Travel: Peter, the great yob of London

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The Independent Travel
IT IS a long mental leap from Says Court Recreation Ground in Deptford to the Winter Palace in St Petersburg, but the origins of Russia's finest city can be traced to this corner of south-east London. Early in his reign, Peter the Great toured western Europe to study the techniques that would enable him to modernise the then-primitive Russian empire. He came to the Thames at the tail end of the 17th century to learn maritime technology. Peter chose to live in Deptford because its craftsmen were accomplished shipbuilders, and the Royal Observatory at Greenwich - at the cutting edge of navigational research - was only a mile away.

John Evelyn, a friend of Samuel Pepys and an equally assiduous diarist, had a home in Deptford. On 6 February 1698, he reports: 'The Czar Emperor of Muscovy, having a mind to see the Building of Ships, hired my house at Says Court & made it his Court & palace.'

Peter was not a great tenant. Like a boisterous rock band on tour, he and his entourage were complete yobs. Evelyn's housekeeper wrote to complain of 'a house full of people right nasty. The Czar lies next your library, and . . . is very seldom at home a whole night'. Peter and his pals used portraits for target practice, and the Czar's greatest pleasure was to be pushed in a wheelbarrow through the garden hedge - conduct unbecoming of the ruler of an empire.

The landlord's relief on 21 April 1698 is evident: 'The Czar of Muscovy went from my house towards Russia . . . Exceeding unseasonable cold weather . . . Small pox very much reigning.'

Evelyn called in His Majesty's Surveyor, Sir Christopher Wren, 'to view how miserably the Czar of Muscovy had left my house'. Wren's account of 'Goods that is Lost, Broake, and damage done to them' includes '3 wheelbarrows broke and Lost', 'Eight Fether beds, eight bolsters, twelve pair of blanketts very much dirtyed and spoyled'. The total damage was estimated at pounds 250 9s 6d.

Between bouts of brutishness, Peter managed to pick up enough skills to build and defend St Petersburg. And though Says Court is now a recreation ground, next to the John Evelyn pub is Czar Street, SE8.

(Photograph omitted)

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