My quilted journey down the Thames continues at the Lower Pool, which runs from the Cherry Garden Pier to Limekiln Creek. And at the Lower Pool I am joined by celebrated Seventeenth Century diarist, Mr Samuel Pepys.
Samuel Pepys (1633-1703) lived through turbulent times – the Civil War, the execution of one king (Charles I), and the coronation of another (Pepys was on the ship that brought Charles II home from exile in the Netherlands). He wrote his daily observations in diaries that lasted through the 1660s. Pepys wrote of events of great national import such as the Great Fire of London, the Plague, and the Anglo-Dutch war; and wrote more intimately of his career as a naval administrator, of his wife Elisabeth and his many extra-marital philanderings, his household servants, of concerts and the theatre, of playing the flageolet at home, and of being jealous of his wife’s dancing master.
As a London resident and employee of the Navy Board, Pepys naturally wrote about the Thames in his diaries – and of his working life around Greenwich, Woolwich, Tilbury, Deptford, and Rotherhithe, or, as he knew it, Redriffe or Redriff, which had been a centre of shipbuilding since Elizabethan times. He often travelled between different places on the Thames during the course of the day – taking boats up and down the river, or walking through the fields between the shipyards of Redriffe and Deptford. For example, on September 5 1662, he started his working day at 5.00am and travelled by boat to Woolwich: Here I staid and mustered the yard and looked into the storehouses; and so walked all alone to Greenwich, and thence by water to Deptford, and there examined some stores, and did some of my own business in hastening my work there, and so walked to Redriffe, being by this time pretty weary and all in a sweat; took boat there for the Tower, which made me a little fearful, it being a cold, windy morning.
Travelling by river in the 1660s was just part of life – often the only way of getting around London and the surrounding areas. Pepys usually simply notes his journeys, if he mentions them at all. But occasionally there were difficulties. On December 27 1665, Pepys dined with Sir W Warren at the Pope’s Head … and thence to the goldsmiths, I to examine the state of my matters there too, and so with him to my house, but my wife was gone abroad to Mrs Mercer’s, so we took boat, and it being darke and the thaw having broke the ice, but not carried it quite away, the boat did pass through so much of it all along, and that with the crackling and noise that it made me fearfull indeed. So I forced the watermen to land us on the Redriffe side, and so walked together till Sir W Warren and I parted near his house and thence I walked quite over the fields home by light of linke, one of my watermen carrying it, and I reading by the light of it, it being a very fine, clear, dry night.
According to Pepys’s London: Everyday Life in London 1650-1703 by Stephen Porter, in very cold winters the Thames above London Bridge froze over. The gaps between the bridge piers, or starlings, were so narrow that they restricted the flow of water through them, creating relatively still water upstream … The river above the bridge froze over in six winters during the second half of the century. When it froze really hard fairs were held on the ice, such as during the severe winter of 1684, the worst of the century, when the Thames could be crossed by pedestrians for seven weeks between 2 January and 20 February.
Pepys’ crossing point below London Bridge was not frozen solid, but on that December evening the sound of the ice cracking at Rotherhithe was sufficiently frightening to make him want to get off the river as quickly as possible.
The pictures of ice and darkness conjured by Pepys are very vivid – you can almost hear the ice cracking as you read his diary – and when I came to the Lower Pool in my quilt, I knew his experience had to be included. I quilted him in with the words Pepys took boat but was afeared of the cracking ice at Redriffe.
I like to think of him reaching the Rotherhithe shore in relief, then reading his book by the glow of a waterman’s light as he walked for the rest of his journey on a freezing cold night.
* Picture of Samuel Pepys, NPG D30958 reproduced courtesy of the National Portrait Gallery under the terms of the Creative Commons Licence