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See 17th-Century England Through the Eyes of One of the First Modern Travel Writers

Celia Fiennes traveled and wrote about her adventures—including a bit of life advice

An excerpt from the first road map of Britain, published by John Ogilby when Fiennes was 15, in 1675. No word on whether Fiennes ever saw it, although she did write about visiting a college in Manchester that had a map collection. (Wikimedia Commons)
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During the late 17th century, Celia Fiennes traveled England by horse sitting sidesaddle. Accompanied by one or two servants, she traveled on and off for nearly two decades, chronicling her adventures as she went.

On this day in 1662, Fiennes was born into a wealthy family. This wealth meant she never had to marry and so she traveled instead, writes Richard Cavendish for History Today. She kept detailed notes about her adventures and eventually compiled them into a book that was published in 1702.

But her travelogue, with its rich details of daily life, remained largely unknown for decades. That was until 1888, when one of her descendants, Emily W. Griffiths, discovered the book, republishing it later that year. That publication, Through England on a Side Saddle in the Time of William and Mary, has since provided historians an unprecedented peek into life during the 1600s.

Part travelogue part journal, the book also provides the reader insight into Fiennes herself, who by her own account was plain-spoken and decisive. She wrote that she begun traveling “to regain [her] health by variety and change of air and exercise.” She wandered without a plan, going wherever struck her fancy.

Throughout her manuscript, she stayed true to her character, she wrote, and people who know her wouldn't expect “exactness or politeness in this book, tho’ such Embellishments might have adorned the descriptions and suited the nicer taste.” [sic]

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This waymarker is carved with Fiennes's image. It stands in No Man's Heath, in the vicinity of the place where she was almost mugged—the only time in around 30 years of travel that she wrote about this happening. (Wikimedia Commons)

The descriptions of her travels paint a picture of an inquisitive, determined and occasionally preachy woman. She covered a remarkable amount of ground; some suggest she may have been the first woman to travel through every English county. Here are just a few highlights (and lowlights) from Fiennes’s journey:

Visiting Stonehenge (or “Stoneage,” as she writes it)

When she arrived, Fiennes counted standing stones and their attendant rocks after hearing a myth that nobody could count the same number twice. “[T]hey stand confused and some single stones at a distance but I have told them often,” she wrote, “and bring their number to 91.”

She enjoyed the countryside near Stonehenge. “This Country is most Champion and open, pleasant for recreations,” [sic] she wrote.

Hanging Out at the Spas (or “Spaws” or even “Stinking Spaws”)

Fiennes visited several hot springs, which she aptly noted stunk. The smell is common for natural hot springs, which often dissolve sulfur from the underlying bedrock. Microbial breakdown of that sulfur imparts a smell of rotten eggs to many of the bodies of water.

At Bath, a famous Roman bathing house located in the English city of Bath, she noted the distinctive smell of the water, writing that it “tastes like ye water [that boils] Eggs.” She drank water from several of the hot springs, following the common belief that it would promote health. “Its a quick purger and very good for all Scurbutick humours,” [sic] she wrote. 

She was not a fan of the town of Bath, however, writing that it was “adapted to ye batheing and drinking of the waters and to nothing else.” [sic] In other words, it was boring.

Almost Getting Mugged

In all the time Fiennes was on the road, she only encountered a par of so-called highwaymen (itinerant robbers), writes David Hayns for Malpas Cheshire Online. Riding to the town of Whitchurch, she writes that she was harassed by two “fellows” who she thought had pistols. Fortunate for Fiennes, it was market day in Whitchurch. So as she approached the town, the crowds of people scared off the highwaymen.

Fiennes encouraged her readers–especially her female readers–to look for things that sharpened their minds and improved their lives. Those things make "Death less fformidable and [your] future State more happy,” [sic] she wrote.

Even with her travels, she lived out most of her life in London, writes Cavendish. She died in the London borough Hackney in 1741 at the age of 78.

About Kat Eschner

Kat Eschner is a freelance journalist based in Toronto who focuses on technology, culture and ethics. She recently graduated from the master’s program in journalism at Ryerson University, where she served as editor-in-chief of the Spring 2016 issue of the Ryerson Review of Journalism.

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