Travels, chiefly on Foot, through several parts of England in 1782, described in Letters to a Friend/Chapter VII
London, 20th June, 1782.
At length my determination of going into the country takes effect; and I am to set off this very afternoon in a stage; so that I now write to you my last letter from London, I mean till I return from my pilgrimage, for as soon as ever I have got beyond the dangerous neighbourhood of London, I shall certainly no longer suffer myself to be cooped up in a post-coach, but take my staff and pursue my journey on foot. In the meantime, however, I will relate to you what I may either have forgotten to write before, or what I have seen worth notice within these few days last past; among which the foremost is
I must own that on my entrance into this massy building, an uncommon vacancy, which seemed to reign in it, rather damped than raised an impression of anything majestic in me. All around me I could see nothing but immense bare walls and pillars. Above me, at an astonishing height, was the vaulted stone roof; and beneath me a plain, flat even floor, paved with marble. No altar was to be seen, or any other sign that this was a place where mankind assembled to adore the Almighty. For the church itself, or properly that part of it where they perform divine service, seems as it were a piece stuck on or added to the main edifice, and is separated from the large round empty space by an iron gate, or door. Did the great architects who adopted this style of building mean by this to say that such a temple is most proper for the adoration of the Almighty? If this was their aim, I can only say I admire the great temple of nature, the azure vaulted sky, and the green carpet with which the earth is spread. This is truly a large temple; but then there is in it no void, no spot unappropriated, or unfulfilled, but everywhere proofs in abundance of the presence of the Almighty. If, however, mankind, in their honest ambition to worship the great God of nature, in a style not wholly unsuitable to the great object of their reverence, and in their humble efforts at magnificence, aim in some degree to rival the magnificence of nature, particular pains should be taken to hit on something that might atone for the unavoidable loss of the animation and ampleness of nature; something in short that should clearly indicate the true and appropriated design and purpose of such a building. If, on the other hand, I could be contented to consider St. Paul's merely as a work of art, built as if merely to show the amazing extent of human powers, I should certainly gaze at it with admiration and astonishment, but then I wish rather to contemplate it with awe and veneration. But, I perceive, I am wandering out of my way. St. Paul's is here, as it is, a noble pile, and not unworthy of this great nation. And even if I were sure that I could, you would hardly thank me for showing you how it might have been still more worthy of this intelligent people. I make a conscience however of telling you always, with fidelity, what impression everything I see or hear makes on me at the time. For a small sum of money I was conducted all over the church by a man whose office it seemed to be, and he repeated to me, I dare say, exactly his lesson, which no doubt he has perfectly got by rote: of how many feet long and broad it was; how many years it was in building, and in what year built. Much of this rigmarole story, which, like a parrot, he repeated mechanically, I could willingly have dispensed with. In the part that was separated from the rest by the iron gate above mentioned, was what I call the church itself; furnished with benches, pews, pulpit, and an altar; and on each side seats for the choristers, as there are in our cathedrals. This church seemed to have been built purposely in such a way, that the bishop, or dean, or dignitary, who should preach there, might not be obliged to strain his voice too much. I was now conducted to that part which is called the whispering gallery, which is a circumference of prodigious extent, just below the cupola. Here I was directed to place myself in a part of it directly opposite to my conductor, on the other side of the gallery, so that we had the whole breadth of the church between us, and here as I stood, he, knowing his cue no doubt, flung to the door with all his force, which gave a sound that I could compare to nothing less than a peal of thunder. I was next desired to apply my ear to the wall, which, when I did, I heard the words of my conductor: "Can you hear me?" which he softly whispered quite on the other side, as plain and as loud as one commonly speaks to a deaf person. This scheme to condense and invigorate sound at so great a distance is really wonderful. I once noticed some sound of the same sort in the senatorial cellar at Bremen; but neither that, nor I believe any other in the world, can pretend to come in competition with this.
I now ascended several steps to the great gallery, which runs on the outside of the great dome, and here I remained nearly two hours, as I could hardly, in less time, satisfy myself with the prospect of the various interesting objects that lay all round me, and which can no where be better seen, than from hence.
Every view, and every object I studied attentively, by viewing them again and again on every side, for I was anxious to make a lasting impression of it on my imagination.
Below me lay steeples, houses, and palaces in countless numbers; the squares with their grass plots in their middle that lay agreeably dispersed and intermixed, with all the huge clusters of buildings, forming meanwhile a pleasing contrast, and a relief to the jaded eye.
At one end rose the Tower--itself a city--with a wood of masts behind it; and at the other Westminster Abbey with its steeples. There I beheld, clad in smiles, those beautiful green hills that skirt the environs of Paddington and Islington; here, on the opposite bank of the Thames, lay Southwark; the city itself it seems to be impossible for any eye to take in entirely, for with all my pains I found it impossible to ascertain either where it ended, or where the circumjacent villages began; far as the eye could reach, it seemed to be all one continued chain of buildings.
I well remember how large I thought Berlin when first I saw it from the steeple of St. Mary, and from the Temple Yard Hills, but how did it now sink and fall in my imagination, when I compared it with London!
It is, however, idle and vain to attempt giving you in words, any description, however faint and imperfect, of such a prospect as I have just been viewing. He who wishes at one view to see a world in miniature, must come to the dome of St Paul's.
The roof of St. Paul's itself with its two lesser steeples lay below me, and as I fancied, looked something like the background of a small ridge of hills, which you look down upon when you have attained the summit of some huge rock or mountain. I should gladly have remained here sometime longer, but a gust of wind, which in this situation was so powerful that it was hardly possible to withstand it, drove me down.
Notwithstanding that St. Paul's is itself very high, the elevation of the ground on which it stands contributes greatly to its elevation.
The church of St. Peter at Berlin, notwithstanding the total difference between them in the style of building, appears in some respects to have a great resemblance to St. Paul's in London. At least its large high black roof rises above the other surrounding buildings just as St. Paul's does.
What else I saw in this stately cathedral was only a wooden model of this very edifice, which was made before the church was built, and which suggests some not unpleasing reflections when one compares it with the enormous building itself.
The churchyard is enclosed with an iron rail, and it appears a considerable distance if you go all round.
Owing to some cause or other, the site of St. Paul's strikes you as being confined, and it is certain that this beautiful church is on every side closely surrounded by houses.
A marble statue of Queen Anne in an enclosed piece of ground in the west front of the church is something of an ornament to that side.
The size of the bell of St. Paul's is also worthy of notice, as it is reckoned one of those that are deemed the largest in Europe. It takes its place, they say, next to that at Vienna.
Everything that I saw in St. Paul's cost me only a little more than a shilling, which I paid in pence and halfpence, according to a regulated price, fixed for every different curiosity.
On a very gloomy dismal day, just such a one as it ought to be, I went to see Westminster Abbey.
I entered at a small door, which brought me immediately to the poets' corner, where the monuments and busts of the principal poets, artists, generals, and great men, are placed.
Not far from the door, immediately on my entrance, I perceived the statue of Shakespeare, as large as life; with a band, &c., in the dress usual in his time.
A passage out of one of Shakespeare's own plays (the Tempest), in which he describes in the most solemn and affecting manner, the end, or the dissolution of all things, is here, with great propriety, put up as his epitaph; as though none but Shakespeare could do justice to Shakespeare.
Not far from this immortal bard is Rowe's monument, which, as it is intimated in the few lines that are inscribed as his epitaph, he himself had desired to be placed there.
At no great distance I saw the bust of that amiable writer, Goldsmith: to whom, as well as to Butler, whose monument is in a distant part of the abbey, though they had scarcely necessary bread to eat during their life time, handsome monuments are now raised. Here, too you see, almost in a row, the monuments of Milton, Dryden, Gay, and Thomson. The inscription on Gay's tombstone is, if not actually immoral, yet futile and weak; though he is said to have written it himself:
"Life is a jest, and all things shew it,
'I thought so once but now I know it."
Our Handel has also a monument here, where he is represented as large as life.
An actress, Pritchard, and Booth, an actor, have also very distinguished monuments erected here to their memories.
For Newton, as was proper, there is a very costly one. It is above, at the entrance of the choir, and exactly opposite to this, at the end of the church, another is erected, which refers you to the former.
As I passed along the side walls of Westminster Abbey, I hardly saw any thing but marble monuments of great admirals, but which were all too much loaded with finery and ornaments, to make on me at least, the intended impression.
I always returned with most pleasure to the poets' corner, where the most sensible, most able, and most learned men, of the different ages, were re-assembled; and particularly where the elegant simplicity of the monuments made an elevated and affecting impression on the mind, while a perfect recollection of some favourite passage, of a Shakespeare, or Milton, recurred to my idea, and seemed for a moment to re-animate and bring back the spirits of those truly great men.
Of Addison and Pope I have found no monuments here. The vaults where the kings are buried, and some other things worth notice in the abbey, I have not yet seen; but perhaps I may at my return to London from the country.
I have made every necessary preparation for this journey: In the first place, I have an accurate map of England in my pocket; besides an excellent book of the roads, which Mr. Pointer, the English merchant to whom I am recommended, has lent me. The title is "A new and accurate description of all the direct and principal cross roads in Great Britain." This book, I hope, will be of great service to me in my ramblings.
I was for a long time undecided which way I should go, whether to the Isle of Wight, to Portsmouth, or to Derbyshire, which is famous for its natural curiosities, and also for its romantic situation. At length I have determined on Derbyshire.
During my absence I leave my trunk at Mr. Mulhausen's (one of Mr. Pointer's senior partners), that I may not be at the needless expense of paying for my lodging without making use of it. This Mr. Pointer lived long in Germany, and is politely partial to us and our language, and speaks it well. He is a well-bred and singularly obliging man; and one who possesses a vast fund of information, and a good taste. I cannot but feel myself happy in having obtained a recommendation to so accomplished a man. I got it from Messrs. Persent and Dorner, to whom I had the honour to be recommended by Mr. Von Taubenheim, Privy Counsellor at Berlin. These recommendations have been of infinite use to me.
I propose to go to-day as far as Richmond; for which place a stage sets out about two o'clock from some inn, not far from the new church in the Strand. Four guineas, some linen, my English book of the roads, and a map and pocket-book, together with Milton's Paradise Lost, which I must put in my pocket, compose the whole of my equipage; and I hope to walk very lightly with it. But it now strikes half-past one, and of course it is time for me to be at the stage. Farewell! I will write to you again from Richmond.