Chris Gutteridge's London blog March 2016

To London on Monday, to see Lizzie performing as a member of the band for Nell Gwynn at the Appollo Theatre, Shaftesbury Avenue, but first we visited the Museum of London in the Barbican.

I hadn’t seen the Barbican before, but found it to be at least as ugly as I’d heard it described. The museum, though, was very good. Our main aim was to look at the Billingsgate Trumpet – a long, straight trumpet made around 1300 which, it is suspected, some clumsy ship’s trumpeter dropped overboard in the Thames. Very narrow bore. I wish they’d had a replica that one could play. One improvement in museums these days is accurate replicas of exhibits that the public can handle. Despite all the fascinating exhibits, one girl in a school party was overheard whining, “This is booooooring!”

We met Lizzie very briefly outside the theatre to collect our tickets, as she dashed from a Blondel rehearsal to a last-minute rehearsal for the music for the play, called because there was to be a VVIP in the audience. I felt they needn’t have gone to such lengths, just for me.

After a pub meal and a wander round theatre land, we made our way to the Appollo. This theatre must have the most overly baroque auditorium ever, which was fun.

The play was excellent – hilariously funny, moving in parts, well written and acted by a great cast led by the human dynamo that is Gemma Arterton. I was particularly taken by Michelle Dotrice as the wardrobe mistress Nancy. I well remember seeing Roy Dotrice perform at the Nottingham Playhouse when I was a youth, and Michelle has inherited all his scene-stealing comic genius.

And of course, the music was also excellent. The five-piece band played in a gallery high above the stage, as they would have done in Restoration theatre, on guitar, fiddle, recorders, shawms, curtal and percussion. For the big song and dance numbers, they came to a central gallery as part of the performance. From her restricted view, Emily Baines, another Blondel member, directed her band with aplomb, and despite being above and behind the cast, supported the action faultlessly.

We found out afterwards that the Prince of Wales was in the audience in addition to ourselves, and Lizzie said he appeared to be enjoying the performance.

On Tuesday we met up with Lizzie in Greenwich to visit the Pepys exhibition at the Maritime museum. First, though, we went to Greenwich Market where Jayne and Lizzie discovered a clothing shop. They both tried several items, and Jayne came away with a hat and a handbag.

Progress was delayed for a while as Lizzie negotiated by phone with Radio 3 about Blondel’s performance for “In Tune” on Friday. After that, pie and Mash for lunch seemed the only sensible option, although none of us felt inclined to go as far as trying the eels.

The exhibition was interesting, with portraits of most of the characters portrayed in the previous night’s performance, and a particularly fine 17th century guitar and theorbo; also a tiny flageolet. Pepys always carried one in his pocket and liked to test the acoustic of rooms by playing on it whenever the opportunity arose. I have the complete Pepys Diary, which I have read several times, and feel I know Pepys as a friend.

On the way back through the market, Jayne was drawn inevitably back into the clothes shop, to the obvious delight of the shop assistant, and left this time with a rather splendid matching coat and hat. After a cream tea At Waterstones, we headed back to our B & B in Belgravia, parting with Lizzie at Canary Wharf.

By this time, I was beginning to wonder if London Underground might be a con – I’m sure we walked far enough through tunnels, up and down flights of stairs and escalators over the last two days to equal doing all our journeys on foot. My opinion was not improved by seeing the front page headline of the London Evening Standard being read by the passenger opposite: “Transport for London advises customers: avoid Victoria during the rush hour, as it gets very busy”. Who would have thought?

We had originally planned our trip to include a visit to Westminster, as I have never been inside Westminster Hall, which has the finest surviving hammer-beam roof in the world, nor Westminster Abbey. However, Jayne’s investigations revealed that neither building was open to the public when we wanted to visit, so instead, she spent Tuesday evening making a list of places we might like to visit, which resulted in us choosing the area around Fleet Street and a visit to the Tower for our touristing.

This sort of exploration really brings home to you how much of London was destroyed in the Great Fire and in the Blitz. We started with the Staple Inn, which has a very impressive vast timbered frontage - a nineteenth century copy of the original. The rest of the building is mostly 20th century.

From there, having examined some quite stunning Victorian red-brick and tiled gothic buildings, such as the old Prudential buildings at 138 – 142 Holborn, and several churches, we went up Fleet Street past the Old Cheshire Cheese Inn where Pepys often drank (in the early days of the diary, he frequently drank a pint of Rhenish wine to break his fast, on his way to Whitehall on business, but eventually found that the habit left him too soporific for work!)

We were particularly interested in seeing Prince Henry’s Room, at 17 Fleet Street – another building where Pepys drank. We found the building – a very rare survival of pre-Great Fire architecture – and read the little sign on the wall which simply said “Prince Henry’s Room”, but could find nothing about how to visit it (It has a particularly fine Jacobean ceiling, apparently). In the end, we entered the pen shop which occupies the ground floor, and the charming oriental lady there told us that the room was no longer open to the public.

We visited the church behind the building, but that was locked, and it started to rain. Feeling somewhat dispirited, we began to make our way back towards the Old Cheshire Cheese with a view to lunch, but then spotted a sign saying “Dr Johnson’s House”, pointing up a side alley.

And there it was, tucked away in a peaceful little square. It felt very homely. There were pictures and, of course, books, and a brick from the Great Wall of China. The first floor was one large room, which had two hinged partitions that could be swung across to make it two or three rooms as desired.

And so to The Old Cheshire Cheese, which proved to be quite unspoilt, with friendly, helpful staff, and a minimalist scattering of sawdust on the floor. We dined on steak and ale pie (Jayne) and steak and kidney pudding (me), washed down with 7% proof Imperial Stout (Jayne) and a pint of bitter (me). The ground floor has a Gentlemen Only bar and a chop room at the front, and a pub grub bar at the back. There are three floors of private dining rooms above, and two stories of cellars used as bars below.

Fortified and with our spirits restored, we set off past St Pauls and caught the tube to the Tower. First we went round All Hallows church, including the museum in the crypt, and then up Seething Lane where Pepys lived at the Navy Office to his “own church”, St Olave’s, where we found the 19th century memorial to Pepys, and the original 17th century memorial to his “poor wretch”, as he fondly called his wife, Elizabeth, who died of a fever after a continental holiday at the age of 29.

Pepys had a gallery built on the south side of the church, using Navy carpenters and timber from the shipyards, so that the Navy Office staff didn’t have to mix with the public. This has been removed, but the external door to it is marked with a notice.

And so to the Tower. I have a very dim memory of visiting it as a small boy, and gazing up at Henry VIII’s armour with its ostentatious codpiece, but that is all. This time, we started with the Medieval Palace overlooking Traitor’s Gate and walked the walls, visiting almost all the towers on the way round. The graffiti left by prisoners on the tower walls, much of it of an incredibly high standard of carving (as Jayne says, with what tools precisely?) was very poignant. We saw the crown jewels and went up and down the White Tower. What with all that, and the stairs in the underground, I can’t begin to calculate how many steps we must have climbed. All our holidays recently seem to have involved climbing endless stairs!

We returned to our B & B, and at about 10pm, the staff apparently decided it was a good time to start renovating the room immediately above us. However, by then, I think we could have slept through anything, and next morning whilst waiting for the train back to King’s Lynn, we counted one railway policeman, one policewoman and four fully armed Metropolitan policemenon the station concourse. It wasn't very difficult - they were all standing in a huddle together laughing and joking.

© Chris Gutteridge 2016