Tuesday 1st April 2014
By Sue Nicholson
We are sitting in St Olave’s church, in the navy pew, a gallery on the south side with its own entrance from Seething Lane. Precedence is important and as guests of Samuel and Elizabeth Pepys, we are seated in front, with servants and clerks behind us. The vicar, Mr Mills, is just concluding the service. Wives are discreetly elbowing sleeping husbands and we wait for more senior officers, Sir John Mennes and Sir William Coventry, to rise before making our exit down the canopied staircase and out into the churchyard. Going through the gate we cross Seething Lane. The cobbled surface is sticky with black, tarry London mud. Will Griffin the doorkeeper opens the heavy wooden gate and bows as we enter the Navy Office site.
We are surrounded by a complex of Tudor buildings in brick with casement windows and leaded roofs. Ahead we can see the imposing building which houses the Navy Office itself and which is closed today for business, being Sunday. We walk through the yard, past the office and through a beautiful formal garden with gravel walks, flower beds and plants in pots. There are trees and a south-facing wall covered in espaliered pears and quinces. This is a favourite place where Samuel likes to walk and sometimes comes to sit outside on Summer evenings. He has been known to serenade his neighbours, singing in harmony with his wife and their friend Mrs Knepp the actress. We turn into an entry at the end of which is Pepys own house, aware of a carter shouting to his mate on Crutched Friars, just behind the house. They may be making a delivery to the Three Tuns Inn.
The door with its new knocker is opened by a maid who bows to us and smiles slily at Samuel as we enter. Two steps up and through a painted arch and we are in the entrance hall. The smell of fresh paint mingles with the delicious odour coming from the kitchen on our right. Behind the door we can hear clattering of dishes and Elizabeth leaves us to go and supervise. We are shown through into the parlour where a fire is burning. As we hand our cloaks to the boy we notice the green serge curtains, the gilded cornice and the grand new staircase, elaborately fashioned out of carved wood. We climb the stairs with their tall windows overlooking the street below, to find ourselves in a magnificent dining room. The ceiling is high with an elaborate plasterwork ceiling, the walls are wainscoted in oak with four painted panels by the Dutch landscape artist Dankaerts, three showing the royal palaces at Whitehall, Greenwich and Windsor, with a fourth depicting a vista of Rome. There is a superb chimneypiece of brightly painted plasterwork, only slightly marred by sooty stains from the fire which sometimes smokes. There are portraits in oils including those of Elizabeth and Samuel, skillfully painted by one of the most famous painters of his day, and framed in heavy gilt frames. There is a weighty silver-framed mirror hanging on one wall and in the middle of the room a long table capable of seating 12 persons. The table has been professionally dressed with silver plate, sparkling glasses and intricately folded linen.
But what is this? Elizabeth enters looking dismayed. The beef is not fit to be served, there has been a problem with the jack on which it was suspended over the fire and she says it is not half roasted. Jane has been dispatched to the cook’s shop for a replacement dish, but there will be a slight delay. Samuel suggests a tour of the house while we wait and before we can respond he is leading us upstairs to view the chambers on the second floor. The maids’ room is small and simply furnished but there is a good view from the window west over the city. It was from here that Samuel first saw what was to become the Great Fire in 1666. There is a bell on a bracket outside with a mechanism so that Samuel and Elizabeth can call the maid from their room which is next door. Entering this room we notice the windows which open onto a small balcony with a view over Crutched Friars. The houses opposite are jettied out at this level and one can see that it would be perfectly possible to hold a conversation with one’s neighbour across the street. There is a small bench to sit on and a decorated rail. Turning back into the chamber we see a wooden four-poster bed with carved posts and ropes woven into the base to support the mattress. It is hung with red curtains and there are chairs against the walls covered in a heavy Turkey work material, also in red. Next door is a slightly smaller room in which the bed is hung in blue.
Back downstairs we are shown into the “best chamber” which is also obviously used as a music room with virginals and a bass viol among other instruments. There would be plenty of room for dancing, if the bed were dismantled.
The tour continues down to the ground floor where we notice a servant’s sleeping quarters just off the parlour and then follow Samuel down into the cellars. There is a little light coming in from a window into the yard, but Tom the boy appears with some candles and we plunge on into the darkness. Keys rattle and a door is unlocked to show us a large wine barrel and a cheese wrapped in muslin. At the far end we can see all sorts of lumber piled up and to the left an enormous coal cellar, said to hold 10 chaldron. Samuel tells us an amusing tale of how once when descending into the cellar he put his foot into a great mess and realized to his horror that next door’s house of office was overflowing into his property! At last we are allowed back upstairs and finally take our places around the table.