns held a monopoly on gunpowder (giving them a walk-on role in Guy Fawkes’s plans) and spent the proceeds on buying land, in Surrey and Sussex. Around here, between Dorking and Guildford, estate ownership, both private and public (the latter in the shape of the National Trust and Surrey County Council), as well as the protective umbrella of 20th-century statutory planning and conservation measures offer pretty sure guarantees that the landscape will endure.

Later generations of Evelyn’s family called him ‘Sylva’, so closely did they identify him with his famous book. Describing himself as ‘Wood-born’, he was the ideal author for the Royal Society’s first official publication. Although it started life as a report to the naval authorities on the state of the nation’s timber, he turned it into a paean to trees, offering advice on every aspect of their culture. Maggie Campbell-Culver’s well-designed and knowledgeable A Passion for Trees: The Legacy of John Evelyn follows his trail through the woods and writes about each of the species he covered, starting with the emblematic oak and ending with a miscellany of evergreens – Evelyn’s favourites.*

Ironically enough, despite Evelyn’s attempts in Sylva to encourage tree planting and better husbandry of timber, by the time he inherited Wotton its woods were terribly depleted: the only profitable crop on the estate had been heavily and insensitively harvested. In the fourth edition, published the year he died, Evelyn described a landscape of ‘cold staring places’. Little of the standing timber remained, the rest having been felled or at least coppiced to meet longstanding debts incurred to fund marriage settlements and to pay lawyers’ fees for an interminable Chancery action and various inheritance disputes. To cap it all, there was the great gale of 1703. But Evelyn’s ‘naked and ashamed’ estate grew back to enchant a Regency visitor like Maria Edgeworth (‘Woods worthy of Sylvia indeed!’ she trilled), helped along by commercial good sense. In the 1730s, the tree nursery established by Sir John Evelyn Bt (Jack, the diarist’s grandson) supplied trees for some of the most elegant landscapes designed in early Georgian England. In Evelyn’s own day, young trees were more usually shipped from Holland.

I come from what D.J. Taylor has called the ‘pavement-pounding’ school of biography, perhaps particularly because buildings and landscape have been my preoccupation for so long. When I was researching my biography of John Soane I worked in his own house, which he had ensured (by Act of Parliament) would survive in perpetuity, a museum to himself. If anything, Soane can come a little too close for comfort at 13 Lincoln’s Inn Fields. But Evelyn, my more recent subject, emerges from a daunting paper chase at the British Library, where his archive arrived as late as 1995.

In the early 1800s, William Bray, a solicitor and antiquarian, and William Upcott, a librarian whose address was Autograph Cottage and who was a notorious ‘collector’ of other people’s unconsidered trifles, arrived at Wotton and were invited by the elderly Evelyns to riffle through the mouldering library shelves and cupboards. As a result, in 1818 the first edition of John Evelyn’s ‘diary’ appeared, soon expanded with selected correspondence (quite a lot of which then left the premises with Upcott). More followed, including Upcott’s Miscellany of his published writings. Evelyn’s ‘diary’ is no such thing; everything prior to the mid-1680s was written up long after the events in question. His copy letters are often substantially revised and not all of them were even sent. Like Soane with his house, Evelyn must have imagined that his diary and letter-books would give him a measure of control over how later generations judged him. The Victorians, who lapped up his history of religion and a hagiography of his ‘seraphic’ Margaret Blagge, burnished his pious image. But Sylva shows us quite a different Evelyn, a man who was driven by curiosity, ‘living for ingenuity’ and could even make a roomful of naval officials ‘die almost with laughing’. Luckily, Pepys was there, at the start of a long friendship, and, thanks to him, we know quite a lot more about Evelyn, such as his conviction that the king was leading the country back to a Commonwealth or his description of Lady Denham, the Duke of York’s mistress, ‘bitchering’.

For most of his married life, Evelyn lived at Sayes Court, Deptford, of which nothing at all remains. Apart from an idealised plan of the garden, only descriptions in letters and building accounts give us any picture of the old-fashioned gabled house belonging to his father-in-law which Evelyn turned into a ‘villa’, his Tusculanum, an agreeable trip down the river from London. Most of his efforts to transform the house were concentrated on getting more light into the rooms. He made small windows larger and wider, even double height, added dormers and a cupola on the roof, which lit the handsome new staircase below, and (presumably) allowed the intrepid to go up to have a look over Cromwell’s – before long the king’s – extensive dockyards. To pass the time during the frustrating years of the Interregnum, he built himself a laboratory, with smart columns to match the new classical porch on the house, and laid out his renowned garden on a most unpromising exposed site, near but not on the river, jammed up to the naval dockyard. Now, the only memorial of the paradise which was Sayes Court is on the signboard for a scruffy patch of grass, a ‘pocket park’, with a mulberry tree in the middle, so contorted with age it is more horizontal than vertical.

It needs an immense effort of the imagination to conjure up the barges there, disgorging dignitaries who’d travelled from Whitehall, St James’s Palace or Somerset House onto the riverbank. Profiled steel industrial sheds now hog (and hide) the water. Nor can I quite replace the postwar low-rise housing of Evelyn Street and its neighbours with a convincing vision of acres of trees, a garden of medicinal ‘simples’ and an elaborate oval parterre, based (down to the exact measurements) on one Evelyn had known in Paris. A stream of admiring visitors continually went down to Deptford, having negotiated the tricky piers of London Bridge, to enjoy the delights of Sayes Court and the hospitality of John and Mary Evelyn. The king and Clarendon, the lord chancellor, made the journey, so did Henrietta Maria, old Constantyn Huygens from The Hague as well as Louis XIV’s expert vegetable gardener from Versailles. Pepys, often at the dockyard on business and living in Greenwich during the plague, dropped in frequently. Even with his help, Sayes Court is elusive. But in 1699, on his brother George’s death, Evelyn finally inherited the Wotton estate. He was almost 80 but both he and Mary (somewhat younger) saw this as the beginning of a new life.

When I embarked on Evelyn’s biography, Wotton House was a sad place, which I managed to glimpse through locked gates and, peering through the bushes, from the nearest public footpath. It had, until recently, been a training centre for fire fighters. There was no trace of Evelyn’s garden, with its famous mount and the temple-fronted grotto underneath. A couple of years later I passed by again. Signs now announced that it was to open as a conference centre. Another year or so later and the gardens were open under the National Gardens Scheme. On a baking August Sunday I climbed the mount, turfed and intact and, helped by a copy of Evelyn’s drawing of the garden front, discovered the old Tudor house neatly buried in the midst of later additions, but identifiable by its chimneys. Then, in April this year, I actually slept under Evelyn’s roof, or to be accurate, in a Victorian extension. Inside, the occasional carved Jacobean door or old newel post are vestigial reminders of the gentry house, old-fashioned even when Evelyn inherited it.

On the 300th anniversary of his death, the Garden History Society and the Surrey Gardens Trust held a two-day conference at Wotton, celebrating Evelyn’s achievements as a gardener and horticulturalist. The conference overlapped with a wedding and from indoors I could see three small girls in bridesmaids’ dresses chasing one another up and down the mount. We tend to forget that gardens like these, the grander ones with echoes, unexpected drenchings by hidden water jets, hydraulic organs, mechanical birds and the rest, were designed for fun.

In fact, Evelyn hardly lived at Wotton. At five he was shipped off to his grandfather in Lewes, to be safe from the plague, and there he stayed happily until he went up to Oxford. Although he often visited, it was not until the mid-1690s that his brother suggested that Evelyn and his wife live at Wotton. Mary Evelyn, showing not a trace of nostalgia for her home of forty years in Deptford, fell to arranging the transportation of their possessions to Surrey and – after a prolonged delay caused by arguments about inheritance – rolled up her sleeves and fell to work around the estate. Their first winter in residence she delayed returning to London in order to oversee the slaughtering of their pig and teach the cook how to make the famous Wotton pork pies. Now, in 1700, Evelyn told Pepys, his pride shining off the page, she was ‘disposing of our plaine country furniture for a naked old extravagant house’, while in her diary she had ‘become a very Sabine’. By the time Evelyn was buried in the family chapel off the little church tucked between the North Downs and the Surrey hills, in early 1706, he had been back at Wotton for barely five years. He dreamed of transforming it into a classical house (and drew his ‘castle in the air’) but had only enough time to tidy up the garden, energise the staff and start replanting the woods.

The one corner of Surrey which Evelyn could justifiably claim as his, in all but ownership, is a few miles west, at Albury. Across the valley from a later house, and beyond the church where William Oughtred the mathematician was vicar for fifty years, is a stunning 17th-century Italianate garden. Evelyn designed it for Henry Howard, the grandson of his mentor, the ‘collector’ earl of Arundel, probably in the 1660s. William Cobbett rode through in the 1820s and surprised himself, growing eloquent about the beauty of its grass terraces, yew hedges and water features. And it remains much as he described. Here and there a yew has gone and there is water in the pool only on open days, but standing on the upper terrace, so long that it almost reaches vanishing point, you are in an Italian Renaissance landscape remade with lush English grass and with the cypresses replaced by yews. Cobbett missed something, though. In the centre of the curved ‘exedra’ is a locked gate – beyond lies a tunnel which pierces clean through the hill and through which I once slightly nervously walked, heading for a minuscule pinpoint of light, thick sand underfoot, spalled off the walls and roof over the years. Evelyn told Aubrey that this was his Posillipo, the 600-metre road tunnel which linked Pozzuoli and Baia to Naples, near Virgil’s supposed burial-place. At Albury, the workings of Evelyn’s mind take shape – classical references shading into 1640s France and Italy, reworked in the (momentarily) clear light of Restoration England.

Evelyn’s passion for evergreens was one of his major contributions to gardening in general. The North Downs near Wotton, at Leith and Box Hill, were (and are) covered by a pelt of dark scrubby growth, holly, yew (‘eugh’ as he spelled it) and, of course, box. At Sayes Court he planted a holly hedge, ‘the boast of my villa’, which extended for four hundred feet, nine feet high and five feet thick. In each edition of Sylva he adjusted the measurements upwards. He thought it impregnable but was proved wrong by his tenant Peter the Great, who had come to observe the royal dockyard, and was apparently trundled in and out through the hedge in a wheelbarrow, causing immense damage. I worry about those who pushed him.

Read Sylva and Evelyn is before you. He can be pedantic, he can be observant, he is usually – but not always – right (he wrote before John Ray and Linnaeus laid down a definitive taxonomy) and he even turns nostalgic. In his mid-twenties, travelling in Europe, he often dossed down on makeshift mattresses. The Swiss ones were stuffed with well-frosted beech leaves, soft and pliant, but the Italians made theirs with sweet chestnut leaves, which pricked, crackled and stuck through the material, and kept him awake all night.

Gardens and trees engrossed Evelyn but a raging thirst for information dominated his life, what he called his ‘unsatiable coveting to exhaust all that could or should be said upon every head’. Science (particularly chemistry and anatomy), art, architecture and printmaking (he was the first to publish a mezzotint, by Prince Rupert), book collecting and libraries, coinage (he came up with the motto decus et tutamen, or ‘ornament and protect’, now to be found on most pound coins), trade, language and memory – all engrossed him. He confessed to his grandson Jack that he’d failed to complete (among much else) a history of the stars in Latin. But the seal barking away on the top of Evelyn’s headboard was his self-illustrated, thousand-page magnum opus on gardens, Elysium Britannicum.

Sylva grew but the Elysium exploded. He included anything which could conceivably come under the heading of gardening, from the elements to compost, apiculture to hydraulics, classical antiquity to the latest plant introductions from overseas, even garden burials. He planned to present it to Charles II on his restoration, then on his coronation, then later. But only fragments were ever published, including Acetaria, a book about salad vegetables, advocating a ‘herby-diet’, the Food for Free of 1699.

Evelyn’s problem with excess information was not unusual. The state of Pepys’s papers plunged him into severe depression, while the brilliant, prolific Robert Boyle lived in a chaos of bundles, bottles and mechanical devices in a bedroom-cum-laboratory. Evelyn’s motto was omnia explorate, meliora retinete (‘look into everything, keep the best’). Had he lived more strictly by it, my task would have been simpler, but he might not have died as happy.

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