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Hidden Heritage: Britain’s Best Beneath Concrete

It takes a little imagination to visualise the heritage of Deptford dockyard and Sayes Court garden beneath the mud and concrete surface. But it’s there. Physically, there are extensive and significant archaeological remains underground that map out the former dockyard. And in spirit, there are many local people who have the foresight and sheer determination to fight for their national heritage. They see beyond the concrete to the royal colours flying, ships setting sail, the commotion, the cheering, and the patriotism of Deptford dockyards.

Henry VIII founded Deptford as his royal dockyard in 1513 for the building of royal fleets: ships that were to sail the world, defend Britain, and discover new lands. Famous names like Francis Drake, James Cook, and Sir Walter Raleigh are all associated with the dockyard. Their adventures have national renown, but the place where they began does not share the fame. For the next 350 years Deptford dockyards played a crucial role in our maritime history, being a site of innovation and achievement that was admired worldwide. Tsar Peter the Great visited, reputedly causing much damage to Sayes Court Manor during his residence, to learn the new advances made and take ideas back to Russia. The international exchange of ideas went far beyond the naval industry. For wider maritime discoveries, and in the fields of horticulture, literature, and the sciences, Deptford and Sayes Court was a hub of knowledge, importing and exporting the most recent technologies and thinking.

Today the heritage of the site is under threat from large-scale development. The proposals seek to place high rise skyscrapers on the site to form 3,500 homes, retail space, a hotel, and other facilities. The Council for British Archaeology are aware of the great potential for regeneration here; we just want to make sure the heritage is not forgotten. Local groups have come forward with brilliant ideas to bring the royal prestige of Deptford to the surface in this new era, yet the developers have thus far been inclined to ignore this substantial heritage. It might as well be just a block of concrete.

Recognition from World Monuments Fund on its 2014 World Monuments Watch has helped the Council for British Archaeology and other campaigners persuade more people that Deptford is an internationally important site, but we still have some way to go! If you want to help save Deptford dockyard, or to find out more, please visit: new.archaeologyuk.org/deptford-dockyard.