A German Traveller

A Prussian pastor called Carl Philip Moritz visited England in 1782, starting in London then going on a walking tour up to Derbyshire. His account, published as a series of letters as was the style at the time, is beautifully written and privides some lucid descriptions of life at the time.

He sailed up the Thames, glad and relieved to have arrived safely. The amount of river traffic meant that the ship would take several days to dock, so he joined several fellow passengers in going ashore just before Dartford, ten miles from the capital, and sharing a post chaise for the remaining distance.

” The shore where we disembarked was white and chalky. We had to get to Dartford on foot, first going up a fairly steep hill which brought us straight from the river to our first English village. With this I was pleasantly surprised – with the neatness of its domestic architecture, red brick walls and flat roofs – especially when I compared it with the huts of our Prussian peasantry.
So we trailed along from one village to another like a caravan, each of us with his staff. Several people meeting us stared as if surprised by our appearance and manner of progress. We went by a small wood where a group of gypsies had encamped round a fire under a tree. The countryside grew ever more beautiful as we went our solitary way. The earth is not the same everywhere. How different did I find these living hedges, the green of them and of the trees- this whole paradisiacal region – from ours and all others that I have seen! How incomparable the roads! How firm the pathway beneath me! With every step I took I was aware I trod on English ground!

We breakfasted in Dartford where I saw my first English soldier, in his red uniform, with his hair cut short behind and combed forward in a fringe on his forehead. Also, a couple of boys boxing in the street.

Then we separated so as to occupy two post-chaises- three of us in each, with a little inconvenience. To hire one costs a shilling a mile These vehicles may be compared with our Extraposten because they may be hired at any time, but a post-chaise is built in a pattern both trim and light, so that you are hardly aware of it as it rolls along the firm well-made road.It has windows in front and at both sides, the horses are good and the postillions always drive at full trot. Our postillion had short hair, a round hat, brown coat of fairly fine cloth and a bunch of flowers at his breast. Every now and then, when he was making good speed, he turned and smiled at us as if to invite our approval.

At this time, the gorgeous landscape, so delightful to my eyes, flew past with the speed of an arrow; up hill, down hill; into a wood, out of the wood – every few minutes; then another glint of the Thames with the masts of its ships and on again through fascinating towns and villages. I was much astonished at the great signboards hanging on beams across the street, from one house to another, at various spots. These somehow resembled town gates – which at first I took them to be – but this is not so; they do no more than indicate the entrance to an inn.

So, with one vision after another in such quick succession as to put the mind in a whirl, we arrived near to Greenwich, and to:

THE PROSPECT OF LONDON

It loomed out of a thick mist,; St Paul’s rearing above the multitude of smaller buildings like a huge mountain. The Monument – a tall, round column erected to commemorate the Great Fire of London – making a striking picture on account of its height and apparent slenderness.

As we drew nearer and nearer with ever greater speed the surrounding objects grew more distinct at every moment: Westminster Abbey, the Tower, a steeple of one church after another came into view. Soon we could distinguish the high round chimneys on the houses, which seemed to form an innumerable crowd of smaller steeples. The road from Greenwich to London was actually busier than the most popular streets in Berlin, so many people were to be encountered riding, driving or walking. Already we saw houses on all sides, and all along the road at suitable distances lamp-posts were provided. What struck me particularly was the number of people on horseback wearing spectacles – some of them apparently quite young. We stopped at least three times at turnpikes or barriers in order to pay toll, which in the end amounted to a few shillings, although the individual payments had been only in coppers.

Finally we arrived at the magnificent bridge of Westminster. To cross over this bridge is in itself like making a miniature journey, so varied are the sights. In contrast to the round, modern, majestic cathedral of St Paul’s, on the right there rises on the left the long medieval pile of Westminster Abbey with its enormous pointed roof. Down the Thames on the right can be seen Blackfriars Bridge, hardly less lovely than its neighbour upon which we ride. On the left bank of the Thames, beautified with trees, stand terraces, and among them the newly erected Adelphi Buildings. On the Thames itself pass forth and back a great swarm of little boats, each with a single mast and sail, in which people of all classes can be ferried across; and so the river is nearly as busy as a London street. Big ships are no longer to be seen, as they come no further than London Bridge at the other end of the city.

…Everything in the streets through which we passed seemed dark even to blackness, but nevertheless magnificent. I could not reconcile the outward appearance of London with that of any similar town I had ever seen, though it  is remarkable that on my first entering Leipzig, five years ago, I received a similar impression, possibly by reason of the high houses which make the streets them,selves dark, the numerous merchants’ stores and crowd of people….

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