Nicola here. I imagine that a lot of people are, like me, missing their visits to historical houses and heritage sites, and can’t wait for a time when we can all go out and enjoy them again. Country house visiting has, of course, been a hobby for tourists for hundreds of years. One of the best descriptions of it in fiction comes from Pride and Prejudice, when Lizzie Bennett, in company with her aunt and uncle, visits Pemberley on their trip to Derbyshire. They are shown round by the housekeeper, giving Lizzie the chance to reflect on the house she could have been mistress of if only she hadn’t turned down Mr Darcy. The fact that Lizzie thinks that Mr Darcy is from home only to discover he’s just arrived, adds a wonderful, romantic twist to the story.
It’s fun to think that in normal times we can gawp at grand houses in the manner of our ancestors although these days a lot of places provide more entertainment for the visitor than you might have got in the eighteenth century with shops, tea rooms, exhibitions, talks and lots of activities for children. Heritage sites compete for our business in contrast to the past when it was considered an honour to be allowed to visit the home of the Duke of Wherever.
Something else that I thought was a modern phenomenon was the practise of offering reviews and feedback via Trip Advisor and
other sites. However in this it turns out I was wrong, as the visitors’ book at Nuneham Courtenay proves.
The mansion and flower garden at Nuneham Courtenay was created by the 1st Earl Harcourt, (1714 – 1777) and his son the Second Earl Harcourt (1736 – 1809). He was a friend of Rousseau and quite a political radical. He removed the coronets from his coaches and gave away the ancestral paintings. He employed Capability Brown to enhance the landscape around his house. Between 1778 and 1781 the park was turned into an idealised landscape with a hanging wood, lush meadows and a country view, as can be seen in this painting on the left. It was visible from the River Thames and one of the most popular ways to view the gardens was by boat. The Nuneham Park Fair, which the family established in the gardens during the 1770s was a very popular local event.
The 2nd Earl’s revolutionary inclinations mellowed into a benign paternalism over the years and he decided to be more egalitarian by opening up his parkland and flower gardens to the public. Two thatched cottages beside a lock on the river at Nuneham Dingle provided refreshments for visitors, including cold meats, tarts, cake and fruit with port, sherry, champagne and bitter ale to drink. This old postcard shows what an idyllic spot it was!
The gardens were open from May to September, much as many stately homes are now, and they proved a popular place to visit. A Visitors’ Book from 1815 – 1825 records the impressions of a number of people. Unfortunately, just as in the present, not all reviewers were kind. There were quite a few students and academics who would make the trip out from Oxford, get “drunk as lords” at the refreshment cottage and then write rude comments or naughty rhymes in the book. One commenter calling himself “David Doggerel” wrote in 1817:
“Well does the dinner and the day agree
The dishes are all cold and so are we.”
Lord and Lady Harcourt did not hold back in responding. Not for them the gracious reply or a discreet ignoring of critical remarks! Offending comments were either erased, torn out of the book, or the Harcourts would retaliate with sarcasm. On one occasion they wrote:
“All ladies and gentlemen who are ambitious to perpetuate their names by inserting them in the book should first learn how to spell them and if possible write legibly so that Lord and Lady Harcourt may at least have the felicity of knowing whom they accommodate.” They preferred "the polite tourist."
There were of course more august visitors as well as the common crowd; In 1780 King George III visited Nuneham, as did the Archduke of Austria. In 1815 Warren Hastings called. So did the Governor of Oxford Castle. These were treated as very special visitors, given a private tour and accommodated at the house. Lord Harcourt still had a respect for rank and consequence!
According to the Visitors’ Book most tourists were fairly local and all arrived by boat from Abingdon and Oxford. As early as 1815, Nuneham was the focus of several “works outings.” An Oxford company, Wyatt’s, arranged a trip for their employees. In 1817 the employees of Speakman and Fisher, a tailoring company, came out on a day trip and in 1824 Coles’ Coachmakers paid a call. In 1818 the Berkshire Yeomanry day trip ended in acrimony when the soldiers became very drunk. Other visitors disapprovingly referred to them in the visitors book as “drunken dogs.”
Other entertainment on offer included rowing and fishing on the Thames and in hot summers men would apparently bathe naked in the river! Some visitors commented unfavourably on the gardeners and greenkeepers who on one occasion threatened to shoot the ladies for walking on the grass before it had been cut. All in all it sounds as though Nuneham was a very entertaining day out!
I haven’t come across any other examples of 18th and 19th century visitors’ books although I’m sure there must be some, and I wonder whether visits to other stately homes were as eventful in the Regency period!
I will often sign a visitors book if there's one at the places I go to and I enjoy giving positive feedback though I'd probably refrain from calling other visitors "drunken dogs!" Do you write reviews of places that you’ve visited? Have you had any particularly memorable trips? And where where would be the first place you’d want to go once Lockdown was lifted?