Tuesday, 19 January 2010

Samuel Pepys

It is 350 years since Samuel Pepys started writing his diary of life in London.

BBC Four had a good programme about Pepys last night (not available in iPlayer), and last week Dan Cruickshank wrote a piece in the Times which included a suggested walk through those parts of the City of London which Pepys would have known. Last Sunday, on the first bright day this month, I set out to follow this. If you are interested in taking the walk, Dan’s article can be found here, and it’s worth printing it out to use as a guide.

Along the route are many other things to see including burial grounds, some fine Wren churches, narrow cobbled alleyways, a pub that dates from before the great fire, many commemorative plaques, and of course the Monument by Christopher Wren, looking splendid in the afternoon sun after its restoration last year

The start point is just north of the Tower of London, in Seething Lane, and rather hidden away to one side, in the locked garden, we can see a bust of the man himself.

At the top of Seething Lane is St Olave’s, the church where Pepys and his wife worshipped and are buried.

One of the newer pieces of art installed in the City. “Gilt of Cain” by sculptor Michael Visocchi and poet Lemn Sissay (2008) commemorates the abolition of the transatlantic slave trade. It stands in Fen Court, site of an old churchyard, which has been landcaped. There are many of these small hidden squares in the City, usually associated with a church.

The Great Fire in 1666 devastated 436 acres, consumed 13,200 houses, 87 parish churches, and most of the buildings of the City authorities.

Almost all the old buildings and churches from Pepys time are now surrounded by giant office buildings, in use or under construction.

St Stephen Wallbrook, which claims "the most perfectly proportioned interior in the world" was rebuilt by Wren after the Great Fire. He took a special interest in this as it was his own parish church, and is where he is buried. Again, it is now overshadowed by new office buildings. The Samaritans was founded here by the late Chad Varah, rector of the church.

The walk, as outlined by Dan Cruickshank, finishes at St Dunstan in the West, on the north side of Fleet Street. What took place here is described by Pepys in his inimitable manner: “Being weary, turned into St Dunstan’s church ... and stood by a pretty, modest maid, whom I did labour to take by the hand and the body; but she would not, but got further and further from me, and at last I could perceive her to take pins out of her pocket to prick me if I should touch her again, which seeing I did forbear.”

When the sermon ended so did Pepys’s “amours”. Exhausted, he trudged home to his wife and his supper — ending our route, too, on the mischievous note that characterises so much of his diary, and brings to life the layers and lanes of London that have long since been built over.

You can read Pepys diary entries complete for this period but before you do you might like a short note on the background and context: http://www.pepysdiary.com/about/history/

The full diary is here: http://www.pepysdiary.com/archive/1666/09/

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