Times of Peace

Times of Peace

In the late 1670s John Aubrey wrote of a village once known as Ebbesham, ‘It is celebrated for the Medicated Spring there; which was first discovered about 1639 or 1640, by some Labourers accidently drinking there. In the year 1654, or 1655, I was there, and drank of them. I experimented it only by Evaporation, and it yielded (from about a Gallon) a Sediment of flakey Stuff, of the Colour of Bay-Salt, in loose Flakes, as much as fill’d a Tobacco-Box… It purgeth very well’. The name of Ebbesham became corrupted to Epsom and what Aubrey was writing about was, of course, the famous source of Epsom salts.

With the restoration of King Charles II, Epsom developed into a famous spa, where all those of fashion journeyed to take the waters, which Aubrey described as tasting bitter ‘. . . together with a maukish Saltiness’. At Epsom facilities for visitors were developed which were far superior at the time to those to be found at the rival spas of Tunbridge Wells and Bath. There were fine inns and places of entertainment, assembly rooms, bowling greens and cock pits. Epsom could also claim the invigorating properties of its clean air, with the added attraction of horse racing on the chalk downs to the south.

Samuel Pepys came to Epsom in July 1663 and found the place so crowded that he had to go as far as Ashtead to find some lodgings. When he went to the well the following day he found ‘a great store of citizens there though some of better quality’. Pepys drank two pots of the water, noting the instant effect and ‘how everybody turns up his tail . . . in a bush’. He returned exactly four years later with his wife and her friend and wrote in his diary, ‘A very fine day, and so towards Epsum, talking all the way pleasantly. . . The country very fine, only the way very dusty. We got to Epsum by eight o’clock, to the well; where much company, and there we ‘light, and I drank the water: they did not . . . I did drink four pints, and had some very good stools by it.’ Epsom was full of people he knew – ‘Here I met with divers of our town’, and at dinner in the King’s Head he noted that’.., my Lord Backhurst and Nelly [Gwynn] are lodged at the next house, and Sir Charles Sidley.’

The original discovery of the water had been made on Epsom Common to the south-west of what was then just a village, but the supply of water from it often proved insufficient to meet demand. Eventually, during the 1690s, a second source was discovered, conveniently situated adjacent to the town. This new well was promoted by an entrepreneurial apothecary named Livingstone. He soon began to develop the area around the new well by building gaming rooms, a dance hail, shops and a bowling green. Livingstone understood the power of advertising, and in 1707 the following appeared in the Daily Courant:

‘The new Wells at Epsom, with variety of Rafting-Shops will be open’d on Easter Monday next. There are Shops now to be let at the said Wells for a Bookseller, Pictures, Haberdasher of Hats, Shoornaker, Fishmonger and Butcher, with Conveniences for several other Trades. It is design’d that a very good Consort of Musick shall attend and play there Morning and Evening during the Season and nothing will be demanded for the Waters drank there.’

‘Rafting-Shops’ were the gaming rooms, especially for games with dice. The business acumen of Mr Livingstone is obvious from this advertisement – he aimed to attract customers by allowing them to take the waters free, but he made his money from the shops’ rents and the gaming rooms. When Celia Fiennes travelled to Epsom in the late 1690s she visited the original well and described the wellhouse as ‘… so dark and unpleasant, more like a dungeon that I would not chuse to drinke in there’. She came again in about 1712 and found arrangements considerably improved, ‘. . . and now the Wells are built about and a large light roorne to walk in brick’d, and a pump put on the Well, a coffee house and two roomes for gameing, and shops for sweetmeates and fruite’.

Livingstone died in 1727 and his death marked the beginning of the rapid decline of the Epsom wells. Facilities at Bath and Tunbridge Wells were now better than at Epsom and there was further competition from a number of new spas and wells. Also the volume of water available from the Epsom wells was limited. As Celia Fiennes noted, ‘its not a quick spring and very often is dranke drye, and to make up the defficiency the people do often carry water from common wells to fill this in a morning (this they have been found out in) which makes the water weake and of little opperation unless you can have it first from the well before they can have put in any other’. Chemists had also been eagerly at work analysing the chemical content of Epsom water. Magnesium sulphate or ‘Epsom Salts’ was now readily manufactured and sold at any apothecary’s shop.

Samuel Pcpvs dined at the King’s Head, Epsom, when visiting the famous wells in 1667. This photograph dates from 1910 but the building has since been demolished.

Samuel Pepys recorded not just trips to Epsom in his famous diary. In his official capacity as Secretary to the Admiralty, he often travelled along the road to Portsmouth, staying at several of Surrey’s famous inns which had sprung up along the route. For all the towns and villages on this famous road, catering for the thirst and hunger of its weary travellers was a lucrative source of income. Thus there were important inns in Kingston, at Esher, Ripley, Guildford and Godalming. The last two towns were situated conveniently near the halfway point of the journey and competition for customers between them was often fierce.

In early August 1668 Pepys made ajourney from London to Peters-field, in Hampshire, for a meeting with Admiral Sir Thomas Allen, John Tippetts, Commissioner of the Navy, and Colonel Fitzgerald. The course and condition of the road was such that a guide was needed for some parts of the journey and ‘around Cobham’ his coach got lost for ‘three or four mile’. At Guildford his party, which included his wife and her maid, dined and there Pepys ‘shewed them the hospitall there of Bishop Abbot’s, and his tomb in the church, which, and the rest of the tombs there, are kept mighty clean and neat, with curtains before them.’ The most difficult and potentially dangerous part of the journey was the long grind from Thursley and up over Hind Common above the Devil’s Punchbowl. Here highwaymen and footpads often took advantage of this isolated spot and there is a hint of fear in Pepys’ diary when he says, ‘. . . got to Lippock, late over Hindhead, having an old man, a guide, in the coach with us; but got thither with great fear of being out of our way, it being ten at night.’

On the return journey from his meeting, Pepys came to Guildford for the night, where he found ‘.. . the Red Lyon SO full of people, and a wedding, that the master of the house did get us a lodging over the way, at a private house, his landlord’s, mighty neat and fine; and there supped and talked with the landlord and his wife; and so to bed with great content’. The Red Lion Inn in the High Street was one of the town’s famous inns, which also included the White Hart, the White Lion and the Angel. Of these, only the Angel survives to this day, although the much vandalised building which was once the Red Lion still stands on the corner of Market Street.

In 1698 the King’s Arms at Godalming accommodated its most famous visitors – Tsar Peter the Great of Russia and his entourage, who were returning from Portsmouth where they had been to watch ships of the English navy on manoeuvres. Landlord James Moon soon came to regret the Russians’ choice of lodgings, as they proceeded to consume vast quantities of food and drink with little obvious sign of payment. A contemporary list of the contents of the Russians’ gastronomic orgy is preserved in the Bodleian Library at Oxford. The Russians ate at breakfast half a sheep, ten pullets, twelve chickens, seven dozen eggs, washed down with three quarts of brandy and six quarts of mulled wine. At dinner they are said to have eaten five ribs of beef, one sheep, three quarters of lamb, one shoulder of boiled veal, eight pullets, eight rabbits and drunk thirty bottles of sack and twelve bottles of claret. To the relief of all in Godalming, they soon departed to the London house of John Evelyn, a diarist as famous as Pepys, at Deptford, where they stayed three months. Evelyn recorded that their riotous behaviour at Deptford caused £150 worth of damage to the house and its garden. But he left any personal comments about them to his bailiff, who described them succinctly as ‘right nasty’.

John Evelyn was a man of remarkable talents, who was born at Wotton near Dorking in 1620. His grandfather had made the family fortune by obtaining the monopoly for the manufacture of gunpowder in 1589. John Evelyn’s vast diary is in part a memoir, but he started compiling it when he was eight. It covers a long period when England was transformed from a comparatively minor but enterprising nation into a major power on the verge of building a great empire. It was thinking men like Evelyn who made a major contribution to this change, especially in the arts.

John Evelyn’s interests were as catholic as his Christianity was not and throughout his life he held to a pious Protestantism. It is probably not surprising, therefore, that his diary lacks the ‘earthiness’ of Samuel Pepys. Whilst Pepys recorded the everyday incidents of life with wit and humanity, Evelyn was apt to go home and criticize. At Charles II’s court there was a great deal of gambling, which was one of the king’s favourite pastimes. Pepys carefully observed the effects on his fellow man of the turn of the dice, commenting, ‘And mighty glad I am that I did see it . . . which did give me another pretty observation of a man’. Meanwhile, a shocked Evelyn wrote of seeing ‘. . . deepe and prodigious gaming . . . vast heaps of Gold squandered away in a vaine and profuse manner. This I looked on as an horrid vice, and unsuitable to a Christian Court.’ Evelyn and Pepys were well acquainted with each other and sometimes dined together – the most unusual occasion being in the Tower of London in 1679, where Pepys had been temporarily incarcerated for alleged ‘misdemeanours in the Admiralty’.

Much of Evelyn’s early life was divided between Wotton and Lewes in Sussex, where he was educated. He then went up to Oxford University and in 1641 he made a tour of Holland and the Spanish Netherlands to broaden his education. During the Civil War, as a supporter of the king, he saw the wisdom of further foreign travel during the worst times, thereby keeping out of trouble and preserving the family’s extensive estates in Surrey. In this diary he recorded many details of what he saw on his journeys in Holland, France, Italy and Switzerland. Already he was particularly interested in architecture and gardens, especially trees and landscaping.

In Paris he visited the Tuileries and Fontainebleau and became a friend of Sir Richard Browne, the royal ambassador, and his circle of Royalist exiles. He made careful note of the orchards of Normandy and the chateau at Chambord in the Loire valley, which he was ‘desirous of seeing’ because of the ‘extravagance of the designe, especially the Stayre-Case mention’d by the Architect Palladio’. In Italy he visited the famous tower at Pisa, commenting that ‘. . . the beholder would expect every moment when it should fall; being built exceedingly declining by a rare adresse of the imortal Architect: . . . how it is supported from immediately falling would puzzle a good Geometrician.’ In Rome he was much taken by the ‘sweete and delicious’ Tivoli Gardens. At Geneva Evelyn went down with smallpox and was kept’… in bed for 16 daies, tended by a vigilant Swisse Matron whose monstrous throat, when I sometimes awake’d . . . would affright me.’ Fortunately, he recovered and returned to Paris, where he married Sir Richard Browne’s daughter, Mary.

Evelyn returned to England in October 1647, leaving his young wife in France. She finally came to England to join her husband in 1652. Evelyn maintained secret contact with the exiles in France via letters addressed to Mr Peters, an alias for his father-in-law, using a secret code and signing the letters ‘Aphanos’. Evelyn was back in France in 1649, taking the distressing details of Charles I’s death to the exiled Queen Henrietta. He finally returned to England in early 1652 and was followed later in the year by his wife. During the years of the Commonwealth, he managed to maintain a low profile, whilst keeping in touch with the English court in France.

With the restoration of Charles II, it was not surprising that Evelyn should find himself a regular visitor to court, where his discussions with the king ranged over such diverse subjects as ships’ varnish and perpetual motion. It is said that Evelyn was offered a knighthood on three occasions but refused it each time. He now lived primarily at Sayes Court in Deptford, the house which was to suffer later at the hands of Tsar Peter and his friends. However, he made regular visits to Wotton, the home of his eldest brother, George, and to his brother Richard at Woodcote near Epsom.

In October 1664, during the war with the Dutch, Evelyn was appointed a Commissioner for the Wounded and Prisoners of War. When the plague struck London in the summer of 1665, his work as Commissioner kept him some of the time in London and thus in grave danger. On 28th August he recorded, ‘The Contagion growing now all about us, I sent my Wife and whole family (two or three of my necessary servants excepted) to Wotton to my Brothers, being resolved to stay at my house my selfe, and to look after my Charge, trusting in providence and goodnesse of God.’ Providence and God succeeded, for Evelyn survived whilst thousands around him perished. There was a danger that the disease would be carried down the main routes out of London and thus into Surrey. In the 1640s there had been several serious outbreaks of the plague in Surrey towns, when Parliamentary troops were billeted throughout much of the county. But in 1665 the disease confined its worst to the capital and, in the isolation of Wotton, Evelyn’s family were also spared.

In January 1661, John Evelyn had been made a Fellow of the new ‘Philosophic Society’, later to become the Royal Society. He had already written or translated a number of works, but in 1664 the book which brought greatest recognition in his lifetime, Sylva, or a Discourse of Forest Trees in His Majestie’s Dominions, was published. Evelyn was putting down on paper much of what he had practised at Wotton, influenced by what he had seen during his Continental tour, particularly in Italy. The entry in his diary for 22nd February 1652 records a visit with George to Wotton ‘to give him what directions I was able about his Garden, which he was now desirous to put into some forme: but for which he was to remove a mountaine’.

The result of this ‘mountain moving’ was an artificial tree-covered terraced hill above a mock Roman temple, a fountain supplied by an aqueduct from the nearby river Tillingbourne and a long avenue of chestnut trees. Later generations of the Evelyn family have altered the house beyond John Evelyn’s recognition but his garden remains relatively intact. Also surviving is the garden the Evelyns designed at Albury Park, a few miles down the Tillingbourne valley from Wotton. Here a series of terraces were constructed along the side of a hill, with a large cavern in imitation of a Roman bath beneath the main terrace. A tunnel was also dug right through the hill, emerging in front of a fountain fed by an elaborate watercourse and conduit, which brought water round the side of the hill from a source at the foot of the chalk downs. This element of the Evelyns’ garden has recently been restored.

During the 19th century the Evelyn family had a penchant for exotic pets, keeping terrapins at Wotton in a grandly built ‘tortoise house’ with an Ionic portico. Their famous ancestor, John Evelyn, had also shown a great interest in unusual animals, carefully recording his observations in his diary. Whilst at Rotterdam in 1641, he had seen his first elephant and noted ‘that I did never wonder at any thing more’. Over 200 years later, the family menagerie included kangaroos, but some of these escaped and for many years lived and bred in the wild around Leith Hill. John Evelyn would, no doubt, have been as impressed with them as he was when he saw that first elephant in Rotterdam.