Celia Fiennes, an extraordinary early British traveller, was born 350 years ago today. She journeyed all across England on horseback at a time when very few people, let alone women, travelled just for the sake of it. She kept detailed notes of her travels, and prepared them for publication, yet a first complete edition did not emerge until long after her death. In this, she advises her readers to travel round England to cure the ‘itch’ of foreign travel, and as a cure for laziness. Although not strictly a diary, since there are no dates and the narrative is continuous, more like a memoir, Arthur Ponsonby does include a chapter on Fiennes in his English Diaries because, he says, her notes are ‘quite obviously written on the day and on the spot’.
Fiennes was born in Wiltshire, near Salisbury, on 7 June 1662, the daughter of a colonel in Oliver Cromwell’s army. Not much is known about her life, except that she never married, and travelled extensively - riding side-saddle - round Britain, so much so that she is credited with being the first woman ever to visit all the English counties. She is sometimes identified with the nursery rhyme, ‘Ride a Cock Horse’, since the phrase ‘on a fine horse’ could be construed as a corruption of ‘on a Fiennes horse’ but there appears to be no evidence for this link. She died in 1741. See History Net, Wikipedia, Hackney Council or the BBC for a little more biographical info.
Fiennes is remembered today because she kept comprehensive and interesting notes on all her travels. Although she prepared a book from these notes for publication, none of it appeared until 1812, when the poet Robert Southey included at least one short and unattributed extract in his Omniana or Horae Otiosiores. The first published edition of Fiennes’ diary did not appear until 1888 under the title Through England on a Side Saddle in the Time of William and Mary (Leadenhall Press). This is now freely available on the internet at Vision of Britain, A Celebration of Women Writers, or Internet Archive. A scholarly edition - The Journeys of Celia Fiennes - was edited by Christopher Morris and published by Cresset Press in 1947, and other editions have followed since.
According to Arthur Ponsonby, the early 20th century doyen of diaries (author of English Diaries and More English Diaries), Celia Fiennes diary is peculiar: ‘It is not divided up into days with dates. In fact, no date is mentioned in it except the years 1695 and 1697. But the notes she makes are quite obviously written on the day and on the spot, except perhaps the descriptions of London and the Lord Mayor’s Show.’
Ponsonby explains: ‘The value of Celia Fiennes’ diary rests in the picture it gives of country houses, gardens, and the towns, fashionable watering-places, and villages of England at the end of the seventeenth century, for there is very little literature of this description belonging to that period. Her language is by no means florid. Indeed, her vocabulary is somewhat limited. An expression of praise she uses over and over again in connection with cathedrals, houses, gardens, etc., is that they are “neat.” But in a simple way she gives quite effectively little pictures of what she sees, and uses many quaint but happy expressions, as, for instance, when she says of the spire of Salisbury Cathedral: “it appears to us below as sharpe as a Dagger, Yet in the compass on the top as bigg as a cart wheele.” ’
Here is Fiennes’ (edifying) preface ‘To the reader’ (with added paragraph breaks).
‘As this was never designed: soe not likely to fall into the hands of any but my near relations, there needs not much to be said to Excuse or recommend it. Som. thing may be diverting and proffitable tho’ not to Gentlemen that have travelled more about England, staid longer in places, might have more acquaintance and more opportunity to be inform’d.
My Journeys as they were begun to regain my health by variety and change of aire and exercise, soe whatever promoted that Was pursued; and those informations of things as could be obtein’d from inns en passant, or from some acquaintance, inhabitants of such places could ffurnish me with for my diversion, I thought necessary to remark: that as my bodily health was promoted my mind should not appear totally unoccupied, and the collecting it together remain for my after conversation (with such as might be inquisitive after such and such places) to wch might have recourse; and as most I converse with knows both the ffreedom and Easyness I speak and write as well as my deffect in all, so they will not expect exactness or politeness in this book, tho’ such Embellishments might. have adorned the descriptions and suited the nicer taste.
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 tyme 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 souveraign remedy to cure or preserve ffrom these Epidemick diseases of vapours, should I add Laziness? -it would also fform such an Idea of England, add much to its Glory and Esteem in our minds and cure the evil Itch of overvalueing fforeign parts; at least ffurnish them with an Equivalent to entertain strangers when amongst us, Or jnform them when abroad of their native Country, which has been often a Reproach to the English, ignorance and being strangers to themselves.
Nay the Ladies might have matter not unworthy their observation, soe subject for conversation, within their own compass in each county to which they relate, and thence studdy now to be serviceable to their neighbours especially the poor among whome they dwell, which would spare them the uneasye thoughts how to pass away tedious dayes, and tyme would not be a burthen when not at a card or dice table, and the ffashions and manners of fforeign parts less minded or desired.
But much more requisite is it for Gentlemen in [general] service of their country at home or abroad, in town or country, Especially those that serve in parliament to know and jnform themselves ye nature of Land, ye Genius of the Inhabitants, so as to promote and improve Manufacture and trade suitable to each and encourage all projects tending thereto, putting in practice all Laws made for each particular good, maintaining their priviledges, procuring more as requisite; but to their shame it must be own’d many if not most are Ignorant of anything but the name of the place for which they serve in parliament; how then can they speake for or promote their good or Redress their Grievances?
. . . [I] shall conclude with a hearty wish and recommendation to all, but Especially my own Sex, the studdy of those things which tends to Improve the mind and makes our Lives pleasant and comfortable as well as proffitable in all the Stages and Stations of our Lives, and render suffering and age supportable and Death less fformidable and a future State more happy.’
The following extract in the diary itself is taken from Fiennes’ tour in 1698, when travelling through Cornwall.
‘The people here are very ill Guides and know but Little from home, only to some market town they frequent, but will be very solicitous to know where you goe and how farre and from whence you Came and where is ye abode. Then I Came in sight of ye hill in Cornwall Called ye Mount, its on a Rock in the sea wch at ye flowing tyde is an jsland, but at Low water one Can goe over ye sands almost just to it, its but a Little market town wch is about 2 mile from Panzants, and you may walke or Ride to it all on ye sands when ye tyde’s out. Its a ffine Rock and very high - severall Little houses for fisher men - in ye sides of it just by the water. At ye top is a pretty good house where the Govenour Lives sometymes, - Sr - Hook his name is - there is a tower on the top on wch is a fflag. There is a Chaire or throne on the top from whence they Can discover a Great way at sea and here they put up Lights to direct shipps.
Pensands is Rightly named being all sands about it - it Lies just as a shore to ye maine South ocean wch Comes from ye Lizard and being on ye side of a hill wth a high hill all round ye side to ye Landward it Lookes soe snugg and warme, and truely it needs shelter haveing the sea on ye other side and Little or no ffewell - turff and ffurse and fferne. They have Little or noe wood and noe Coale wch differences it from Darbyshire, otherwise this and to ye Land’s End is stone and barren as Darbyshire.
I was surprised to ffind my supper boyling on a fire allwayes supply’d wth a bush of ffurse and yt to be ye only ffewell to dress a joynt of meat and broth, and told them they Could not roast me anything, but they have a Little wood for such occasions but its scarce and dear wch is a strange thing yt ye shipps should not supply them. They told me it must all be brought round the Lands End and since ye warre they Could not have it.
This town is two parishes, one Church in ye town and a Little Chappell and another Church belonging to ye other parish wch is a mile distance. There is alsoe a good meeteing place. There is a good Key and a good Harbour for ye shipps to Ride, by meanes of ye point of Land wch runns into ye Sea in a neck or Compass wch shelters it from ye maine and answers the Lizard point wch you see very plaine – a point of Land Looks Like a Double hill one above ye other that runns a good way into ye sea.
Ye Lands End is 10 mile ffarther, pretty steep and narrow Lanes, but its not shelter’d wth trees or hedg Rows this being rather desart and Like ye peake Country in Darbyshire, dry stone walls, and ye hills full of stones, but it is in most places better Land and yeilds good Corne, both wheate Barley and oates and some Rhye.
About 2 mile from the Lands End I Came in sight of ye maine ocean on both sides, the south and north sea and soe Rode in its view till I saw them joyn’d at ye poynt, and saw the jsland of Sily wch is 7 Leagues off ye Lands End. They tell me that in a Cleer day those in the Island Can discern the people in the maine as they goe up ye hill to Church, they Can Describe their Clothes. This Church and Little parish wch is Called Church town is about a mile from from the poynt. The houses are but poor Cottages Like Barns to Look on, much Like those in Scotland, but to doe my own Country its right ye Inside of their Little Cottages are Clean and plaister’d and such as you might Comfortably Eate and drink in, and for Curiosity sake I dranck there and met wth very good bottled ale.
The Lands End terminates in a poynt or Peak of Great Rocks wch runs a good way into ye sea, I Clamber’d over them as farre as safety permitted me, there are abundance of Rocks and Sholes of stones stands up in the sea a mile off some here and there, some quite to ye shore, wch they name by severall names of Knights and Ladies Roled up in mantles from some old tradition or ffiction - Ye poets advance description of ye amours of some Great persons; but these many Rocks and Stones wch Lookes Like ye Needles in ye Isle of Wight makes it hazardous for shipps to double ye poynt Especially in stormy weather.
Here at ye Lands end they are but a Little way off of France, 2 dayes saile at farthest Convey them to Hauve de Grace in France, but ye peace being but newly entred into wth ye Ffrench I was not willing to venture at Least by myself into a fforreign Kingdom, and being then at ye End of ye Land, my horses Leggs Could not Carry me through ye deep, and so return’d againe to Pensands 10 mile more, and soe Came in view of both ye seas and saw ye Lizard point and Pensands and ye Mount in Cornwall wch Looked very fine in ye broad day, the sunn shineing on ye rocke in ye sea.’