When you’re writing about the past, too often our references come second, third, or even fourth-hand. We read diaries and letters that are often edited by children and grandchildren. We scan biographies–some brilliant and some shabby beyond belief. And we read books written about the Regency. But sometimes a novelist needs more.
When writing about characters who live in the Regency, we often need t o get into those character’s heads. We need to see how they lived. We need first-hand experience. I’ve been known to read by candlelight–truly an eye-straining experience–brandish a sword, and even try a quill and ink to see what it’s really like.
But there are some books that offer a first-hand experience. And one of my favorites is Cary’s New Itinerary.
At the end of the eighteenth century, John Cary was commissioned by the Postmaster-General to survey all the principal roads in England. He did this by walking these roads, pushing a wheel connected to a counter, which kept a tally of the number of rotations and then produced an accurate mileage.
Between 1787 and 1831, Cary put his knowledge to use and published, among other books, the New English Atlas, The Travellers’ Companion, the Universal Atlas of 1808, and Cary’s New Itinerary. The maps and surveys have some of the most accurate and valuable data about the structure of the Regency world. They also provide an insight into how people traveled in the Regency.
Published in 1815, the fifth edition of Cary’s goes on to explain that it is, “an Accurate Delineation of the Great Roads, both direct and cross throughout, England and Whales, with many of the Principal Roads in Scotland, from an actual admeasurement by John Cary, made by command of his Majesty’s Postmaster General.”
There’s more detail provided at the front of the book in an “advertisement” that’s more of a preface.
The information alone on roads and distances, with fold-out maps provided, has helped me sort out the practical problems that face any Regency writer–such as, how far is it really between London and Bath? And what roads might one take? However, Cary’s offers much more.
Cary’s divides into neat, organized sections. The man was obviously methodical. The first section lists the direct roads to London–as in all roads lead to this metropolis. The next section gives a list of principal places–i.e., larger towns, that occur along the cross-roads. A cross-road is a road that crosses one of the direct roads into London. At this point, you begin to see how London-centric this world really was. As someone living outside of London, it would be your goal to get to a major town, and then you could get to London. Cary, living in London, wrote his book for outward-bound Londoners, and that is how the book is organized.
The next section is as important to a Regency writer as it would have been to someone traveling in the Regency–it is a list of coach and mail departures. This includes the name of the London inn from which the coaches departed, the towns each coach passed through, the mileage, the departure time, and the arrival time. It’s an utter godsend if you have to get your heroine to Bath at a certain hour on the coach. I can also picture Regency Londoners pouring over this information, planning short trips to the seaside, or to watering towns.
The next section lists all direct roads, as measured from key departure points in London, but this is not just a dry list of mileage. Descriptive notes are tucked into various columns to describe houses of note and distinctive sights. For example, if you’re going to Wells from London, then, “Between Bugley and Whitbourn, at about 2 m(iles) on l(eft) Longleat, Marquis of Bath; the house is a Picture of Grandure, and the Park and Pleasure Grounds are very beautiful.” This was an era in which slower travel meant taking the time to look at surroundings.
The next section provides a similar treatment for cross-roads, and not to be overlooked, Packet Boat sailing days are listed for England’s various sea ports, just in case an intrepid traveler whishes to travel abroad.
Finally, Cary’s provides an index to Country Seats, or as Cary’s notes, “In this Index the Name of every resident Possessor of a Seat is given, as well as the Name of the Seat itself, wherever it has a distinctive Appellation.” This is actually a list from the 1811 returns to Parliament, as noted in the book. In the Regency, this actually would have been a much used feature, for it would allow a traveler to look up and visit various great houses and country seats. It was a time, after all, when visitors expected the great houses to always be open for show, and to be gracious in their hospitality.
Overall, Cary’s is not a book that will give you insight into the politics of the Regency, nor into the social structure of that world. However, between its worn covers lays the description of the Regency world that can put you back into that era, just as if you were traveling the roads of England.