Lord Torrington and His
Tours Round Britain.
By Penny Hampson
|Colonel John Byng, otherwise known as Lord Torrington (1743-1813).|
As a writer of historical novels, I try to do as much research as possible to ensure my stories feel authentic and of their time. This means reading lots of material created in or around the period in which my stories are set. Some of my favourite sources of information are letters and diaries — they not only tell you about events and daily life in the time they were produced, but also give invaluable, and sometimes unintentional, insights into the personalities of their authors.
The journals of Colonel John Byng, otherwise known as Lord Torrington (1743-1813), have been a great resource for me, particularly with regard to the towns and villages of England.
John Byng liked to travel, you see, and spent a portion of each year touring the country. His early career began in the army, where he was a lieutenant-colonel in the 1st Foot Guards (Grenadier Guards), but after leaving the army, he secured a post in the Stamp Office of the Inland Revenue, an occupation that required him to live in London. As he himself put it, his ‘early days were spent in Camps, His latter days were pass’d at Stamps’.
But John Byng preferred the countryside, so each year he escaped the capital for a time, to travel and explore. Another interesting fact about Byng is that he didn’t stay in the great country houses, even though his nieces had connections to Woburn, Weston Park, and Longleat. Byng stayed in local inns and taverns along his self-devised itineraries, and it is his descriptions of these that I find fascinating. Byng’s notebooks were first published as the Torrington Diaries in the 1930s, and I am fortunate to have a later, abridged edition, Rides Round Britain, which are accounts of fourteen of his journeys.
Byng’s journeys were all undertaken on horseback, usually accompanied by a friend, or a manservant. It was the manservant’s job to look after the luggage, see to the horses, and ensure his master had the comforts of hot water, clean linen, and fresh clothes along the way. It was usual too, for the manservant to ride on ahead to arrange lodging and meals, ensuring his master acquired a superior bedroom and a private parlour at an inn. Being able to afford a manservant demonstrated that, even though he chose to travel on horseback, unlike many of his contemporaries who preferred the comforts of a private coach, Byng was a man of consequence.
Why did he choose to travel this way, and only in Britain? Byng enjoyed the out door life and thought he would not discover everything of interest from the enclosed comfort of a chaise. He also believed that there were as many interesting and picturesque places to see in Britain as there were on the Continent. ‘Talk not… of foreign parts, till you have seen and learnt something of your own country.’
At the time Byng was undertaking his tours, tour writing was becoming something of a fashion. He himself was surprised that he was ‘a man of mode’ by writing accounts of his travels. His purpose in recording was not to make a name for himself, but that ‘it may be the means of informing ignorant owners of what treasures of antiquity they possess and of stimulating them to the proper pride of guarding and preserving those remaining monuments of religion and grandeur which have escaped the ravages of reformation and civil wars and the yet more barbarous neglect of tasteless masters.’
I feel that, if he were alive today, Byng would still find plenty to keep him occupied in trying to preserve the treasures of the past from the depredations of developers.
He also has a more practical aim for his travel journals.
‘Most modern Tours are written (in my mind) too much in the style of pompous history; not dwelling sufficiently upon the prices of provisions, recommendations of inns, statement of roads, etc., so that the following travellers reap little benefit from them.
We learn a lot about all these aspects of travel through reading Byng’s account.
He also had something to say about the nation’s morals - ‘I proceeded very slowly to Bedfont and there dined at a table cover’d with cold ham, veal and beef; which gives a strong idea of a nation’s gluttony and waste (from such quantities of victuals being found at an alehouse) and that all its hopes and wishes are fixed on beef and beer.’
There is also lots of incidental information about inns and their comforts and discomforts. In July 1782 Byng was staying in Bibury, Oxfordshire sharing a room with one of his travelling companions, a Mr Reynolds: ‘Mr Reynolds and I lay in the same chamber and, till he began to snore, we commented on the character and behaviour of our comrade, who overheard thro’ a slight partition every word we utter’d and repeated it to us this morning.’
Thin walls can get you into trouble! Happily, their companion ‘took it all with excellent good humour.’
At the same inn, he enjoyed a breakfast and ‘two fine basins of snail tea.’ Apparently, this unappetising concoction was indeed made from snails, and thought to be effective for those suffering consumption or fever.
On another tour in 1788, Byng visits Rye ‘like other maritime towns, it smells of fish and punch.’ A telling description. He’s not so lucky with the inn there. ‘I came to the George, a dirty seaport inn with a wretched stable.’ His companion on this trip is so unhappy with the accomodation that they decide to move on to Winchelsea, where Byng looks for bedrooms ‘and found two excellent ones and a good parlour’ at the New Inn.
Very helpfully, Byng includes a list of the charges for his stay:
Supper — 2 shillings
Breakfast — 1 shilling 4 pence
Dinner —2 shillings
Supper — 2 shillings
Breakfast —1 shilling 4 pence
Wine — 7 shillings 6 pence
Brandy — 1 shilling
Beer and porter — 10 pence
Lodging — 2 shillings
Horse — 3 shillings 3 pence
Total — 1 pound 3 shillings and 3 pence
Do note the amount spent on alcohol!
Byng’s character jumps out in his journals, in his witty asides and pithy descriptions. Here is his description of asking for directions: ‘I was principally directed to the blacksmith’s shop, whence the Old Vulcan came out as grey and hairy as any badger. He order’d me to turn to the left, to turn to the right and to turn so often that he forgot himself. However, I obey’d his first turn, and there found a better guide, a direction post…’
I hope I’ve whetted your appetite for reading Byng’s journals and I’ll leave the final words to Byng, happy to be home at the end of his journey to North Wales in 1793.
‘My evening was pass’d in unpacking, arranging my stable, etc. Then I had a well dress’d, roasted fowl for supper, with a nice currant tart, good bread, good cheese, fruit and a decent pint of port wine, with no headache following.’
Rides Round Britain, John Byng, Viscount Torrington, edited by Adamson, Donald, The Folio Society, London, 1996
John Byng, The Torrington Diaries: Containing the tours through England And Wales of the Hon. John Byng (Later Fifth Viscount Torrington) between the years 1781 and 1794:
An Officer’s Vow
By Penny Hampson
Lottie Benham is desperate. Her life is in danger and she needs a place of safety until her next birthday. The unexpected proposal from this attractive, but intimidating officer could be the answer to her prayers. Not normally a risk-taker, she decides to gamble all by placing her trust in this charismatic gentleman, who she suspects might be more in need of help than she.
But the best laid plans…
Caught up in conflict, danger, and deception, will Lottie and Nate survive to find the perfect solution to their problems?
Having worked in various sectors before becoming a full time mum, Penny Hampson decided to follow her passion for history by studying with the Open University. She graduated with honours and went on to complete a post-graduate degree.
Penny then landed her dream role, working in an environment where she was surrounded by rare books and historical manuscripts. Flash forward nineteen years, and the opportunity came along to indulge her other main passion – writing historical fiction. Encouraged by friends and family, three years later Penny published her debut novel A Gentleman’s Promise.
Penny lives with her family in Oxfordshire, and when she is not writing, she enjoys reading, walking, swimming, and the odd gin and tonic (not all at the same time).