A Pepys Pilgrimage

Aside from the living history, music and storytelling that we do with Pilgrims and Posies, I spend a good deal of time in character as Samuel Pepys, for school pupils exploring the Great Fire of London at Weaver Hall Museum.  Whilst I wouldn't quite call him my alter ego, I have developed quite an interest and affection for Mr Pepys. 

So, last week when Sue was attending a meeting at Kings College London about the forthcoming exhibition "Discover a Medieval City: Places, Voices, Journeys" and all the associated events that will be happening in Chester next year, I took the opportunity to go to London with her and trace some of the places associated with Sam and the Great Fire, a sort of pilgrimage for me, though not of my usual medieval style.

So I wandered from Covent Garden along Fleet Street and towards St Pauls, passing a couple of older buildings that had survived the Great Fire, and perhaps more miraculously later city developments.  Tucked away off Fleet Street was the location of Sam's birthplace and childhood home on Salisbury Court, there is a plaque but nobody seems to notice it.

Not so far away is St Bride's Church, where Sam was baptised, and would have attended services in his early years.  It was later destroyed in the Fire, rebuilt by Wren with the prototype of the wedding cake steeple, and destroyed once more in the Blitz.  The clear up of the latter devastation revealed earlier churches on the site and archaeology from Roman times to the 16th century which can be seen in the crypt. 

Then on past a great many more Wren churches and St Paul's itself.  Emblematic of the city it may be, but I've never liked his style, no character or emotion at all to my mind, especially considering what was there before.  The Great Fire may have swept away dirty cramped streets and crumbling churches, but with it lots of old tales and charm.

I paid a visit to the Museum of London, which has had several new galleries since I went a couple of years ago and very good they are too.  When you do so much work on a theme like the Great Fire, it is wonderful to see original buckets, helmets, firehooks etc, even when you've seen them many times before.  I resisted the urge to stop other visitors who were wandering by uninterested or dazed by the many thousands of treasures in the museum and tell them they should be looking at these.  The new gallery exploring the Blitz had some photographs and memories playing that just stopped me in my tracks.  These are tales, so horrific that only now are they starting to be told as those that lived through them approach the end of their time.  Yes, there was a blitz spirit, but there was also a much much darker side.  Go along to hear for yourself, I couldn't begin to do justice to the reminiscences.

Then I made my way over towards the seat of the Great Fire on Pudding Lane,

but chose not to climb the Monument on this occasion, I've done that a couple of years ago and got the certificate to prove it.

Not so very far away was Seething Lane, the site of the Navy Office buildings where Samuel Pepys lived during his diary years, though his home survived the Great Fire, it was destroyed in a smaller blaze some years later.  Today there is a small garden and a bronze of Mr Pepys and a nearby street has been named in his honour, I'm sure Sam would have been pleased and amused to see this.

Just nearby is St Olave's Hart Street where Sam and Elizabeth went to church regularly.  It was the first time I've been able to get inside for a look, and to see the beautiful monument Mr Pepys had made for his young wife Elizabeth, a vibrant image looking directly at the Navy Office pew where Sam would have been sitting each Sunday.  He was later buried under the communion altar, but didn't get his own monumental inscription until the publication of his diaries over a century and a half after his death.

So, the city is much changed since Samuel Pepys' time, but there is still a lot he would recognise and for me it was a chance to get better acquainted with both the place and the man.  Now, in two days time I will be donning the periwig once more for the first of thirty or so Great Fire of London workshops I'll be doing this autumn...