Down-to-Earth in Over Stowey

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I have always had a weakness for diaries and memoirs, especially those written by men of the cloth. It’s generally quite gentle observational stuff, cataloguing the daily round, usually in a country parish, and much of its fascination lies in the diurnal detail, some of it joyous, some of it poignant, as local characters are christened, married and buried. This writing, for me at least, provides an instant escape to a lost world running at less than half the speed of our own.

The varying styles are always individual. Dear old Parson James Woodforde of Norfolk begins his diary in October 1758 with some entries made when he was at Oxford, giving an interesting insight into the life of an undergraduate at the time. He lists various purchases such as ‘a pair of Curling Tongs’, ‘Two Logick Books’, ‘Two Bottles of Port Wine’ and ‘A New Wigg’, and goes on to give us a wealth of wonderful impressions of domestic life – receiving deliveries from a smuggler for tea, ‘a Tub of Gin’ or ‘the best Coniac Brandy’, dining with a bewildering range of relatives, friends and parishioners, and tackling all manner of servant problems.

The diary of the Reverend Francis Edward Witts is notable mainly because he saw the rapid development of late Georgian Cheltenham at first hand, but it is also paralyzingly dull in places:

January 3, 1820: Left Upper Slaughter for Bath in the hope that another course of the waters may essentially strengthen my dear wife’s constitution. Having sent forward my manservant and horse we travelled with Edward and a maid. The weather very cold, frost and snow . . .

Then there are the pompous and self-regarding, the Reverend Benjamin John Armstrong of Norfolk among them:

September 14, 1850: Having this day been instituted by the Bishop of Norwich to the Vicarage of East Dereham, with the perpetual curacy of Hoe anne

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About the contributor

Anthony Longden is a journalist, media consultant and former newspaper editor.

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