Falling between stools: or, Samuel Pepys goes to Epsom

by Nick

On a good day it takes me an hour to get from Whitehall (where I work) to Epsom (where I live). On a good day 350 years ago, it could take Samuel Pepys up to three hours to make the same journey. Despite the distance,  it was a trip that Pepys made a number of times during the period in which he wrote his diaries. Childhood memories were a significant part of what drew him there, but the pleasures to be had at Epsom’s wells and in the pleasant surroundings of the Downs were also balanced by more bodily concerns.

On 25 July 1663, for example, Pepys and his manservant Will Hewer had made plans to see a horse race on Banstead Downs. However, the race was cancelled so they decided to divert a few miles west to Epsom instead. Once there, Pepys fell to thinking about his childhood visits to Epsom and the neighbouring village of Ashtead:

While supper was getting ready I took him to walk up and down behind my cozen Pepys’s house that was, which I find comes little short of what I took it to be when I was a little boy, as things use commonly to appear greater than then when one comes to be a man and knows more, and so up and down in the closes, which I know so well methinks, and account it good fortune that I lie here that I may have opportunity to renew my old walks.

This was the house of John Pepys, a distant cousin, in the neighbouring village of Ashtead. Which house it was is not quite clear. There is a sixteenth century house in Ashtead called Pepys Cottage, but it appears to have no proven connection with the family:

If it was this cottage, or one like it, you can see the extent to which Pepys’s childhood memory about its size may have played tricks on him. By 1663, John Pepys was dead and the house had been sold to Lewis Rouse, the queen’s tailor, so Sam was forced to stay in alternative, even smaller accommodation:

Coming toward Epsom, where, when we came, we could hear of no lodging, the town so full; but which was better, I went towards Ashtead, my old place of pleasure; and there by direction of one goodman Arthur, whom we met on the way, we went to Farmer Page’s, at which direction he and I made good sport, and there we got a lodging in a little hole we could not stand upright in, but rather than go further to look we staid there.

Farmer Page was William Page and the lodgings he offered Pepys were at Park Farm House. Rebuilt in the 1730s after a fire, it is now a rather beautiful building in red brick that gives little indication of the “little hole” Pepys and Hewer settled for:

Pepys and Hewer got up the next morning and headed across Epsom Common to the town’s wells, where:

We drank each of us two pots and so walked away, it being very pleasant to see how everybody turns up his tail, here one and there another, in a bush, and the women in their quarters the like.

They then walked up to Woodcote Park, which Pepys had previously known as the seat of George Mynne but which had passed in 1663, the year of Pepys’s visit, through Mynne’s grand-daughters to Richard Evelyn. Late in the 1670s Evelyn commenced the building of a new mansion there. This was extensively remodelled in the late eighteenth century, but a description from 1712 survives that gives some idea of what is might have been like:

Encompassed with a wall at the entrance, a breast wall with pallisadoes, large courts one within the other, and a back way to the stables where there is a pretty horse pond; the house is old but low, though large run over much ground; as I drove by the side saw broad chimneys on the end and at due distance on the side on both ends the sides of a court which terminated in a building on which there is a lead with railes and barristers.

From there, they went up to Durdans, a country house owned by Lord Berkeley. A painting by Jacob Knyff of 1673 shows how extensive the house was at that point:

From there, Pepys amd Hewer went up to the woods around the Mynne estate. As so often with Pepys, however, there was an ulterior motive to wanting to revisit the woods:

And so up and down by Minnes’s wood, with great pleasure viewing my old walks, and where Mrs Hely and I did use to walk and talk, with whom I had the first sentiments of love and pleasure in woman’s company, discourse, and taking her by the hand, she being a pretty woman.

The identity of the enigmatic Mrs Hely remains unknown, so sadly the question of whether she played a seventeenth-century Anne Bancroft to Pepys’s Dustin Hoffman must remain unanswered for now. The Companion to the diaries speculates that she may have been a servant, but whoever she was she clearly left an impression on Pepys.

In August 1667, on another trip to Epsom, Pepys discovered a further benefit of country walks with female companions:

I, by leaping down the little bank, coming out of the wood, did sprain my right foot, which brought me great present pain, but presently, with walking, it went away for the present… Anon it grew dark, and as it grew dark we had the pleasure to see several glow-wormes, which was mighty pretty, but my foot begins more and more to pain me, which Mrs. Turner, by keeping her warm hand upon it, did much ease.

Walks were not just about snatched opportunities for romance, though. Earlier on his walk, Pepys had a much more picturesque encounter:

Hewer and I walked upon the Downes, where a flock of sheep was; and the most pleasant and innocent sight that ever I saw in my life — we find a shepherd and his little boy reading, far from any houses or sight of people, the Bible to him; so I made the boy read to me, which he did, with the forced tone that children do usually read, that was mighty pretty.

He also learned about how the inhabitants of Epsom protected their feet against stones:

We took notice of his woolen knit stockings of two colours mixed, and of his shoes shod with iron shoes, both at the toe and heels, and with great nails in the soles of his feet, which was mighty pretty: and, taking notice of them, “Why,” says the poor man, “the downes, you see, are full of stones, and we are faine to shoe ourselves thus; and these,” says he, “will make the stones fly till they sing before me.”

The walk ended up turning into something like a cross between One Man and His Dog and Gardener’s World:

He values his dog mightily, that would turn a sheep any way which he would have him, when he goes to fold them: told me there was about eighteen scoare sheep in his flock, and that he hath four shillings a week the year round for keeping of them: so we posted thence with mighty pleasure in the discourse we had with this poor man, and Mrs. Turner, in the common fields here, did gather one of the prettiest nosegays that ever I saw in my life.

As with his last visit, Pepys still found problems with his accommodation:

We took coach again and to the towne, to the King’s Head, where our coachman carried us, and there had an ill room for us to go into, but the best in the house that was not taken up.

There is still a pub called Ye Olde King’s Head in Epsom today, whose timber-clad building must date back to around the seventeenth century:

If this is the same place, then the house next door also has a claim to fame, as Pepys soon discovered:

Here we called for drink, and bespoke dinner; and hear that my Lord Brockhurst and Nell Gwynn are lodged at the next house, and Sir Charles Sidly with them and keep a merry house. Poor girl! I pity her; but more the loss of her at the King’s house.

Besides glow-worm lit walks, Epsom’s other attraction was its medicinal waters. Pepys derived a very particular benefit from drinking them:

We got to Epsom by eight o’clock, to the well; where much company, and there we ‘light, and I drank the water: they did not, but do go about and walk a little among the women, but I did drink four pints, and had some very good stools by it.

Pepys’s lavatorial footnote here is pretty characteristic. His obsession with the movements of his and others’ bowels is something that doesn’t really come through if you just read the condensed edition of the diaries, or particularly if you read the censored Victorian edition. Given Pepys’s eye for the ladies, it is perhaps not surprising that stories about women shitting themselves were a particular favorite:

22 June 1660. Among other things, [Mrs. Turner] told me for certain how my old Lady Middlesex beshit herself the other day in the presence of the King, and people took notice of it.

22 April 1662. [Dr Clerke], among [other] good Storys, telling us a story of the monkey that got hold of the young lady’s cunt as she went to stool to shit, and run from under her coats and got upon the table, which was ready laid for supper and dancing was done. Another about a Hectors crying “God damn you, rascal!”.

Pepys’s dreams about piss and shit are particularly surreal:

28 May 1660. This night I had a strange dream of bepissing myself, which I really did; and having kicked the clothes off, I got cold and found myself all muck-wet in the morning and had a great deal of pain in making water, which made me very melancholy.

29 June 1667. Then I dreamed that I had great pain of the stone in making water, and that once I looked upon my yard [ ie penis ] in making water at the steps before my door, and there took hold of the end of a thing and pulled it out, and it was a turd; and it came into my mind that I was in the same condition with my aunt Pepys, my uncle Roberts wife. And by and by, on the like occasion, I pulled out something and flung it on the ground — it looked like slime or snot, and presently it swelled and turned into a gray kind of Bird, and I would have taken it into my hand and it run from me to the corner of the door, going into the garden in the entry by Sir J. Mennes’s; and so I waked.

Luckily for Pepys his visits to Epsom did not coincide with any bad dreams. However, he didn’t have the most comfortable night after spraining his ankle:

I was not able to walk from the lane’s end to my house without being helped, which did trouble me, and therefore to bed presently, but, thanks be to God, found that I had not been missed, nor any business happened in my absence. So to bed, and there had a cerecloth laid to my foot and leg alone, but in great pain all night long.

As with most setbacks in Pepys’s life, though, tomorrow was a new day and by daybreak he was hobbling around getting on with things. Within a few days everything was back to normal:

So after supper we all to bed, my foot very well again, I thank God.