The Perils of Travel

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One of the hardest elements of writing my mysteries is making sure I do not have people moving about the country much more quickly than would have been possible at the time. People did travel quite a lot, but the process seems unbearably slow and difficult to us.

Parson Woodforde lived in the middle to late-eighteenth century and his parish was about 10 miles from Norwich. That journey which, even on today’s crowded roads, might take 20 minutes, took him around two hours by coach. Yet many people might walk that distance, and back, and account it no great hardship. My own grandmother used to walk the four or five miles into the nearest town and back to do her shopping.

What I think we miss is that the people of that time might have been technology-poor, but compared to us they were time-rich. We try to cram as much activity as possible into the shortest time we can. Hence the holidays you see advertised that cover three or four significant cities in a week! My country doctor was busy by the standards of the time, but it would be quite usual for him to be expected to travel to visit his wealthy patients, seeing maybe one or two at most in a long day.

Travel was expensive

Here’s Parson Woodforde again, heading for a visit to his native West Country from Norwich:

June 9, 1789, Tuesday … About Noon we went in a Norwich Chaise to Norwich, got there about 2 o’clock and there dined and spent the Afternoon at the Kings Head and my servant Briton went with us and my Boy with him to have back his Horse, as Briton goes with us into the West of England and set of to night. … Paid at the Expedition Office for 2 Inside Places at 24s. 0d. and 1 outside at 14s. 0d. For extraordinary luggage at 1½d. per Pd 12s. 0d. Paid for chaise &c at the Kings Head abt 19s. 9d. At 6 o’clock precisely Nancy and self got into the Expedition Coach for London and Briton on the Outside, and sat of for London where we expect to arrive to Morrow Morn by 11 o’clock.

I make that £4 14s 0d in total: maybe over £550.00 for three people in today’s spending equivalent! And about 17 hours for the 90 miles to London – almost as slow as today’s trains!

The roads were AWFUL

Towards the end of the eighteenth century, Arthur Young travelled widely around the country, looking at the state of agriculture. Of the roads in Lancashire, he wrote:

The roads grew bad, beyond all badness, the night dark, beyond all darkness, the guide frightened beyond all frightfulness … This infernal road was most execrably vile with ruts four feet deep.

And this is what one of the attendants of King Charles III of Spain said in 1702 about his 40-mile, 14-hour trip from Portsmouth to Petworth in Sussex:

We set out at six in the morning by torchlight to go to Petworth and did not get out of our coaches (save only when we were overturned or stuck fast in the mire) till we arrived at our journey’s end. ‘Twas hard service for the Prince to sit fourteen hours in a coach that day without eating anything and passing through the worst ways I ever saw in my life. We were thrown but once indeed in going, but our coach, which was the leading one, and his Highness’s body coach would have suffered very much if the nimble boors of Sussex had not frequently poised it or supported it with their shoulders from Godalming almost to Petworth; and the nearer we approached the Duke of Somerset’s house the more inaccessible it seemed to be. The last nine miles of the way cost us six hours to conquer them; and indeed we had never done it if our good master had not, several times, lent us a pair of horses out of his own coaching whereby we were able to trace out the road for him.

Still they went!

In fact, many of the wealthy travelled widely, visiting friends and family, taking the waters at Bath or another of the favoured spas, dividing their year between their grand country estates and their equally grand London houses.

I’ll leave the last word with Parson Woodforde:

Thursday, April 23rd, 1789 Mr. Custance [the local squire] went for London yesterday I herd. He is to stay a Week in Town it is reported. Mr. Custance being one of the Gentlemen of the privy Chamber to his Majesty, I apprehend is the Occasion of his going, as this Day the King goes publickly to St. Pauls to return thanks, both House of Parliament to attend him etc.

Sunday, May 3rd, 1789 … Mr. Custance not returned home as yet …

Saturday, May 9th, 1789 Mr. Custance returned home from London this Evening. I sent to Weston House to enquire.


William Savage lives near the beautiful North Norfolk coast in Eastern England and writes historical mystery novels, set in Norfolk between 1760 and 1800. The first book in the series, “An Unlamented Death“, appeared in January 2015. A second book is now in its final stages and will be published in Spring 2015.

Will is also a local historian. In that guise, he researches topics relevant to the general period of his historical writing, gives talks to local groups and societies and is a regular volunteer guide at a nearby National Trust property. He finally has time for doing all this now he has retired.

For eleven years, Will and his wife lived in the USA, latterly in southern Arizona. This experience sparked an enduring love of the breathtaking beauty of the Sonoran Desert, as well as the history of the American West, especially Native American art and culture. As a result, Will became intrigued by the figure of Coyote: the Trickster God of many indigenous cultures across western states of the USA.

Will’s book of fantasy Coyote stories – in affectionate homage to this powerful archetype of human experience – will be published later in the year.

About William Savage

Independent researcher and author of mystery stories set in Georgian Norfolk.
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