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London Calling

The compiler of the first English dictionary, Samuel Johnson, once said, ‘When a man is tired of London, he is tired of life; for there is in London all that life can afford.’  The London of 1777, when he made this remark, must indeed have been a place of great interest, but also no doubt one of great contrasts – for example between rich and poor, healthy and sick, opportunity and despair.  In other words, it was exactly the same as it has always been and is always likely to be.

A hundred years earlier, Samuel Pepys walked the streets of London, often for miles at a time, either for work or pleasure, because it was almost certainly easier to get around by foot than in a carriage or on a horse.  Thanks to Pepys and the diary he kept for nearly ten years between 1660 and 1669, we have a unique insight into life in the capital during what was a genuinely tumultuous decade of English history.

Charles I was executed in January 1649 and a period of republican rule, mostly under the leadership of Oliver Cromwell, followed for the next eleven years until 1660.  There is something uniquely English about the way we still talk about ‘The English Civil War’, in contrast to the French and the Russians, who call similar episodes in their countries’ respective histories ‘Revolutions’.  For us, it is almost as if it were an embarrassment and something to be brushed under the carpet rather than something to be commemorated and even celebrated.

Pepys started writing his diary in January 1660, just as it was becoming clear that the experiment of the republican Interregnum was coming to an end.  Cromwell, as he so often seems to have done, hesitated too long when important decisions needed to be made, eventually appointed his son Richard to the role of Lord Protector, for which he was singularly ill-suited, and died in 1658 without a clear plan for continuity.

Given the dourness and austerity of Cromwell’s regime, it was hardly surprising that Charles II was welcomed back with almost unbridled joy in 1660, in an act of pragmatism that became known as the Restoration.  It seems hard to imagine two such contrasting characters as the puritanical Cromwell and the fun-loving Charles Stuart.  The fountains apparently flowed with wine as the new king entered the capital on his 30th birthday, the theatres reopened and the party started.

Charles II said he wanted a clean slate, religious tolerance and the forgiveness of all but those directly responsible for his father’s death – the so-called Regicides.  It was almost as if the last eleven years had been a bad dream and it was time for everyone to wake up, smell the coffee (literally, for the first time) and make up for the lost years.  It would not be long, however, before plague, fire and defeat in a naval war with the Dutch, which threatened the security of London itself, brought the honeymoon period to an abrupt end.

It was these events that Pepys captured so eloquently, detailing his domestic life, the complications and consequences of his love life and his increasingly important work at the offices of the Royal Navy.  The London he describes is vivid and alive, and it does not take too much imagination to hear the sounds that he heard, smell the smells and even taste the food.  Compared to the luxuries we enjoy today, it may have been a simple life in many ways, but it reminds us that the essence of human existence is the same wherever and whenever it takes place.

One of the modules of the Edexcel History A Level course that we offer at school is called ‘Britain, 1625-1701: Conflict, Revolution and Settlement’.  It features a study of the political, religious, social and economic issues that impacted the country between 1625 and 1688, and a separate unit that analyses the events of what has become known as the Glorious Revolution, between the arrival of William of Orange to replace James II on the throne and the Act of Settlement in 1701 that laid out the future of the Protestant succession that exists to this day.

Having taught it for the last seven years, I can testify that it is a complicated period of history that is not easy for pupils, or indeed teachers, to understand without a lot of effort.  Although the importance of London features as a central theme throughout the module, experience has suggested that it can sometimes be a challenge for the pupils to grasp how this happened and why it was so significant.

Having experienced a couple of useful and interesting guided walks by others in the past, I thought I probably knew enough of the details to fill in the gaps in the big picture and bring some of the stories to life for the pupils.  Helped by a very good little book called ‘Walking Pepys’s London’ by Jacky Colliss Harvey, we therefore set out last week to have a look at some of the key places in the story and to do some practical history rather than the usual learning in the classroom.

If you are looking for something to do over the Easter break, and if you have even a rudimentary knowledge of Pepys’s London, I would thoroughly recommend Colliss Harvey’s book.  It contains five different walks, all of which are quite long, but you do not need to do the whole route in one go.  The first starts in Westminster and leads back to the City of London.  The second starts at Blackfriars and ends at the bust of Pepys in Seething Lane near Tower Hill.  The third follows a route that looks at some of the places where Pepys spent his evenings, from St James’s Park to the inns of Southwark.

The fourth walk is probably the longest, starting at Tower Hill and ending at the Royal Observatory at Greenwich, with its focus very much on the expansion of the Royal Navy and the important role that Pepys played in its development during the Restoration period.  The fifth and final walk is called ‘A New Year’s Day Walk’ and takes the reader from Holborn to Rotherhithe as a sort of miscellany of all the locations that could not be covered in the other sections of the book.

As I said in last week’s bulletin, my walk with the Sixth Form and Year 11 historians was rather less ambitious, but it allowed us to capture the essence of a few key sites.  In the City of Westminster, we stopped where Charles I was executed outside the Banqueting House, saw pelicans in St James’s Park that were first gifted to Charles II by the Russian ambassador in 1664, and passed St Margaret’s Church, where Pepys married Elizabeth St Michel, the daughter of French Protestants who had fled to England, like so many others, to escape religious persecution in Catholic France.

Taking the underground to Tower Hill, we saw the site where several of the characters in our story met their end on the executioner’s block, for example William Laud, the Archbishop of Canterbury who promoted the High Church Anglicanism that so antagonised the Puritans and Presbyterians who opposed Charles I.  We then made our way through the City of London, via the church where Pepys and his wife were buried, to the site of the first coffee house and then St Paul’s Cathedral, which was rebuilt so beautifully to the designs of Sir Christopher Wren after the Great Fire in 1666.

London can be an expensive city, for sure, but it is also possible to derive a great deal of pleasure from it for very little cost.  All you really need are a good guidebook, a little bit of knowledge and a willingness to stop and look up from the pavement to see the treasures all around you.  If the sun comes out at any point in the next couple of weeks, I can thoroughly recommend a walk around Pepys’s London as an excellent day out over the Easter break.

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