Hugeous stones and rutts very deep

Here's Jo, visiting my sister's place in Spain and appreciating the ease of flying and buses and all modern conveniences. This blog has no images because I forgot to bring any and can't find any on line I can legally use.

Travel in fiction.

I find travel times one of the trickiest parts of the past to write about because I struggle to really be there. I've lived in houses with few mod cons and experienced power cuts that remind us of what that's like. I've ridden and walked, but only for amusement so that experience hasn't sunk in. When my characters need to be somewhere I really have to work at being there with them, which always involves slowing them waaaaaaaay down.

Usually it means dealing with what goes on during the journey, when my storytelling mind wants them at their destination. In A Scandalous Countess I do skip over a long journey from Worcestershire to the London area because my heroine is traveling with her mother and thinks gratefully that they've survived, mostly by not talking at all.

Coach travel wasn't smooth, either. Passengers regularly had to get down when the horses had to climb a steep hill and often chose to if the horses had to go down one as the braking systems weren't very reliable.

Travel in the 18th century.

In the mid 18th century, when my Malloren books are set, travel could be really slow because the roads were often atrocious, even the toll roads or turnpikes. The idea behind a toll road was that travelers paid to use it so it could be kept in good condition, but apparently that wasn't always so. I thought I'd share some first hand knowledge from Thomas Young's A six weeks tour, through the southern counties of England and Wales, 1768

"But my dear sir, what am I to say of the roads in this country! The turnpikes! as they have the assurance to call them; and the hardiness to make one pay for. From Chepstow to the half-way house between Newport and Cardiff, they continue mere rocky lanes, full of hugeous stones as big as one's horse, and abominable holes. 

The first six miles from Newport, they were so detestable, and without either direction posts or milestones that I could not well persuade myself I was on the turnpike."

Now that is Wales, notoriously wild! However, consider this.

"The country from Tetford to Oxford is extremely disagreeable, barren, wild, and almost uninhabited. The road called by a vile prostitution of language, a turnpike, but christened, I apprehend, by people who know not what a road is. It is all of chalk stone, of which loose ones are everywhere rolling about to lame horses. It is full of holes, and the rutts very deep; and withal so narrow that I with great difficulty got my chair out of the way of the Witney waggons, and various machines which are perpetually passing." (A chair is what they called a light vehicle, similar to a gig.)

Of course I had to know more about Witney waggons, and discovered that they carried the famous woven wool products of Witney. There's more here.

"Witney is very famous for its woollen manufactory, which consists of what they call kersey pieces, coarse bear skins, and blankets. The two first they make for the North American market, vast quantities being sent up the river St. Lawrence and likewise to New York." (Soon to be affected by those rebellious colonists!)

I don't know what "bear skin" means in the woolen trade. Anyone?

Here's some interesting info about wages in Witney.

"There are above 500 weavers in this town… Journeymen in general, on an average, earn from 10s to 12s a week, all year round, both summer and winter; but they work from four to eight, and in winter by candlelight; the work is of that nature that a boy of fourteen earns as much as a man. One of seven or eight earns by quilling and cornering 1s 6d and 1s 8d a week, and girls the same.

Old women of 60 and 70 earn 6d a day in picking and sorting the wool. A good stout woman can earn from 10d to 1s a day by spinning; and a girl of 14 four or five pence." (I highlighted the ages because again it shows that life expectancy was not short. Even today we might consider 60 and 70 as "old", though those of us in the group could disagree. Clearly such women weren't a wonder to Young.)

"they work from four to eight," Does that mean that they regularly worked from four in the morning till eight at night???? Of course they were working in their homes rather than by the clock, but that's extraordinary. I think Young's "but" indicates that he thought the same.

For reference, he gives these prices for food in that area. I assume they are per pound.

Mutton, 4d

Beef  5d

Veal, 3 1/2

Bacon 8d

butter 6d

Another window into the past, and as usual it throws up interesting details. If you have time I recommend browsing Young's book for life in the 18th century.

Do you find that people in historical fiction travel too easily and too quickly? Or do you prefer a little fudging there rather than have to share their slow journeys and many hazards?

Do you think you'd enjoy a day of coach travel, even on reasonable roads? I doubt I would.