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The mean streets of York, 1697
Full of good fish.
When this article goes out, I shall be in the fair city of York to help out at a family history show, and this gives me a good excuse to draw your attention to one of the great early travel writers, someone I haven’t mentioned before but knew I would in good time.
Celia Fiennes (1662–1741) was born in Wiltshire, her father a politician and a colonel on Cromwell’s side in the English Civil War (as a son of Lord Saye and Sele he was born at the stunning Broughton Castle, not far from where I live in Oxfordshire). Celia’s mother Frances Whitehead likewise came from a strong Parliamentarian family. The actors Joseph and Ralph Fiennes are distantly related to Celia.
In the 1680s, Celia began to travel around the south of England “to regain my health by variety and change of air and exercise”. When Frances died in 1691, Celia moved to London, but the wanderlust returned. In 1697 she toured Yorkshire and Derbyshire, as well as Kent and Sussex; a year later she was off on “my great journey to Newcastle and to Cornwall”, and later she focused on London. On each trip, she kept notes, which she later collated as a proper journal in 1702. She died in Hackney in 1741. Parts of her journal were published by the poet Robert Southey in 1812, and the first full edition was published by a distant relative, Emily Griffiths, in 1888 as Through England on a Side Saddle – Celia’s trips are all notable for having been taken on horseback, and of course we should remember this was brave and unusual for a women travelling alone.
Celia makes for an engaging guide. She is not particularly interested in history and antiquities, but gives a real tourist’s view – today I suspect she’d be reviewing on TripAdvisor. She did, well, touristy stuff: visiting Stonehenge and Land’s End, for example – but she also takes an interest in industry, as our extract below will show. In the introduction to her journal, she says she gleaned such information “as could be obtained from inns en passant or from some acquaintance, inhabitants of such places, could furnish me with for my diversion”. And she espouses her philosophy of travel: she says
…if all persons… would spend some of their time in Journeys to visit their native Land, and be curious to inform themselves and make observations of the pleasant prospects, good buildings, different produces and manufactures of each place, with the variety of sports and recreations they are adapt to
they would avoid laziness and what she calls “these epidemic diseases of vapours”, and… “it would also form such an Idea of England, add much to its Glory and Esteem in our minds and cure the evil itch of overvaluing foreign parts”. Debate that well we might, but she is a brilliant exponent of the joys of a holiday one one’s own land.
Here, then, is Celia’s guide to York…
… it stands high but for one of the Metropolis and the See of the Archbishop it makes but a mean appearance, the Streets are narrow and not of any length, save one which you enter of from the bridge, that is over the Ouse, which looks like a fine river when full after much rain—it is but low in comparison of some rivers—it bears great Barges, it looks muddy. It’s full of good fish: we ate very good Cod fish and Salmon and that at a pretty cheap rate tho’ we were not in the best inn for the Angel is the best, in Cunny [Coney] Street; the houses are very low and as indifferent as in any Country town, and the narrowness of the streets makes it appear very mean…
… it looks better at the approach, because you see the towers of the gates and several Churches encompassing the Minster and all the Windmills round the town, of which there are many; the River runs through the town and so it’s divided; the buildings look no better than the outskirts of London, Wappen [Wapping] etc. The Bridge is fine arches and built on with houses. The Pavement which is esteem’d the chief part of town, where the Market house and Town hall stands, is so mean that Southwark is much before it. There are a great many pretty Churches, 16 in number, but the Minster is a noble building and holds in view at least 30 mile before you come to it; I saw it and also at that distance, and saw just by it a high hill or fortification it appeared to be, but when I came to York I found it to be only a very high hill [Heslington Hill, also known as Siward’s Howe] with stately high trees on it as thick as could be, a noble Grove.
The Minster is very large and fine of stone, carv’d all the outside 3 high towers above the Leads, I was in one of them, the highest, and it was 262 steps and those very steep steps;there is a Gallery round the middle of the Church about half way that goes off these steps of the tower, where you may go round and look down into the body of the Church and that was so great a distance that the Men and Ladies that were walking below look’d like Pigmies and very little to us above. On the Leads of the tower shews a vast prospect of the Country at least 30 mile round, you see all over the town that looks as a building too much cluster’d together, the Streets being so narrow, some were pretty long.
There is another river which fills the ditches round the town called Foss. In the Minster there is the greatest curiosity for Windows I ever saw they are so large and so lofty, those in the Quire at the end and on each side that is 3 storeys high and painted very curious, with History of the Bible… the loftiness of the windows is more than I ever saw anywhere else, and by all accounts is peculiar; there is such another Window at the end of the Cross Aisle just by the Quire; all the other Windows are of the usual size of other Cathedrals. The body of the Church is large and I think larger than any Cathedral I have seen, bigger than Winchester Cathedral; all these Aisles are broad, the people of fashion use them to walk in and on that account its much [pity] they keep it not cleaner. The Quire has very good Carving in Wood about it, there is a very good Organ, the table cloth and cushions and books at the Communion table was crimson velvet and hangings, and it’s embroider’d very richly with gold of a great depth and gold fringe at the bottom…
[Celia here goes into detail about carvings and statuary in the minster.]
In the vestry there is a well of sweet spring-water called St Peter’s well, the Saint of the Church… There is a large hunter’s Horn tipped with silver and garnish’d over and engrav’d finely, all double gilt with a chaine…I saw there the fine tissue Canopy that was held over the head of King James the first when he came into England and the head of a mace which were carry’d before him then…
The Chapter house is very finely carv’d and fine painting on the windows all round, it’s all arched Stone and supported by its own work having no pillars to rest on tho’ its length and breadth be equal and at least 24 foot each; here was a Mint for Coining the old money and plate into new mill’d money. I saw them at work and stamp’d one half crown my self; they dispatch work very fast and have coin’d several £1000; I see all parts of the work about, the pounding, the boiling, refining and making Bars and cutting out in the mill and baking and stamping, all but Milling which art they are sworn to keep private.
I have based the text on the 1947 edition, The Journeys of Celia Fiennes, edited by Christopher Morris, but further modernised Celia’s spelling and punctuation. The more authentic 1888 edition is here.
According to the York Minster website, the Central Tower actually has 275 steps, at least nowadays. It is still the highest point in York. A contemporary of Celia’s, topographer Thomas Baskerville (1630–1720) noted in his own travel journal that the steps “made my thighs ache very much”.