Travels, chiefly on Foot, through several parts of England in 1782, described in Letters to a Friend/Chapter II
London, 2nd June.
This morning those of us who were fellow passengers together in the great cabin, being six in number, requested to be set on shore in a boat, a little before the vessel got to Dartford, which is still sixteen miles from London. This expedient is generally adopted, instead of going up the Thames, towards London, where on account of the astonishing number of ships, which are always more crowded together the nearer you approach the city, it frequently requires many days before a ship can finish her passage. He therefore who wishes to lose no time unnecessarily, and wishes also to avoid other inconveniences, such as frequent stoppages, and perhaps, some alarming dashings against other ships, prefers travelling those few miles by land in a post-chaise, which is not very expensive, especially when three join together, as three passengers pay no more than one. This indulgence is allowed by act of parliament.
As we left the vessel we were honoured with a general huzza, or in the English phrase with three cheers, echoed from the German sailors of our ship. This nautical style of bidding their friends farewell our Germans have learned from the English. The cliff where we landed was white and chalky, and as the distance was not great, nor other means of conveyance at hand, we resolved to go on foot to Dartford: immediately on landing we had a pretty steep hill to climb, and that gained, we arrived at the first English village, where an uncommon neatness in the structure of the houses, which in general are built with red bricks and flat roofs, struck me with a pleasing surprise, especially when I compared them with the long, rambling, inconvenient, and singularly mean cottages of our peasants. We now continued our way through the different villages, each furnished with his staff, and thus exhibited no remote resemblance of a caravan. Some few people who met us seemed to stare at us, struck, perhaps, by the singularity of our dress, or the peculiarity of our manner of travelling. On our route we passed a wood where a troop of gipsies had taken up their abode around a fire under a tree. The country, as we continued to advance, became more and more beautiful. Naturally, perhaps, the earth is everywhere pretty much alike, but how different is it rendered by art! How different is that on which I now tread from ours, and every other spot I have ever seen. The soil is rich even to exuberance, the verdure of the trees and hedges, in short the whole of this paradisaical region is without a parallel! The roads too are incomparable; I am astonished how they have got them so firm and solid; every step I took I felt, and was conscious it was English ground on which I trod.
We breakfasted at Dartford. Here, for the first time, I saw an English soldier, in his red uniform, his hair cut short and combed back on his forehead, so as to afford a full view of his fine, broad, manly face. Here too I first saw (what I deemed a true English fight) in the street, two boys boxing.
Our little party now separated, and got into two post-chaises, each of which hold three persons, though it must be owned three cannot sit quite so commodiously in these chaises as two: the hire of a post-chaise is a shilling for every English mile. They may be compared to our extra posts, because they are to be had at all times. But these carriages are very neat and lightly built, so that you hardly perceive their motion as they roll along these firm smooth roads; they have windows in front, and on both sides. The horses are generally good, and the postillions particularly smart and active, and always ride on a full trot. The one we had wore his hair cut short, a round hat, and a brown jacket of tolerable fine cloth, with a nosegay in his bosom. Now and then, when he drove very hard, he looked round, and with a smile seemed to solicit our approbation. A thousand charming spots, and beautiful landscapes, on which my eye would long have dwelt with rapture, were now rapidly passed with the speed of an arrow.
Our road appeared to be undulatory, and our journey, like the journey of life, seemed to be a pretty regular alternation of up hill and down, and here and there it was diversified with copses and woods; the majestic Thames every now and then, like a little forest of masts, rising to our view, and anon losing itself among the delightful towns and villages. The amazing large signs which at the entrance of villages hang in the middle of the street, being fastened to large beams, which are extended across the street from one house to another opposite to it, particularly struck me; these sign-posts have the appearance of gates or of gateways, for which I at first took them, but the whole apparatus, unnecessarily large as it seems to be, is intended for nothing more than to tell the inquisitive traveller that there is an inn. At length, stunned as it were by this constant rapid succession of interesting objects to engage our attention, we arrived at Greenwich nearly in a state of stupefaction.
The Prospect of London.
We first descried it enveloped in a thick smoke or fog. St. Paul's arose like some huge mountain above the enormous mass of smaller buildings. The Monument, a very lofty column, erected in memory of the great fire of London, exhibited to us, perhaps, chiefly on account of its immense height, apparently so disproportioned to its other dimensions (for it actually struck us as resembling rather a slender mast, towering up in immeasurable height into the clouds, than as that it really is, a stately obelisk) an unusual and singular appearance. Still we went on, and drew nearer and nearer with amazing velocity, and the surrounding objects became every moment more distinct. Westminster Abbey, the Tower, a steeple, one church, and then another, presented themselves to our view; and we could now plainly distinguish the high round chimneys on the tops of the houses, which yet seemed to us to form an innumerable number of smaller spires, or steeples.
The road from Greenwich to London is actually busier and far more alive than the most frequented streets in Berlin. At every step we met people on horseback, in carriages, and foot passengers; and everywhere also, and on each side of the road, well-built and noble houses, whilst all along, at proper distances, the road was lined with lamp-posts. One thing, in particular, struck and surprised me not a little. This was the number of people we met riding and walking with spectacles on, among whom were many who appeared stout, healthy, and young. We were stopped at least three times at barriers or gates, here called turnpikes, to pay a duty or toll which, however small, as being generally paid in their copper coinage, in the end amounted to some shillings.
At length we arrived at the magnificent bridge of Westminster. The prospect from this bridge alone seems to afford one the epitome of a journey, or a voyage in miniature, as containing something of everything that mostly occurs on a journey. It is a little assemblage of contrasts and contrarieties. In contrast to the round, modern, and majestic cathedral of St. Paul's on your right, the venerable, old-fashioned, and hugely noble, long abbey of Westminster, with its enormous pointed roof, rises on the left. Down the Thames to the right you see Blackfriar's Bridge, which does not yield much, if at all, in beauty to that of Westminster; on the left bank of the Thames are delightful terraces, planted with trees, and those new tasteful buildings called the Adelphi. On the Thames itself are countless swarms of little boats passing and repassing, many with one mast and one sail, and many with none, in which persons of all ranks are carried over. Thus there is hardly less stir and bustle on this river, than there is in some of its own London's crowded streets. Here, indeed, you no longer see great ships, for they come no farther than London Bridge
We now drove into the city by Charing Cross, and along the Strand, to those very Adelphi Buildings which had just afforded us so charming a prospect on Westminster Bridge.
My two travelling companions, both in the ship and the post-chaise, were two young Englishmen, who living in this part of the town, obligingly offered me any assistance and services in their power, and in particular, to procure me a lodging the same day in their neighbourhood.
In the streets through which we passed, I must own the houses in general struck me as if they were dark and gloomy, and yet at the same time they also struck me as prodigiously great and majestic. At that moment, I could not in my own mind compare the external view of London with that of any other city I had ever before seen. But I remember (and surely it is singular) that about five years ago, on my first entrance into Leipzig, I had the very same sensations I now felt. It is possible that the high houses, by which the streets at Leipzig are partly darkened, the great number of shops, and the crowd of people, such as till then I had never seen, might have some faint resemblance with the scene now surrounding me in London.
There are everywhere leading from the Strand to the Thames, some well-built, lesser, or subordinate streets, of which the Adelphi Buildings are now by far the foremost. One district in this neighbourhood goes by the name of York Buildings, and in this lies George Street, where my two travelling companions lived. There reigns in those smaller streets towards the Thames so pleasing a calm, compared to the tumult and bustle of people, and carriages, and horses, that are constantly going up and down the Strand, that in going into one of them you can hardly help fancying yourself removed at a distance from the noise of the city, even whilst the noisiest part of it is still so near at hand.
It might be about ten or eleven o'clock when we arrived here. After the two Englishmen had first given me some breakfast at their lodgings, which consisted of tea and bread and butter, they went about with me themselves, in their own neighbourhood, in search of an apartment, which they at length procured for me for sixteen shillings a week, at the house of a tailor's widow who lived opposite to them. It was very fortunate, on other accounts, that they went with me, for equipped as I was, having neither brought clean linen nor change of clothes from my trunk, I might perhaps have found it difficult to obtain good lodgings.
It was a very uncommon but pleasing sensation I experienced on being now, for the first time in my life, entirely among Englishmen: among people whose language was foreign, their manners foreign, and in a foreign climate, with whom, notwithstanding, I could converse as familiarly as though we had been educated together from our infancy. It is certainly an inestimable advantage to understand the language of the country through which you travel. I did not at first give the people I was with any reason to suspect I could speak English, but I soon found that the more I spoke, the more attention and regard I met with. I now occupy a large room in front on the ground floor, which has a carpet and mats, and is very neatly furnished; the chairs are covered with leather, and the tables are of mahogany. Adjoining to this I have another large room. I may do just as I please, and keep my own tea, coffee, bread and butter, for which purpose my landlady has given me a cupboard in my room, which locks up.
The family consists of the mistress of the house, her maid, and her two sons, Jacky and Jerry; singular abbreviations for John and Jeremiah. The eldest, Jacky, about twelve years old, is a very lively boy, and often entertains me in the most pleasing manner by relating to me his different employments at school, and afterwards desiring me in my turn to relate to him all manner of things about Germany. He repeats his amo, amas, amavi, in the same singing tone as our common school-boys. As I happened once when he was by, to hum a lively tune, he stared at me with surprise, and then reminded me it was Sunday; and so, that I might not forfeit his good opinion by any appearance of levity, I gave him to understand that, in the hurry of my journey, I had forgotten the day. He has already shown me St. James's Park, which is not far from hence; and now let me give you some description of the renowned
St. James's Park.
The park is nothing more than a semicircle, formed of an alley of trees, which enclose a large green area in the middle of which is a marshy pond.
The cows feed on this green turf, and their milk is sold here on the spot, quite new.
In all the alleys or walks there are benches, where you may rest yourself. When you come through the Horse Guards (which is provided with several passages) into the park, on the right hand is St. James's Palace, or the king's place of residence, one of the meanest public buildings in London. At the lower end, quite at the extremity, is the queen's palace, a handsome and modern building, but very much resembling a private house. As for the rest, there are generally everywhere about St. James's Park very good houses, which is a great addition to it. There is also before the semicircle of the trees just mentioned a large vacant space, where the soldiers are exercised.
How little this famous park is to be compared with our park at Berlin, I need not mention. And yet one cannot but form a high idea of St. James's Park and other public places in London; this arises, perhaps, from their having been oftener mentioned in romances and other books than ours have. Even the squares and streets of London are more noted and better known than many of our principal towns.
But what again greatly compensates for the mediocrity of this park, is the astonishing number of people who, towards evening in fine weather, resort here; our finest walks are never so full even in the midst of summer. The exquisite pleasure of mixing freely with such a concourse of people, who are for the most part well-dressed and handsome, I have experienced this evening for the first time.
Before I went to the park I took another walk with my little Jacky, which did not cost me much fatigue and yet was most uncommonly interesting. I went down the little street in which I live, to the Thames nearly at the end of it, towards the left, a few steps led me to a singularly pretty terrace, planted with trees, on the very brink of the river.
Here I had the most delightful prospect you can possibly imagine. Before me was the Thames with all its windings, and the stately arches of its bridges; Westminster with its venerable abbey to the right, to the left again London, with St. Paul's, seemed to wind all along the windings of the Thames, and on the other side of the water lay Southwark, which is now also considered as part of London. Thus, from this single spot, I could nearly at one view see the whole city, at least that side of it towards the Thames. Not far from hence, in this charming quarter of the town, lived the renowned Garrick. Depend upon it I shall often visit this delightful walk during my stay in London.
To-day my two Englishmen carried me to a neighbouring tavern, or rather an eating-house, where we paid a shilling each for some roast meat and a salad, giving at the same time nearly half as much to the waiter, and yet this is reckoned a cheap house, and a cheap style of living. But I believe, for the future, I shall pretty often dine at home; I have already begun this evening with my supper. I am now sitting by the fire in my own room in London. The day is nearly at an end, the first I have spent in England, and I hardly know whether I ought to call it only one day, when I reflect what a quick and varied succession of new and striking ideas have, in so short a time, passed in my mind.