06 January 2012

Out With the New, In With the Old

Well, the holidays are over, the tree is packed up, boxes of ornaments stored in the garage, the unnecessary, fattening, and over-indulgent parade of sweets have been eaten (mostly by me; I was trying to save the rest of the family from themselves, a purely selfish motivation you must understand) and the last of the bowl games are being played. It's officially 2012.

The years of late have gotten rather good at outdoing themselves so I have no reason to suppose this one will be any different. In fact, it's already shaping up to be a memorable one. For one thing, I have a Master's dissertation to write. Fifteen-thousand words (minimum) and a hay cart full of appendices ought to do it, with loads of maps and images thrown in for good measure. And as my friend Jane Austen is so good at saying, "If adventures will not befall a young lady in her own village, she must seek them abroad", which is exactly what I intend to do by following in the footsteps (or should I say hoof prints) of Celia Fiennes.

Celia Fiennes, for those of you who are as unaware of her existence and contribution to history as I formerly was, is the first woman - if not the first person - to visit every county in England in the 1690's. No mean feat, especially since most women of her time rarely ventured more than a few miles from home, if that. And she traveled primarily on horseback. Alone ("alone" being defined, in 17th century terms, as having a small retinue of servants and a guide to accompany her). And she kept a diary. So not only do I get to be a voyager, I get to be a voyeur. Whoever says history isn't cool obviously hasn't given much thought to this particular avenue of study because, let's face it, reading people's diaries and private correspondence in the name of 'research' is wicked fun!

What is so interesting to me about Ms. Fiennes is that, as a woman of noble birth, she was able to visit many fellow nobles' houses and these noble houses had gardens and estates befitting the owner's, er, nobility, and Celia wrote about them. Other than Pepys and Defoe, there aren't many travel diaries like hers around, especially from that time, so her observations provide valuable details about what the gardens were like then, to say nothing of England's culture, society, economy, and industry. Combining research of her prose with the engravings of the estates taken at about the same time, and I'll argue that for the next eight months I've got the best job in the country. And the best part...I'll be visiting 20 or so of those gardens in the course of my studies (and many, many more while I'm at it, but those 20 will be the focus of my research). It'll be torture!

The garden visiting will begin in the Spring. Right now I'm doing background research, starting with a book about travel in the 17th century in order to better understand the magnitude of Celia's accomplishment as a traveller. Being a keen traveller myself, I've become rather fond of this paragraph from the book's Introduction:

"It is in wanderings afar that we now visualize the world; swift smooth-running trains or the slower but less trammelled motors; palatial floating hotels, carrying us to scenes and climes alien enough to our own to give us pleasurable sensations of novelty and such adventures great or small as, according to the intrepidity of our natures, may lure us from our fireside. A few years, may-be, and we shall fly to the uttermost ends of the earth, and Yokohama will be no farther than were Launceston or Bodmin to the weary traveller of three centuries ago".

This book was written in 1925. Little did the author know that nearly a century later I would be reading her book, and that I would be doing so on a jet plane flying from the US to London (for the tenth time in less than a decade)! Intrepidity, indeed!

I hope you have as many wonders to look forward to in this new year, and may you be lured from the comfort of your fireside to wander afar, seeking those pleasurable sensations of novelty and adventures of all shapes and sizes. If you're new to my blog, take a moment to read this prayer penned by Sir Francis Drake, which I've adopted as my New Year prayer. And if you're in London, go see the life-size replica of Sir Drake's ship. Afterward, hop on the Tube or a Routemaster and ponder the miracle of travel...

A Road Map of 1689
From Ogilby and Morgan's Pocket Book of Roads

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