Travel-London: Tsar trek

The father of modern Russia learnt the ropes in what is now London SE8. As an exhibition opens celebrating Peter the Great's time in Britain,

A Deptford landlord was outraged when he received a letter from his bailiff. A tenant had filled the house with "right nasty" people. The year was 1698 and the landlord was the diarist John Evelyn, a friend and confidant of Samuel Pepys. The tenant was none other than Peter the Great, Tsar of Russia.

Evelyn had lived at Sayes Court, Deptford, since 1648. He bought it from his father-in-law, Sir Richard Browne, in 1653. Evelyn was a gardener and cultivator of trees. The gardens of Sayes Court became a celebrated sight of the road to Kent. In May 1665 Pepys wandered amongst the groves and admired this "most beautiful place ... a lovely noble ground".

As you walk down the pavement of Evelyn Street today, it's hard to believe that this was once a rural idyll. In fact, it's hard to believe that there's any green here at all. But, just off the appropriately-named Grove Street, beside a pub called the John Evelyn, is all that's left of the great gardens.

Sayes Court recreation ground is now a rather sorry sight, but it once formed part of the Broomfield section of Evelyn's land and gardens. In 1665 Evelyn wrote to his father-in-law to tell him about the tenants here dying from the plague, "having now 5 houses of our Broomefield [sic] atacq'd". In the middle of the ground is a spreading mulberry tree, said to have been taken from a cutting from Evelyn's own original mulberry.

In the 1600s Sayes Court had one huge disadvantage. It backed on to the Royal Naval Dockyard, founded in 1513 by Henry VIII. Evelyn spent his life being plagued by noise, mud and floods from this vital centre of English naval power. At one point a dockyard tree even fell over and wrecked a pump, cutting off Evelyn's water. Things came to a head in July 1685 when his second daughter Elizabeth ran off with the nephew of a dockyard official by climbing over the wall into the dockyard. The wall still exists, amazingly enough, at the end of Dacca Street. It's funny to think of a Restoration rake hauling his moll up and over the bricks in the depths of the night, egged on by dockyard cronies, giggling at the intrigue and the insult to their censorious and moralising neighbour.

Incandescent with rage, Evelyn cut his daughter out of his will and pleaded with his friend Pepys, then secretary of the Navy, to deal with what he was sure was a conspiracy. Pepys's replies are lost, but in any case by September Elizabeth was dead from smallpox.

It was only one of several tragedies to hit the Evelyn family. By 1699 he and his wife Mary had buried seven of their eight children. Most lie in the Church of St Nicholas at Deptford. It still stands, with its medieval tower and late-17th-century nave, a little way beyond Sayes Court, in a side street called Stowage.

With its savage-looking stone skull guarding the gate into the churchyard and the charnel house, the church is a poignant piece of old London. Within, a slab commemorates the short life of Evelyn's eldest son, Richard, who died in the middle of a catastrophic winter in 1658, and Evelyn's eldest daughter, Mary, who also died of smallpox in 1685.

The 1600s were an age of scientific discovery. Evelyn was a founding member of the Royal Society, and he was closely involved with anything new. He would have appreciated the wishes of Peter the Great of Russia, a monarch from a wilder land, to learn new skills.

In 1694 Evelyn moved to the family estate at Wotton in Surrey, and put Sayes Court out to rent. Beginning in Amsterdam, Peter the Great determined to find out how to build a modern navy. In February 1698 he arrived in England and rented Sayes Court, which was, after all, conveniently placed. All his expenses were paid by William III, who had invited him over.

Peter was a hands-on learner and he worked in the dockyard alongside the shipwrights and labourers. Take a turn around the churchyard, and you'll see some of their memorial stones. After a hard day's ship-building Peter still had energy for unwinding with his "right nasty" friends. Right in the middle of the great gardens was Evelyn's hedge. About 40 years old, it was 400ft long and 9ft high. With such a splendid target, how was Peter the Great to resist? Naturally, he demanded to be driven through it in a wheelbarrow. The gardens were "ruin'd", Evelyn wrote in 1706, but he was proud to say that the hedge "mocks the rudest assaults of the Weather, Beasts or Hedge-breakers".

The house and the rest of the gardens were to fare worse. But Evelyn had friends in high places and on 9 May 1698 the King's surveyor, none other than Sir Christopher Wren, compiled his account of the damages. pounds 2 would be needed to pay for the floors "dammag'd by Grease and Inck", and pounds 1 for three wheelbarrows which had given up the ghost. Whatever had led to a bedstead being "broake to pieces" (pounds 2) can only be imagined, but it got off lightly compared to other beds which were not only shattered but also "soyl'd" and torn. George London, the King's gardener, toured the broken groves and pulverised paths, noting that "all the grass worke is out of order, and broke into holes by their leaping and shewing tricks upon it".

Peter was at Sayes Court for only three months, but his destructive tenancy was to cost the King pounds 62 seven shillings to compensate Evelyn. On 24 May 1700, Evelyn moved the last of his goods to Wotton. He was to die there in 1706. The house was demolished within a generation, being replaced with an almshouse which lasted until the early 20th century. The site now lies under a warehouse.

As for Peter, he returned to Russia and in 1700 embarked on a 21-year war with Sweden. In 1725, at the age of 46, he died and was named the father of his country. His eventful time in England is marked by Czar Street, which runs close by Sayes Court beside the entrance to the old dockyard, itself closed in March 1869.

So, if you visit the Peter the Great exhibition at the National Maritime Museum, or trundle through the shabbier back streets of south London, spare a thought for Evelyn as he grimaced at all the mud and "slubb" from the frenzied ship-building and victualling, while rapacious young louts had designs on his daughters. Then imagine his gloom as his life's work was reduced to rack and ruin by an energetic young Tsar in a wheelbarrow who ripped up the beds and used his landlord's pictures for target practice. Nowadays he'd be a rock tsar.

The Peter the Great exhibition at the National Maritime Museum opens on Friday 3 April.

Guy de la Bedoyere has recently published 'Particular Friends: the Correspondence of Samuel Pepys and John Evelyn' (Boydell Press, Woodbridge, 1997).

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