As someone who has lived in and walked around and explored London their whole life, I did wonder how revelatory it would be to take fairly familiar walks with an unfamiliar guide. Having now followed two of the routes proposed by Jacky Colliss Harvey in her excellent guide to Walking Pepys’s London, I realize that my capital nous is mainly geographical surface knowledge – there’s plenty of history waiting to be uncovered.
Walking Pepys’s London is a book to be enjoyed in hand and on foot, a knowledgeable companion to a saunter round the city. I enjoyed Walk 2 – Through the City to Seething Lane – on a clear, crisp March Sunday with London not yet opened up from its most recent plague year. Weaving from Blackfriars to the Tower, via Newgate, the church of St Bartholomew’s, the Bank of England and numerous shuttered pubs, Harvey points out relics and reminders of pre-Fire London and describes the sounds and bustle of the seventeenth century city, so that it can be “reconstructed in your imagination”.
This walk tells the story of guilds and gossip but is more a tale of trauma and loss, with plague and fire in turn ravaging the city in the space of little over a year. There’s less drama experienced on the second walk I followed, from the Tower to Greenwich along the south bank of the river, but this revealed the central role that the Thames played, both in Pepys’s life and London’s history. It’s perhaps harder to imagine a river teeming with ships and activity from today’s modern, residential towpath, especially when the modern Isle of Dogs is in view, but again Harvey does a good job of describing the scene as Pepys would have experienced it, using his diary entries where appropriate.
By water to the Ferry, where, when we come no coach there; and tide of ebb so far spent as the horse-boat could not get off on the other side of the river to bring away the coach. So we were fain to stay there in the unlucky Isle of Doggs, in a chill place, the morning cool, and wind fresh, above two if not three hours to our great discontent. (31 July 1665)
As well as Pepys we also come across references to Shakespeare, Dickens, Marlowe and other denizens of London lore – a strength of Harvey’s research. I now know where Marlowe was stabbed in the eye, where and how the Luftwaffe caused London’s biggest blaze and where the most riotous and lawless gathering in the city, if not the country, took place.
I’ve still three walks left to do and am particularly looking forward to experiencing A Night out with Mr Pepys once the pubs and bars of the city fully reopen. Walking Pepys’s London is a wonderful little introduction to the city’s sites and history and will add texture and context to happy exploration, whether you consider yourself familiar with Pepys and his world, or with the great city of London itself.
[The publisher provided a free copy of the book for review. P.G.]