The Unusual Journeys of Celia Fiennes
“Now thus much without vanity may be asserted of the subject, that if all persons, both Ladies, much more Gentlemen, would spend some of their time in Journeys to visit their native Land, and be curious to Inform themselves and make observations of the pleasant prospects, good buildings, different produces and manufactures of each place, with the variety of sports and recreations they are adapt to, would be a souvereign remedy to cure or preserve from these Epidemic diseases of vapours, should I add Laziness? – it would also form such an Idea of England, add much to its Glory and Esteem in our minds and cure the evil Itch of overvalueing foreign parts..”
So begins the work of Celia Fiennes published as “Through England on a Side Saddle in the time of William and Mary” by her descendant Emily Griffiths in 1888. Celia Fiennes was born in Newton Tony, Wiltshire on the 7 June 1662 and died on 10 April 1741 in Hackney aged 78, buried on the 17th April in Newton Tony. She was one of England’s first female travellers and was unusual for her time in travelling the length and breadth of the country on horseback with only one or two servants for company.
She was born to Nathaniel Fiennes, a Parliamentarian colonel during the civil war and politician, and his second wife, Frances Whitehead. Celia spent most of her younger years in Newton Tony, living at the manor house on the west side of the High Street. The house was largely demolished in the early 19th century but its kitchen later became part of the Three Horse Shoes. Her parents were non-conformist and a group of Presbyterians met at their house, and in 1672 the house was certified for Presbyterian meetings.
Celia Fiennes mostly travelled during the period 1684-1703 but continued intermittently until 1712. Her earlier journeys were predominatly in the south, including to Salisbury, Bath and Stonehenge. In 1697 she travelled in the north and then in 1698 undertook her Great Journey travelling to Newcastle, the Lake District, Durham to the South-west Gloucester, Bristol and Cornwall (to Land’s End).
Remarkably, her travels emcompassed every county in England 100 years before the Stagecoach. She travelled sidesaddle on horseback, with only one or two servants staying in inns and sometimes in the country houses of her connections (often seeing these buildings in stages of construction). She wrote notes as she travelled and eventually wrote them all up into a memoir in 1702, originally intended only for family reading. Her explorations began as a way for her ‘to regain my health by variety and change of aire and exercise’ but her notes demonstrate she had a keen interest in the places she visited. She had a particular interest in mining and industry and also often remarks on the local food she eats, the roads she travelled on and the houses she stayed in: a valuable source for historians! Through her words we get a glimpse of 17th century everyday life. We might never have thought about what it would be like to travel the country without signposts but she highlights them as a notable feature remarking on ‘posts and hands pointing to each road with the names of the great towns or market towns that it leads to’.
Her travels in Wiltshire and its locality prove interesting reading. You can probably guess where she is referring to with this statement, visiting around 1690: ‘This… is reckon'd one of the wonders of England how such prodigeous stone should be brought there, as no such Stone is seen in ye Country nearer than 20 mile.’ If you guessed Stonehenge you are correct!
She refered to a common trope in folklore surrounding megaliths, notably Stonehenge, holding that anyone attempting to count the numbers of stones in a monument will be unable to do so. She remarked: ‘To increase the wonder of the story is that none Can Count them twice alike - they stand confused and some single stones at a distance but I have told them often, and bring their number to 91.’ She was in good company: others who also attempted to count the stones include architect Inigo Jones, diarist Samuel Pepys, writer, gardener and diarist John Evelyn, and Charles II. One wonders if they would have agreed on the total with one another!
Living so close to the city, she naturally visited Salisbury but wasn’t entirely complimentary about the state of the streets:
“From Newton Tony I went to Sarum 8 miles which is a City and Bishop's Seat, pretty Large town Streets broad but through the midst of them runs a little rivulet of water which makes the Streets not so clean or so easy to pass in, they have steps to cross it and many open places for horses and Carriages to Cross it - it takes off Much from the beauty of the streets” (spelling has been modernised).
She tells us of the buildings and markets of the town:
“the houses are old Mostly timber Buildings, there is a large Market House with the town hall over it and a prison Just by - there is also a large Cross in another place and house over it for a Constant Market for fruit, fowl, Butter and Cheese and a fish Market; the town is well served with all provisions; there is good buildings in that part they call the Close”
She also mentioned the six churches in the town and suburbs at the time, and the county jail at Fisherton Anger. A jail at Fisherton can be traced back to as early as 1421 and a new site built in 1578, measured 53 × 28 ft. with walls 23 ft. high.
If you have ever used the Quarter Session records that we have here at the History Centre, you might be aware that Salisbury was one of the places were the Wiltshire sessions were held along with Marlborough, Devizes and Warminster:
“They keep the quarter session once in the year the other times are kept at Marlborough about 24 mile off and at the Devizes about the same distance which is a very neat little town with a very good market house and town hall set on stone pillars; it is a borough and a very rich trading place for the Clothing trade, the fourth place the session is kept is Warminster about the same distance - its a pretty little town a good Market for corn”
Her views on Bath were not entirely positive describing ‘The wayes to the bath are all difficult, the town lyes Low in a bottom and its steep ascents all wayes out of the town’. She was unimpressed with the effect of the baths which ‘in my opinion makes the town unpleasant, the aire so low, encompassed with high hills and woods’ and ‘the town and all its accomodations is adapted to the batheing and drinking of the waters and to nothing else’.
However, she was more complimentary about the general upkeep of the town, and the potential for pleasant walks and the odd sweet treat:
“the streetes are well pitched and Clean kept and there are Chairs as in London to Carry the better sort of people in visits, or if sick or infirm… There are green walks very pleasant and in many places, and out of the Cathedral you walk into the priory which has good walks of rows of trees, which is pleasant… by the Church called the Abbey, which is lofty and spacious and much Company walk there especially in wet weather…. in that Kings mead there are several little Cake-houses where you have fruit lulibubs and some Liquours to entertain the Company that walk there.”
Celia was unusual for the time in the fact that she did not marry, and it was perhaps this along with her family’s wealth and position that enabled her travelling. She managed to travel without too great an incident; one near encounter with a highway man when travelling to Whitchurch in 1698 evidently did not discourage her! She described ‘2 fellows all on a sudden from the wood fell into the Road, they Looked trussed up with great Coats and as it were bundles about them which I believe was pistols’. However, luckily for Celia the increased number of people on the road nearer to the town for market day possibly prevented anything more dramatic.
Her journey must have been a source of interest and talk for the people of the day. Indeed, it is possible that she is memorialised to this day in the children’s nursery rhyme ‘Ride a Cock-Horse to Banbury Cross’ which features ‘a fine lady upon a white horse’.
If these snippets have piqued your interest, you can read her full Journeys online and it is available in our Local Studies Library collection under AAA.946.
Naomi Sackett, Archivist
- Tags: archaeology, Bath, Celia Fiennes, Charles II, Devizes, Fisherton Anger, highwayman, horseback, Inigo Jones, John Evelyn, megalith, memoir, Nathaniel Fiennes, Newton Tony, Parliamentarian, Presbyterian, Quarter Session, Salisbury, Samuel Pepys, side-saddle, signpost, Stonehenge, travelling, Warminster, Wiltshire