03 May 2012

The Journeys of Celia Fiennes: An Introduction

It has occurred to me that although I've mentioned Celia a number of times, I haven't properly introduced her. Please excuse my manners and allow me to put things to rights. Celia, meet my gentle readers. Gentle readers, pray meet Celia.

Born 7th June, 1662 to the younger son of the 1st Viscount Saye-and-Sele, Celia Fiennes descended from a noble, politically active, and spirited family. Celia herself is best known as 'an English traveller', reputedly being the first woman to visit every county in England during her travels between 1698 and about 1710. What made this feat remarkable was that a) she was a single woman and b) she did it mostly on horseback, riding sidesaddle no less.

Equestrian portrait of Grand Duchess Ekaterina Alekseyevna (Catherine the Great), 18th century
Being from a noble family - her grandfather was the 1st Viscount Saye-and-Sele, her older half- brother the 2nd Viscount, her nephew the third - she had relatives and social connections to many of the families who owned vast estates and grand country homes. Visiting these homes was becoming more commonplace and it was not unusual for a party of travellers to apply to the housekeeper of a stately home for a tour; however, Celia was often a guest at these houses and enjoyed the hospitality of her noble hosts.

Celia's accounts of her travels were recorded but she never intended her notes to be published or read by anyone beyond her family circle. In an introductory passage addressed to the reader she remarks:

"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."

She comments on everything from the state of the roads, a town's industrial and market trades, the interior decoration of stately homes, and the layout of their gardens. Some are treated in minute detail, some just get a passing mention, but all are keenly observed.

I feel somewhat of a kindred spirit with Celia as I've spent the last decade travelling to gardens and stately homes around Britain and Europe and have kept a travel diary on every trip. One requirement of my MA course is to complete a Historic Garden Tour so it only made sense that I should follow in Celia's footsteps, er, hoof prints. Sadly I only had a week to visit ten gardens and as my tutor hinted that there were no 20th century gardens on my itinerary, I had to deviate from Celia's map somewhat, but I'm a few sites closer to my goal of visiting every country house she did.

With the help of a 1947 copy of Celia's diary complete with (then) updated place names and footnotes, I've compiled a list of houses - 133 so far - to visit. Some, like Holywell House, no longer exist while some have been converted to luxury hotels or subdivided into apartments. No matter. If they're on my list, I will visit them. Eventually.

Keep an eye on this spot for upcoming posts and pictures about Chatsworth, Stowe, and a few other sites Celia and I visited together!

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