“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!