Celia Fiennes, Traveller

Through England on a Side Saddle, by Celia FiennesThis is the one-word description in the ODNB: I wonder if it is applied to any other seventeenth- or eighteenth-century women? Celia Fiennes (1662–1741) was the grand-daughter of the 1st Viscount (and 8th Baronet) Saye and Sele (the tortuous history of this title and of the family name make interesting reading in themselves), and the manuscript account of her travels stayed in the family until it was transcribed and published in 1888, as Through England on a Side-Saddle,  by Emily Griffiths, daughter of the 13th Viscount.

Celia is somewhat disingenuous about the status and fate of her writing: in her address ‘To the Reader’, she declares that ‘. . . this was never designed: soe not likely to fall into the hands of any but my near relations’; but she also states deprecatingly that if her ignorance of ‘matters farre above my Reach or capacity’ have led her into error, she will ‘easily submitt to a correction and will enter such Erratas into a supplement annext to ye Book’. The latter sounds remarkably like the author who promises to correct any errors in the next edition . . .

Celia began her travels for the sake of her health, ‘by variety and change of aire and exercise’ (something clearly worked, as she lived to the age of nearly 79). She was accompanied on some journeys by her mother or her sister, though for her longest journey she took only servants. Most trips started and ended at the family home of Newtontony (Newton Toney, in Wiltshire, where she is buried), and on many occasions she was able to stay with relatives, a network of whom was spread across England. (Not that her lodgings were always comfortable: on one occasion she stayed in the stable with the horses as she could not bring herself to sit down in a filthy house.) Emily Griffiths’ transcription retains Celia’s spelling, punctuation and capitalisation, including archaisms such as the use of ‘ye’ for ‘the’, ‘as I believe any correction or alteration would spoil its quaint originality’.

Celia’s health problems are not specified, but there are descriptions of spas such as Harrogate or Bath, where the details of the plumbing and cleaning arrangements, the appropriate clothing for bathers, the guides and other attendants, and the correct etiquette, all suggest that she had taken the cure herself.

Dipping into the book anywhere is fascinating: the extraordinary waterworks inside the Earl of Pembroke’s ‘grotto’ at Wilton, designed to drench guests as a practical joke; the exotic animals and the crown jewels in the Tower of London; an account (received from a ‘spectatrix’) of the procession at Bath to celebrate Queen Anne’s coronation (1702), which included ‘four couple of Maurice dancers with their pranceing horses . . . wth hankershiefs in their hands danceing all ye way’; at Oxford, the room in the Sheldonian Theatre ‘wch is ffitted for printing, where I printed My name Severall tymes’, and by it ‘a little building wch is full of Antiquityes wch have many Curiositys in it, of Mettles, Stones, Ambers, Gumms’ – the original Ashmolean Museum.

But Celia’s main interest in her travels was not antiquities: she sought out new buildings, and new developments in agriculture and industry which would promote the prosperity of the country. Women knitting and spinning (with both spindles and wheels) in Norfolk, Suffolk and Lincolnshire; in Staffordshire, the burning of bracken to make fine ash, which was shaped into balls used for washing or scouring, and was sent for sale in London; ‘Leverpoole . . . mostly new built houses of brick and stone after the London fashion . . . a very Rich trading town’; ‘Charr fish’ and ‘oat Clap bread’ at Lake ‘Wiandermer’; barges on the Severn at Worcester being towed ‘by strength of men 6 or 8 at a tyme’; the industrial scale of the manufacture of serge at Exeter – everything is noticed, and noted down, with occasionally trenchant comments (she was extremely unimpressed by the natives on her brief foray into Scotland).

We can be thankful that Celia Fiennes (like Isabella Bird at a later date) took up travelling for her health, and grateful to Emily Griffiths for taking on the task of publication for which, ones suspects, her ancestress had yearned.


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3 Responses to Celia Fiennes, Traveller

  1. Pingback: The Eighteenth-Century Tourist Does Cambridge | Cambridge Library Collection Blog

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