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Emma Pepys into the past

I admit it, I am a self-confessed Samuel Pepys groupie. Ever since I picked up the ‘Shorter’ version of his Diary about 25 years ago, I’ve been hooked. His lifestyle, his opinions, his experiences are rooted in the 17th century but the voice in this extraordinary diary feels so very contemporary too. Humour, hubris, dalliances, affairs, gossip, greed and jealousy spill from his entries, as well as the every-day, down in the dirt detail of Stuart London.

So I was really excited when I heard about the opening of the Samuel Pepys exhibition: Plague, Fire, Revolution. These days without the kids in tow John and I can please ourselves when it comes to indulging our interests. So we booked our tickets and headed off to the National Maritime Museum in Greenwich.

The Royal Maritime Museum at Greenwich

The Royal Maritime Museum at Greenwich

For me, Samuel Pepys diary is the next best thing to a time-machine. It lands you in a London recovering from the turmoil of the English Civil War and the rule of Oliver Cromwell, opening with the triumphant return of Charles II from exile. You walk with Pepys through bustling, dirty streets of timber and wattle houses, into coffee shops, theatres and taverns full of bawdy behaviour, mixing with women of ill-repute and gossiping with friends over a drink. You feel for his poor wife Elizabeth when he rails at her for spending money on lace cuffs while he thinks nothing of splashing out on silk suits and wigs for himself. You share his fears during the Plague and then the Great Fire of London. You celebrate his career advancements, his survival from an operation to remove a bladder stone the size of a tennis ball without anaesthetic and all the minutiae of the happy times he did have with his wife and household.

The exhibition guides you through key moments in Pepys life and because he was right at the centre of state affairs (as head of the Navy Office) it means much of his story is also the story of Restoration England.

Pepys, his wife Elizabeth, the Great Fire and those surgical implements for kidney stones!

Pepys, his wife Elizabeth, the Great Fire and those surgical implements for kidney stones!

Samuel Pepys: Plague, Fire, Revolution displays paintings and illustrations of the time, alongside the blood-stained gloves worn by Charles 1st at his beheading, a clever animation of theatrical productions Pepys would have attended and another illustrating the Great Fire as it rampaged through the capital in 1666. The instruments used to retrieve his bladder stone are on display as well as clothes and other artefacts from his life. What isn’t in the exhibition however is the actual diary itself. It’s said that in his will leaving the diary to Magdalene College, Cambridge, he threatened that if it was removed for any reason it was to be given to its rival, Trinity College. Thus it remains firmly in situ never to be moved. Through the wizardry of technology though, you can still flick through pages digitally at the exhibition.

What I find amazing about Samuel Pepys is that not only did he live through some of the most turbulent and exciting times in our history, but he was also at the centre of so much of what happened and kept a very personal record of it all for us to read and enjoy over 350 years later.

I highly recommend this exhibition if you are in anyway interested in the diarist or this period in history. It continues until 28th March 2016. And if you’re feeling peckish while in Greenwich I suggest a stop at the famous Goddard’s Pie and Mash shop nearby. We’ve been a couple of times and really enjoyed pie for mains and pie for dessert!

Now I can’t wait for the Pepys & the Great Fire of London walking tour I’ve booked for 18th March. Maybe see you there!

John adds…

I didn’t know much about Pepys so this exhibition was a real education for me. I was impressed to learn that he was president of the Royal Society from 1 December 1684 to 30 November 1686. Isaac Newton‘s master work – Principia Mathematica was published during this period and its title page bears Pepys’ name as publisher.

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