Peter the Great was one of the great tsars of Russian history – modernising his country while employing brutal authoritarian methods of rule. He famously embarked on a tour of Europe to learn how countries like Britain and the Netherlands ran their affairs.
He even tried to go undercover, very unconvincingly, as a dockworker to find out how ships were made. It wasn’t difficult to identify him as the Tsar of Russia given his massive height for the time (about six feet eight) and having an entourage of up to 200 lackeys. So nobody down the docks was falling for his man of the people disguise.
While in England, he stayed at Deptford by the river Thames. The English king, William III, recommended he lodge at the rather impressive mansion of the diarist John Evelyn. That’s a forgotten name now but in the late 17th century he was as well known as Samuel Pepys as a chronicler of his times. And he owned a gorgeous property, Sayes Court, with a very decorative garden cultivated over a forty year period.
Evelyn agreed to put up Peter the Great and vacated the property so that the tsar could move in with his courtiers. It all seemed a very agreeable arrangement. But then, Evelyn’s servants began penning frantic messages to their absent master begging him to return. Because it seemed the tsar and his friends were a bunch of lunatics.
When the diarist returned to his property, it was a to a scene of mayhem. Paintings had been used for dartboard practice; the floors were coated in grease and ink; windows were smashed and worst of all, the garden had been totally trashed. Peter and his friends had developed some kind of game or sport that involved Peter sitting in a wheelbarrow while being driven at speed and force through flowerbeds and a very long, holly hedge. They had even demolished part of the garden wall!
Incredibly, the floors had to be replaced – along with the windows – and new furniture bought. The hell-raising monarch was given somewhere else to stay. And Evelyn successfully got a large dollop of compensation from the state to repair his beloved house and garden.
You can’t miss Trafalgar Square – in the very heart of London’s west end. But it’s a relatively new addition to the city and the area was once very different – quite seedy in fact. So here are a few things you may not know about Trafalgar Square:
Royal stables – the northern part of what is now Trafalgar Square were actually the royal stables, dating back to King Edward I. Basically, take as your starting point the National Gallery, tear it down in your mind and put up stables with horses and falcons instead. This kind of makes sense because the “Royal Mews” would have been in close proximity to the sprawling medieval palace of Whitehall nearby. The crown owned the land and so converting it to a public square was pretty straight forward.
A workhouse – it may seem incredible now but on the site of the National Portrait Gallery, just off the square, there was a large workhouse for the poor from the 17th century until 1871 when it was demolished to allow for an extension to the National Gallery. If you look at the map, you can see that the workhouse was just behind the gallery. It gained a dreadful reputation for overcrowding and insanitary conditions. Ventilation was very poor and there was an absence of toilets. A guide to London I have from 1804 states that people could pay to go and gawp at the inmates – rather tasteless!
Gordon of Khartoum – General Gordon was a hero to the Victorian public. He had earned a reputation for military valour fighting for the British Empire in China. And he was then sent to Sudan where a messianic figure nicknamed the “Mad Mahdi” was leading an uprising against colonial rule. Gordon overreached himself in trying to put dow the rebellion and was killed by rebels in the city of Khartoum. A statue of him was put up in Trafalgar Square in the 1880s but quietly removed to the Embankment in 1953.
St Martin’s in the Fields – an early 18th century church built by the architect James Gibbs. It pre-dates Trafalgar Square by over a hundred years. So when the Victorians started clearing away old buildings to create this huge public space, they considered removing the steps up to the church to make more room for traffic. It was even suggested that the pillared portico at the front of the church should be taken down and re-erected round the back!
“Bloody Sunday” – When you say Bloody Sunday now, people are more likely to think of events in Northern Ireland in the 1970s. But the original Bloody Sunday was a workers demonstration on 13 November, 1877 in Trafalgar Square that ended up as a running battle between the police and trade unionists, socialists and Fenians. I was in Trafalgar Square as a journalist in 1990 when the poll tax demonstration descended into violent rioting – a scene I shall never forget.