Pepys pilgrimage

Samuel Pepys bust at Seething Lane

On Wednesday, Rachel and I made our way over to the Museum of London to gawk at the silver plate recently identified as having belonged to Samuel Pepys.

The silver trencher plate is one of three in existence known to have belonged to Pepys — although it was only recently recognised as such — and is the only one on display in the UK.

It bears Pepys’ coat of arms and was made in a workshop in Foster Lane, near St Paul’s Cathedral and the museum where it now resides, in 1681/2. Cutlery scratch marks are visible in its surface, suggesting it was one of the pieces Pepys was referring to in his diary when he boasted that he served his guests on silver plates rather than pewter.

Well, if it was made in 1681 or 2, it couldn’t have featured in the diary, though there’s no doubt he was very proud of his silver. At any rate, it was such an impressive object I walked right past it and had to ask Rachel where the hell it was. My photo is, um, not good:

Pepys plate at Museum of London

I thought this ceramic plate on display nearby captured the spirit of the age much better:

plate in Museum of London

Coolest of all, perhaps, was this copy of astrologer William Lilly’s 1651 book Monarchy or No Monarchy, which was said to predict the Great Fire:

astrologist William Lilly's 1651 book predicting the Great Fire

Pepys’ diary accounts of the actual conflagration were extensively drawn upon for the museum’s looped six-minute film. I sometimes wonder whether his diary would be nearly as famous had he not had the (mis)fortune to live through the great plague in 1665 and the fire the next year.

We decided sort of on the spur of the moment to go back to Seething Lane and see whether the gardens on the site of Pepys’ office were accessible. On our previous attempt at a Pepys pilgrimage three years ago, the site had been all torn up and walled off for some sort of construction, and we feared the worse.

Our route took us past the Guildhall, and I couldn’t resist another selfie with the Pepys bust there. This is Sam at the peak of his power and influence — not the young man on the make of the diary period.

selfie with Pepys bust  at London Guildhall

As we rounded the corner from Hart Street to Seething Lane, Rachel noticed that St. Olave’s — Pepys’ church — was actually open. We hadn’t gotten into that last time either. So we were finally able to see the sculptor John Bushnell’s bust of Elizabeth Pepys that the grieving Sam had paid for after her early death in 1669, high on the wall to the left of the altar.

St. Olave's on Hart Street interior - Elizabeth Pepys memorial close-up

A more modern memorial to Sam himself, paid for by public subscription at the instigation of his Victorian-era editor Wheatley — the diary edition I’m erasing — isn’t nearly as impressive:

St. Olave's on Hart Street - Sam Pepys memorial

But the church has plenty of other fascinating details, such as this window from the Clothworkers’ guild, which evidently had teasel as its emblem:

St. Olave's on Hart Street window

And it was great to see that it was still very much a functioning Anglican church, not merely a tourist attraction. See my album on Flickr for more photos.

The churchyard was also charming, and included an herb garden in tribute to another famous parishioner, William Turner (1510-1568), the father of English botany. There was also a labyrinth, and Rachel didn’t object to my filming her feet as she walked it. Naturally, I had to turn it into another videohaiku:

The site of the Naval Board offices was right across the narrow Seething Lane, and Pepys had arranged for a covered walkway connecting them so the great men could walk to their gallery in church without getting rained on. Such is the enduring interest in Pepys that even the location of that former entrance is memorialized…

Pepys entrance to St. Olave's

…as is, of course, the site of the navy office, which survived the Great Fire only to be destroyed in another fire seven years later.

site of Naval Board offices

The reason the Seething Lane gardens had to be destroyed and replaced was to build an underground parking garage for the adjacent building, formerly the headquarters of the Port of London Authority, but now London’s second Four Seasons Hotel,

Seething Lane Gardens Pepys bust and Four Seasons back door

this one owned and operated by a Chinese corporation…

Seething Lane Gardens dedication

…which has done a decent job with it. To quote the wonderful London travel blog IanVisits:

The word ‘Seething’ may originate from a medieval word ‘sifethen’ meaning ‘full of chaff’, so-called after a nearby Corn Market.

Seething Lane Gardens have a curious history, but suffice to say it was once the topic of a planning dispute, and, with a slight gap, the fine of one red rose has been paid annually to the Lord Mayor. That’s since 1381, and the Knollys Rose ceremony still takes place each year.

In addition to the roses though, it’s famous for its association with the diarist Samuel Pepys, who lived in the same street and said he buried his exceptionally expensive Parmesan cheeses in his own back garden to protect them from the Great Fire of London.

Imagine our delight to look down and see Pepys’ buried cheese memorialized in a flagstone:

Seething Lane Gardens paving stone

This was just one in a whole series of flagstone engravings relating to Pepys, the Naval Board, the fire and the plague. Check out, for example, this excellent flea:

Seething Lane Gardens paving stone

And here’s a depiction of Pepys’ shorthand original of the diary:

Seething Lane Gardens paving stone

There’s no key to the paving stones anywhere, so if you’re not a Pepys fan, some are likely to be mystifying. This for example clearly depicts the removal of his bladder stone, which diary readers will know was a very big deal to him — he marked the anniversary of the operation every year with a party:

Seething Lane Gardens paving stone

I have photos of most of the engraved slabs on Flickr. As for the garden, Ian nails it:

Although I would have to say the current garden is rather pleasing, it’s of a style that’s increasingly generic – of raised beds with lots of paving, and hence not that interesting.

What does make this one stand out a bit is the paving […]

Sadly, the Knollys Rose has not been immortalized in stone, but some of the plants looked distinctly rose-like, so the ceremony should resume this year.

The garden was designed by the landscape architects, Capita Symonds.

The cost of the landscaping works came in at £1.25 million, paid for by the hotel development.

Pepys bust in Seething Lane Gardens

Walking to the Bank tube station at rush hour, we were impressed by the crowds of business-suited young and middle-aged City men, some scurrying, a few sauntering, many smoking (an unusual sight elsewhere these days). Palimpsest as London may be, some things don’t seem to change very much over the centuries.

Beagling

me and the beagles

On Saturday, I was invited to join a sort of huntless hunt in the wilds of darkest England. The local beagle club assembled next to the barn on a big estate belonging to a member of the titled aristocracy who had given permission for us to ramble over hill and dale, following a well-trained pack of beagles who were in turn following a scent trail laid down the day before. This is known as beagling. Since the actual hunting of hares with beagles was banned in 2004, this is the best that the beagle clubs can do. I’ve always been wary of sports with too many rules and I like to walk, so it suited me just fine. Continue reading “Beagling”

Farewell to London

rainy bus ride near Queens Park Station

I’m about to begin the long journey back to central Pennsylvania after three months abroad. This last week since our return from holiday in Cornwall has been full of outings with friends and last-minute visits to things we’d meant to see all summer. But I promise some more photos and travel posts after I get settled in at home. My other home, that is.

I’m wondering what I’ll miss most about London, aside from Rachel and my other friends here, and I think it might be that particular, delicious kind of lostness that comes from immersion in a constant stream of sensory inputs and the whirl of cultures, languages and dialects that one can only get in a major city. I’ll miss good beef, street-corner pubs, old Slavic fisherman on the canal path and Muslim families picnicking in the park. I’ll miss sitting like a king in the top level of a lumbering, double-decker bus and watching the endlessly varied streetscapes scroll past.

And what do I most look forward to at the other end of my journey, aside from family? That’s easy: the lush meadows, the forests, and all the singing insects that I’ve missed listening to here — especially the throbbing choruses of northern true katydids that are such a feature of August nights in Pennsylvania. All the distinct dialects of silence.

Cornish haiku

where the dog threw up
at the edge of the road
early morning gulls

*

the incoming tide
a ground beetle rotates
on its back

*

through a gap in the hedge
as we flash past
a partridge and her chicks

*

village museum
retired fishermen gaze
at their old nets

*

rain in the campground
a girl hops back to her tent
on one foot

*

the sun comes out
a tiny spider rappels
from the brim of my hat

*

over there by the car park
a band practices songs
from World War I

*

in the still forest
one limb is swaying
boys on a rope swing

*

evening cottage
the whippet’s thin hind leg
glows orange in the sunset

*

listening to an owl
pale magnolia blossoms
as big as our faces

Existential museuming

The human genome 1

Who are we, really? The current exhibits at London’s Wellcome Collection provide several intriguing suggestions. I loved a photo of the neural network pulled from the body, which looked like some kind of fairy shrimp, and a photo of many pairs of socks shaped like chromosomes. But I wasn’t moved to pull out my camera until we got to a printed edition of the complete human genome. Each volume had a thousand pages, with type so small it was difficult to read without a magnifying glass.

The human genome 2

Human-being-as-library is an attractive metaphor to me, not least because when I was growing up, I often visited my Dad at the academic reference library where he worked. Plus my Mom was a writer and our home was full of books.

Symbolical head

Reading was always a great way to live in my head.

Gormley on the ceiling

Antony Gormley is famous for making casts of his own body. His art prompts us to ask deep questions about the meaning of human embodiment and habitation, such as, “Wouldn’t it be cool if we could stand on the ceiling?”

galloping penises from Pompeii

But as some of the art unearthed at Pompeii demonstrates, people have been indulging in gravity-defying fantasies for a long time.

false eyes and nose

One of the sculptures I particularly liked was a human skeleton with the skull substituted for the pelvis and vice versa. Such acts of imagination strike me as essential to who we are as social and ecological beings, attractive as it might be to pretend that we are entirely scrutable — recorded in the Book of Life or programmed in the hard drive of our genes. Besides, 90% of the cells in our bodies belong to microorganisms.

a blown-glass sculpture
of the HIV virus—
loud children swarm past